Shadowrun: Dragonfall – An Examination

Back in February, I took a look at Shadowrun Returns in this space. Returns is by no means a perfect game, but it’s more than enough fun for what it is, and it captures most of what I’ve always dug about the world of Shadowrun. Capturing the essence of Shadowrun is no small task! Shadowrun takes place in an essential busy setting. I didn’t even try to summarize its most salient features when discussing Returns, but I’ve since realized it’s not very nice of me to assume the general public is as familiar with moderately but not extremely well-known tabletop RPG settings as I am, so now is as good a time as any to correct this oversight. Wish me luck. Here goes nothing.

Shadowrun is set in a near-future dystopian cyberpunk society under the rule of an oligarchy of impossibly massive, hyper-competitive, and morally unscrupulous corporations known as megacorps. Unlike most other cyberpunk settings, Shadowrun also features magic and supernatural elements. These elements aren’t on the fringes of the setting, either; they are highly salient features of day-to-day life. There are dragons and mages and ghouls and shamans and such, and they infuse the world of Shadowrun with even more chaos.

In a typical game of Shadowrun, players take on the role of shadowrunners; special agents hired to complete dangerous and unsavory tasks at the behest of one of the many people, organizations, and/or megacorps jockeying for money and/or power in this impossibly labyrinthine social hierarchy. Almost invariably, shadowrunners are hired for these tasks so that the players’ employers may advance their own agendas while maintaining plausible deniability, and without risking their own lives.

As you can perhaps surmise, shadowrunning is inherently grim work. You are a pawn in someone else’s chess match. Your employers are almost always ethically deficient and will rarely if ever be forthcoming about the exact nature of your mission, meaning those missions will be more complicated, difficult, and dangerous than expected as a direct result. This is to say nothing of the very distinct possibility that you will be tasked with committing actual atrocities that can be considered horrible even by the necessarily compromised moral standards all shadowrunners are forced to adopt. If you refuse to carry out such acts, the best you can hope for is that your employer merely blacklists you; getting a hit put on you is far more likely.

Assuming you complete the run successfully and also survive, the best reward you can hope for is prompt payment according to the agreed mission terms. Needless to say, you won’t always get that, even if you follow your instructions to the letter. Your payment will cover expenses and give you enough to get by until the next mission, and little more. And of course, the odds that you will be able to complete any given run successfully, and the odds that you will even finish it alive, are not in your favor. It’s a tough life, made bearable only through each runners’ sense of camaraderie with their fellow runners, and the community that surrounds them.

That’s a lot to take in! By design, Shadowrun is a world where everything is connected to everything else, and everything is constantly in flux, but nothing is ever really changing. These themes are not particularly easy to communicate organically, and yet Shadowrun Returns does a fantastic job of establishing its world with minimal exposition dumps. (There are still some of those, but sometimes it can’t be helped.) Basic information is given clearly, but not intrusively, and as you progress through the game, you learn more about the world primarily by learning more about the characters in it. It’s quite the feat of storytelling, and the game is fun, too!

Shadowrun: Dragonfall, the second game in developer Harebrained Schemes’ trio of Shadowrun CRPGs, offers more of the same, but it offers so much more that Returns can’t help but look like a 13-hour proof-of-concept demo by comparison. Returns is well-made, and not every CRPG has to be a 100+ hour door stopper, but one of my biggest problems with it is that it’s also a bit slight, even for a game that makes its modest ambition no secret. Dragonfall not only more than doubles the length of Returns, it also offers a deeper experience in every facet; there have been times in which it’s seemed like Dragonfall has gone out of its way to add exactly what I though Returns was missing, even though I’m playing both games years after release.

There are more missions, of course. In my review of Returns, I mentioned that I saw scant few opportunities for deckers, Shadowrun‘s computer hacking class. Having decided to play through Dragonfall as a decker, I can confirm that this time, the game seems to go out of its way to jam in opportunities to put decking skills to good use. It may be an over-correction, but it’s a welcome one. In Returns, the only way to give your main character a full party is to spend money to hire additional runners. At times additional runners are available for free, but those times are the exception. This isn’t a bad mechanic in a vacuum, but I found out the hard way that hiring runners was expensive enough to require real budgeting, to my mild but persistent annoyance. In Dragonfall, however, your main character is placed on an actual shadowrunning crew.

