Shadowrun: Dragonfall DC Review
When I first had the Shadowrun series recommended to me, the general consensus was that it was a smart move to ignore Shadowrun Returns entirely and go straight to Dragonfall, the expansion that by that point had been unchained from Returns and turned into a standalone game. I ignored this advice because people are historically stupid when all agreeing on something, and yet again, failing to buy into this type of groupthink served me well; Dragonfall is decent, but I honestly liked it less than Returns for a variety of reasons that I’ll get into fairly exhaustively. It’s still one of the better sRPGs out there, and it’s full of enough good-to-great moments to be worth a recommendation overall, but it’s also nowhere near as flawless or wonderful as the hordes of random internet people would have you believe.
Let’s talk about good storytelling versus bad storytelling
Generally speaking, the best stories drip-feed you enough interesting information to allow you to get a general idea of what’s happening. This is especially true in game form, where story-focused games allow you to play the part of the detective, piecing together clues and seeing whether your guesses about the plot were correct or not. It’s really no different from whodunit movies or thriller-type series (“oh, that guy is so dead in the next episode”), and while it’s not the only method of storytelling that works, it’s conducive to the kind of pacing that makes certain games more enjoyable than others.
Dragonfall appears to be doing that in the first several hours, revealing all kinds of interesting information about possible villain motives, back story, and conspiracy theories of various validity that you’re constantly weighing against each other. Then, 90% of the way in, you learn that it was all a giant red herring that exists solely to keep the player playing. This isn’t some massive plot twist so much as an info dump where you learn that none of the information earlier in the game was relevant to anything, and it comes off as so bizarrely lazy that I was blown away by how stupid it was. We’re not talking about an Arcanum-style “everything you thought you knew is turned on its head,” but rather, everything the game presents before that point stringing you along solely so that the game can appear to have a semblance of a plot during the times when it really doesn’t. Once you realize that the vast majority of the information in the game is intentionally misleading, you learn to tune it out and are left with nothing but a hub, some missions that can be played in any order, and a Baldur’s Gate 2-esque “collect X amount of money to proceed” minus that game’s entertaining world.
Which is to say that this isn’t really an open-world game, or even non-linear to the degree that I was led to believe. There are 5-6 missions that can be tackled in whatever order you want, but many missions don’t unlock until midway in the game, and the early-game and late-game missions are always the same. The end result of all of this is that it’s only barely more open than Shadowrun Returns was, and the perceived freedom many players seem to believe is afforded to them is either an illusion or the result of the game being a bit more reactive than Returns was. On the topic of reactivity, the game is reactive in the sense that going against one of your crew’s wishes/personality too far can cause them to hate you, but at the same time, this really doesn’t affect anything in the story apart from a line or two at the very end. The real reactivity would be how you can obtain one of several endings, though there are really only two basic ones with slight variations. That said, both endings are interesting in their own way and give you a further glimpse into the Shadowrun world, with the “bad” ending being beautifully, unexpectedly devastating.
The characters help save the game a little
Needless to say, I have some pretty huge problems with Dragonfall’s story (or non-story, since most of what appears to be story is just meaningless padding). The game’s characters helped to alleviate my annoyance, however, and part of this is because of their ubiquity; while Returns had you feeling like a solo shadowrunner who occasionally hired a team to help out, Dragonfall gives you a dedicated team that cost nothing to bring with you into missions.
Not only are they free (and thus the best option most of the time), but they also respond to the things that happen in missions with unique dialogue where the generic shadowrunners you can hire are completely silent. Every member of your crew has their own unique personality as well as back story, and in true RPG fashion, getting to know them well enough means involving yourself in their personal problems and helping them resolve some long-standing trauma. The quality of these side missions where you help them out varies, with the enigmatic Glory and her mission being a high point while the other characters and their missions fall a bit flat comparatively, but they’re all worth completing regardless since doing so grants your crew bonus abilities they wouldn’t otherwise obtain.
Since most are likely to spend most of the game with the free crew, a new leveling mechanic has been introduced for them where missions increase their level and allow you to select 1 of 2 upgrades. You can mix and match from both branches as they level up, creating your own Frankenstein monster that excels at whatever you use them for, but it’s worth pointing out that there are only 5 upgrades that you can choose out of 10 total. Obviously that’s not enough to refine these characters into extremely useful tools on the battlefield, and they seem to all have their own specialties that you can’t stray too far from if you want to be effective. For example, Glory can attack using either melee blade attacks or a pistol, but her accuracy with the pistol is so terrible that investing in those upgrades really isn’t worth it. In fact, it’s worth mentioning that your crew’s accuracy in general is terrible, and most of the time I only brought them along because certain skill checks can be fulfilled by your crew, lessening the need to invest in certain skills and allowing my character to focus more on combat. This was absolutely necessary since the crew you’re given has an uncanny ability to miss 2-3 out of 5 shots consistently throughout the entire game. For all the talk I’ve heard about to-hit percentages being fixed from the last game and being more representative of your actual chance, I found myself missing far more shots than I ever did in Returns. Once I even managed to miss two in a row with a 99% chance to hit.
