Shadowrun: Dragonfall Review

Developer: Harebrained Schemes
Publisher: Harebrained Schemes
Platform: Windows 10
Version: 2.0.9
Copy purchased

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Shadowrun: Dragonfall is a Role Playing Game where you take control of a Shadowrunner in a cyberpunk-fantasy hybrid themed world. Shadowrunners are glorified mercenaries, and use a variety of different skills to complete the contracts they’ve been hired to do. If you tend to be a more aggressive player you can tailor your runner to be better suited for combat encounters. If that’s not really your thing there are also options to tackle missions a little more quietly, or through persuasion and trickery. These odd jobs will have players running into a variety of characters, and learning about the world, which is a futuristic interpretation of Earth several years after magic (throwing fireballs magic) becomes a part of reality for humans. At it’s heart Shadowrun: Dragonfall plays like a pen and paper RPG, which makes excellent use of it’s setting to tell it’s story.

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Pros

Authentic Companion Characters

I really liked the authenticity of the side characters in Shadowrun. Each of them feels distinct, and fills a role that aligns with their personality. They also assign their own skill points, which aides in making them feel more genuine. As an example Eiger, a grizzled no nonsense orc and former special ops soldier, always has a serious tone in her dialogue, and prioritizes combat related skills. The attention that is taken to make characters feel real in and out of combat greatly added to my immersion while playing the game. Shadowrun being text heavy means that I spent most of my time learning about the various runners via dialogue and how they responded to story events. It was really nice to see these same characters act within combat as I would have expected them to based on their portrayed personalities. Some may find this lack of control over the growth of their squad to be frustrating, but I felt it really added to the engagement I had in the game by making each squad member feel truly authentic.

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Skill Trees

One of the most frustrating things for me when I start a new RPG is character creation. I’m always super excited to dive into the world and lore of the game, but I’m shown a character creation screen that overloads me with decisions, particularly when it comes to skill point assignment. On top of that, I’m expected to decide right then and there how I want to start building my character over the course of the game. Shadowrun does not have this problem. The skill tree is easily digested featuring enough options to be diverse without being overpowering. You’re given 6 base stats to assign points to with between 2 and 6 sub skills for a total of 26 skills. After a quick read you’ll be ready to assign points to the places you think they’d be best suited. In addition to the modest skill pool, Shadowrun also assigns points to suggested areas based on your class selection. You do not have to adhere to these recommendations, but they’re available for those who want the additional assistance. The cumulative result was that I was able to jump into Shadowrun very quickly after starting it up for the first time. I wasn’t stuck in a character creation screen being anal retentive about all of the minuscule details of my character, which I really appreciated as it got me into the game a lot faster.

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Hacking

As someone who is a computer programmer by trade I will never understand why video games have difficulties representing hacking in a fun and meaningful way. In most games I’ve played, hacking is usually a simple mindless mini game, or a stated action that the player has no control, or insight into. In Shadowrun, however, hacking is an extension of combat. After one of your party members drops down into cyberspace they will be greeted by anti-tampering software, which replace the mercenaries and gang members of regular combat. You’re required to continue moving around the map strategically, taking out threats as you work toward your desired goals. The other factor to consider, is that you can only spend so much time in a system before the threat level is elevated making the hacking more difficult. The peril of having more enemies drop down on you after the threat level increases also adds urgency to hacking, which helps to keep it moving along at a more brisk pace. I really like this implementation of hacking because it capitalizes on something Shadowrun already did well: combat. Instead of creating an entirely new mini game or subsystem within the game, HBS opted to use a system that was already fully fleshed out. This made hacking in Shadowrun a lot more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise.

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Overarching Story

I really enjoyed the story of Shadowrun: Dragonfall. It, at times, feels predictable, but that was never a huge detractor for me. You’re in a race against the clock to uncover the plot of an organization that is trying to kill you because you’re poking around in their business. All of your actions are a desperate bid to gather the information, and resources needed to find you assailants before they find you.  I found that made for a fairly compelling narrative. You’re also given enough flexibility to insert some of your own agency into the story, and make a few choices that have a degree of significance on the outcome of certain events. I really liked that I was given choice throughout the story because it helped to keep me invested in what was going on. That my decisions had some discernible impact, and I was able to see this impact kept me engaged far more than I would have been were I merely observing a bunch of scripted events play out in sequence. Also, given Shadowrun is quite text heavy, it was nice that the story was so absorbing. Were it not, I don’t think I would have been able to stand playing it to completion.

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Cons

Shoddy User Interface

The user interface (UI), and by extention the user experience (UX), within Shadowrun is not great. This is made even worse by the lack of a tutorial explaining where things are. Upon starting the game I didn’t know what the purpose of several UI elements was because there was no clear indication, or tool tip to relay this information. I found the lack of information delivered through the UI frustrating because I played several missions before I figured out all of the different pieces of the UI, and was able to actually use my characters to their fullest in battle. I even forgot some of the elements existed after I had found them because of how bland and muted the UI is. Having some kind of tutorial that briefly goes over the UI, tool tips, or even colour based cues to make elements stand out would have greatly enhanced the UX and also decreased, or eliminated a lot of the annoyance I had when first starting the game.

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Lack of Urgency

I mentioned liking the plot earlier in this review, but I had a problem with a dissonance between the gameplay, and the story. Despite the narrative setting up a plot where you are in a race against the clock, nothing about the game’s missions reinforces the urgency of your situation. Dialogue constantly brings up the impending doom that will befall your group of Shadowrunners, but there is never anything to back up that threat. Even though there are characters who are killed off throughout the main plot, there is never any tangible risk to you. No extra mercenaries are dispatched to take you out, missions are not made more difficult if you are dawdling about, and you’re even given the opportunity to do all of the side missions. This all really detracts from the desperation that your runner should be feeling and doesn’t align with the mood, and framing of the game. I found it disappointing that Shadowrun never tried to encourage me to keep moving by backing up the emergency situation it setup within the story. Given how well other elements of the game added to my immersion I found it to be incredibly dissatisfying.

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Restricted Control Outside of Combat

While I enjoyed how much freedom I didn’t have over the runners who were not my playable character, I did find one incredibly bothersome problem with this: you aren’t able to pick items up with anyone who isn’t you. Only your character can pick up items over the course of a mission. Initially it doesn’t seem like a problem until the third, or fourth time when you find a med pack, but your trousers are full and you aren’t able to pass it to one of your teammates who could really use the item. Instead, the item is merely sent back to your stash becoming inaccessible until after the mission. Having the option to have one of your party members pick up the item, or even just to be able to pass it to them would have eliminated this problem. Rather, you’re stuck being as greedy as Fork Parker with the inability to share any of the supplies you find with your fellow party members. Were it to only come up once or twice I don’t think I’d be as sour about it, but by the end of the game I think I experienced this problem a dozen times. For the love of god, just let me share!

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Conclusion

Shadowrun: Dragonfall is a game I may recommend to some depending on what they are looking for. Compared to other RPGs it feels lower quality thanks to a few oversights like the inability to share items outside of combat, the disparity between the gameplay and story, as well as a dreadful UI. Although these things drag Shadowrun down, there is still a fairly nice story, and characters to be found packaged  within a relatively enjoyable game. It’s easier to dive into when compared to other similar games, and  does an excellent job of trying to offer assistance to newer players. Were you looking for a simpler RPG, something with a cyberpunk setting, or are new to the genre I think that Shadowrun: Dragonfall would be worth looking into.

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