Not only does this mean you can surround your character with balanced party for free, but the additional party members are all fleshed-out, interesting characters, and I delighted in getting to know them over the course of the game. You are also given a choice of how to develop these party members’ abilities, without being given full control of their builds. It’s a good system, one that lets you mold the party as you see fit while causing minimal decision paralysis. The main story line is beefier; the stakes are higher, the motivations for the characters are more interesting and shown more organically, and as a result, the big plot moments and twists land a lot harder. For all that Returns did well, Dragonfall does it better.

And yet, some of Dragonfall‘s flaws will feel awfully familiar to anyone who has played Returns. The object detection isn’t always the best; the icons that highlight usable objects and items on the map are prone to disappearing from time to time. Clicking where those icons were sometimes uses or grabs the object in question, but not always. There still isn’t any sort of map screen or minimap. And while the combat is generally well-done, and provides the same turn-based, XCOM-inspired experience, its aspirations to total tactical sophistication are occasionally undermined. As in XCOM, you are shown an attack’s percent chance to hit before you confirm the attack; In Returns, there were times that it seemed like I missed because the game decided it wanted me to miss, and while I could be wrong, Dragonfall seems to have the same issue. I feel that I’ve missed on a 99% to hit chance a good deal more than 1% of the time, you know?

When I reviewed Returns, I complained that it was hard to move a character to a tile that was next to another, already occupied tile. If the mouse was so much as a micropixel off of the exact right spot, it would highlight the character on the adjacent tile, not the tile I was trying to move to. Dragonfall still has that problem, but it has been lessened somewhat; moving to the adjacent tile can still be a bit of bear, but requires far less precision. More distressingly, however, is how Dragonfall handles position out of combat. There is no such thing as out of combat formation. When you’re not in combat, your main character is always out in front, and the rest of your party is following behind as they see fit; your main character always opens any and all doors that need opening, too.

This means that every time the game transitions into combat, your main character will be in front of the party, whether that’s a good idea or not. Again, I played as a decker; while it’s quite possible to build a decker that is competent at front-line combat, my character was quite squishy. There were many times where my quite squishy main character got shot just for crossing a threshold or opening a door that triggered a combat encounter, and that felt silly, arbitrary, and cheap. If I had any say in the matter, I would never have put my main character up front in any situation. This may seem nitpicky, but if you’re really trying to nail turn-based, tactical combat, formation and position can never be an arbitrary default. Everything that isn’t randomized must be the player’s choice.

This is especially true in Dragonfall because Dragonfall is also much, much harder than Returns. The opening mission of the game alone is tougher than just about anything Returns has to throw at you, even in its late game. While this is more than justified in story, it’s a rude awakening for anyone who played the first game, and one that left me deeply afraid to keep going. After the opening mission, the difficulty resets to a reasonable level, but be prepared to have real issues getting past it on your first attempts.

And, once you get a ways into the game, the difficulty ramps right back up, albeit much more gradually than Returns’ late game spike. In particular, the late game features a handful of optional missions where your main character accompanies one of your other crew members on a mission of personal interest to that crew member. Most missions have a party limit of 4, but on these missions, it’s just your main character and the party member in question. These missions are harder simply because you’re forced to use a smaller party, and, as someone who built a character that was not an ace in direct combat, I don’t think the game does a great job of considering every class and possible build in the design of these missions. I found these side missions fair, but also weird, frustrating, and jarring; the encounters in Dragonfall‘s traditional missions are immaculately balanced, to the point that you wouldn’t notice how well balanced they are unless you forced yourself to think about it. The lesson, as always, is that when you’re designing a party-based CRPG, don’t include any quests or missions that force the player to go solo or use a smaller-than-usual party.

Also, combat encounters can be very long and can take a very long time. Not helping matters is the fact that sometimes, when there’s a significant distance between two or more combat encounter groups, the game will remain in combat while you move your entire party across that distance. This can get a bit tedious; it can take more than an hour to finish a single combat encounter, and sometimes entire missions can turn into one, long combat phase. Blessedly, for an ostensible adult like me who has to drop everything and be responsible from time to time, Dragonfall lets you quicksave during combat. That should be an unambiguous boon, but it led me to Dragonfall‘s biggest problem of all. (Note: Mild spoilers ahead!)