The difficulty is ramped up a bit, but it’s still easy
I played through Dragonfall on “normal” difficulty, as I did with Shadowrun Returns (and almost every other game I’ve reviewed in order to get a sense of the default difficulty), and the first thing that struck me was how much harder the first mission was. While cover and positioning were in Returns, I often found myself able to stand in plain sight and survive thanks to my maxed-out “dodge” skill. Here, that’s simply not a realistic expectation, and I barely clawed my way through the first mission as I got used to being flanked, which seems to increase the chance of a critical hit, but isn’t really something I figured out beyond it being undesirable. At any rate, this is hit-and-miss, with some hits counting as flanking even though a character is behind cover and the shot is coming from the side the character is covered from.
The flanking mechanic is kind of strange and wonky and doesn’t add enough to the game to justify the confusion it causes. Beyond that, it rewards hiding behind cover and trading shots with a low percentage to hit, so several combat encounters are rendered much slower than they’d be in Returns. This makes the combat quite a bit less fluid than the last game, and it quickly wears out its welcome. Fortunately, the early difficulty spike is temporary, and you’re quickly given enough karma (which works identically to Returns) to level up combat skills and become an unstoppable killing machine who can run forward and flank enemies without too much worry about being gunned down, though unlike Returns, I found I still had to pay attention to cover in order to stay alive despite again maxing out my dodge stat.
Flanking isn’t the only new addition that makes things a bit more difficult, of course, and my biggest annoyance while playing was with explosives. It seems that every other enemy has grenades, and enemies with grenade launchers are prevalent enough to keep you from bunching your characters together in an advantageous position. Naturally, this means keeping several characters further away from enemies (and having their hit chance reduced even further as a result), all to keep from having everyone damaged at once by one of the million grenades enemies love to use. It may have seemed like a great addition that fleshes out combat, but these explosives instead proved to be one of my biggest annoyances with Dragonfall.
This is one of the buggiest games I’ve ever played
I’ve played through Arcanum, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, the Baldur’s Gate games, and a number of other notoriously buggy games unpatched, and yet Dragonfall may be the buggiest gaming experience I’ve ever had to date. In fact, I experienced bizarre glitches from the very beginning; in the first mission, I had characters randomly disappearing while moving, and hit percentages constantly disappeared and reappeared. I was fortunate enough to have the “characters disappearing” bug limited to that one level, but I was soon faced with a barrage of far worse bugs that made playing certain levels an absolute nightmare.
I’m including three videos of bugs, but know that I faced far more than just what I caught on video. Loading saves saw the game locking up (which broke the video when I tried to record it) for ~30 seconds before actually loading, and this continued throughout the entire game despite this being the exact same computer I’ve played hundreds of other games on, including Shadowrun Returns and even more graphically-intensive games like Witcher 3. Then there were times when certain enemies couldn’t be attacked directly, forcing me to use area-of-effect magic spells and grenades. Spells have a cooldown and grenades are one-use-only, though, so this wasn’t a solution and I ended up having to restart the entire level. Hit percentages continued to disappear and reappear randomly. Sometimes I’d find myself completely unable to press anything on screen, necessitating loading an earlier save and losing a huge chunk of progress. This one is a doozy, and you can’t really tell just how maddening it is by the video because the video software I recorded with doesn’t capture the mouse, but suffice it to say that I’m trying to move, attack, open a door—really, do anything apart from standing around like an idiot in the middle of combat. This is a bug I faced several times on several different levels, though I had it happen multiple times on the same map, which appears to be both one of the buggiest areas in the game and a mandatory level. This level proved to be so buggy that I actually got stuck inside of a door after trying to open it, and not only did it trap me, but it also managed to corrupt my most recent save.
The one that gets me the most, however, was getting stuck in the alternate cyber-world that is the matrix. This happened to me 3-4 times throughout two playthroughs, and it always starts the same way: having finished my business in the area, I “jack out” of the matrix to go back to reality, only to have the game decide not to take me back and instead sit in the darkened and lifeless cyberworld. I tried waiting it out, but 10 or so minutes later it became apparent that this was a permanent state. On one occasion, I was able to get past this by skipping a turn. Most of the time, however, this was a brick wall that necessitated loading an earlier save. In fact, the last time it happened, the game bugged out so much that it insisted that my character’s name was Orc089034 (or something to that effect) despite that not being right at all. I wasn’t even playing an orc character at the time. This constant bugginess is surprising given how solid and bug-free Shadowrun Returns was for me. Both games seem to use the same engine, so there’s really no excuse for this kind of weirdness, especially since this is a Director’s Cut and one would expect a certain level of polish given that.
Graphics and music are still good, but less good
A lot of the graphics, at least as far as the UI is concerned, are taken straight from Shadowrun Returns. Everything is very familiar, and yet the missions are largely underwhelming and few sport any kind of a unique graphic style apart from an early mission that sends you through a club. There are a great deal of bland corporate areas that you have to trudge through, and it just seems uninspired compared to the streets you ran in Returns. I found myself similarly underwhelmed by the music, which is either taken directly from the last game or otherwise uninteresting. I don’t know what happened to the music direction, but the new tracks just didn’t mesh with the game as well as the music did with the first game, nor did they strike me as being anywhere near as memorable.