So I played through Dragonfall and made it to the end game. I don’t think I made it to the very last mission, but I know I was at the end game because before I started the mission before the mission I’m about to describe, the game made it perfectly clear (via NPC dialogue) that, once I started this mission, I would cross the Point of No Return, where I am locked out of all optional missions. The only thing the player can do after crossing the Point of No Return is complete the game’s main story line.

I completed this first mission after the Point of No Return with no issues. The mission immediately after, however, caused several. This mission was long, so long that it’s best to think of it as a two-part mission. The first part was more than manageable – I got through it with minimal loss of health and other resources – but it contained a whole mess of primary and secondary objectives. I had to backtrack a fair amount to actually clear all of these objectives, which was a bit annoying, but this sort of thing goes with the territory in CRPGs, especially for me. Sometimes I gloss over key details of a dialogue or cutscene and, had I paid better attention, I would have picked up on the snippet that would have clued me into the thing that would have helped me complete the mission or quest more efficiently. To sum up, the first part was easy, but it took me a while.

The second part, though, was a motherfucker. I know I already spoiler tagged this segment, but I am nonetheless committed to spoiling as little as possible; suffice to say, the second part of the mission is a lengthy and difficult base defense. You have to defend three separate points on the map from several waves of enemies, with each successive wave getting larger and larger. To make matters worse, one party member must be in the matrix (the place where all of the hacking happens) for most if not all of this, meaning your party size is effectively reduced to 3 for most if not all of this. You can activate some automated defense turrets to help you out, but they’re mostly useless. It is very easy to get stretched thin, and once you’re stretched thin, it’s very easy to get stretched even further, to the point that your entire defense collapses. Once your entire defense collapses, you’ll inevitably fail the mission and have to reload your last save.

The first four or five times I tried this portion I failed, with every attempt taking at least 45 minutes, and some taking well over an hour. Needless to say, this got rather frustrating, rather quickly, and soon enough I was replaying the mission in my head, trying to think of how I could position my party so that they were in three places at once. For the next attempt, I started quicksaving. I only did it at the start of a new round, and I only did it if I felt I was in a tenable tactical position. I was a bit nervous about doing so, but it beat restarting the mission entirely from scratch. Besides, if I started failing and decided my latest quicksave was a bad idea, autosave had my back. I could always restart the mission, if I wanted. I didn’t succeed at the end of the session, but I was starting to see how success might be possible. Unfortunately, I decided I might need more firepower, and thus might need to tweak my party composition. This would require loading a manual save file I had stashed away, then restarting the entire mission – meaning I would need to do the first part again, as well – so I figured I would give my existing quicksave one more shot before doing so.

So, once I had steeled myself for my next attempt, I started the game up and…all my saves were gone. Every last one. My quicksave, the autosave, and all of my manual saves had vanished without a trace. The main menu looked as it did when I started the game for the very first time. I quit and restarted the game, and that didn’t fix anything. Not knowing just what in the actual fuck there was to be done about this catastrophe, I headed to the Steam community page, and immediately found this helpful post from Harebrained Schemes explaining the issue. Long story short, saving during the second portion of the mission appears to destabilize the game and its save files, but finding the exact issue and devising a solution was beyond the dev team’s means. I understand, and I don’t begrudge the devs – this was an indie game made by a team with limited resources at their disposal – but it sucks all the same. My saves are gone forever, and there’s nothing to be done.

It will probably not shock you to know that I haven’t brought myself to start the game over just yet. It’s a shame, because I enjoyed the hell out of it and I’d like to see it through to the end some day, but after losing each and every save file from an entire 20+ hour playthrough, it’s going to be some time before I’m ready to play through basically the entire game all over again.

Shadowrtun: Dragonfall is a damn good game, and I do recommend it. That said, if you haven’t played Returns, make sure you do so first, especially if you’re completely unfamiliar with Shadowrun. Dragonfall largely assumes the player is familiar with the basics of the setting, and the steep difficulty curve won’t give you much time to figure out the gameplay before you get tossed in the deep end. And, of course, be extremely, extremely careful with your saving once you get to the APEX Rising mission! Do not let my tragic journey with Shadowrun: Dragonfall be for naught, nor let it dissuade you from playing! Learn from my mistakes, and have fun!

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