This expansion proves that Harebrained Schemes knows what they are doing, know what the players want and are only getting better over time.
All things said and done, last year's crowd-funded return to the cyber-punk classic, Shadowrun Returns, was an important release indeed for us here at Duuro. Not without its faults, the game did a solid job of respecting its roots and offering players a very old-school CRPG sort of experience while still doing well to modernize it for today's market. What you were left with was a fun, turn-based experience set to a rather engaging story that allowed just enough in the way of choice (even if often superficial) for the player to feel they truly played a part in it all. Said gameplay and said story were both handled well enough that the game easily landed itself a spot on Duuro's best games of 2013.
Less than a year later, the eagerly awaited (for me, at least) expansion, Dragonfall, has finally dropped and, surprisingly, offers an experience that not only rivals the game proper, but exceeds it. Dragonfall, distancing itself from the base game, removes itself from the original game world of Seattle in favor of Berlin. A welcome change, both aesthetically as well as in terms of narrative and tone.
You start off much like the original, being tasked with creating a character of your choosing; deciding between the strengths and weaknesses of the different races found in the world of Shadowrun and then picking what sort of playstyle you want to go for.
The game opens up and you find your newly created character, alongside his new-found team and headed by an old time friend that goes by the name of Monika, as they ready themselves for a supposed “milk run” contract. This is where the first big difference between the two titles shows itself. Unlike the original where you played your main character, assisted by hired mercenaries and, when the story dictated, NPC characters, Dragonfall keeps you in the company of said team throughout the 15 – 20 hour experience, making this a much more team-based affair than that of the original, where it was just you and some hired goons. The game just feels a bit more personal, considering you often have to contend with more than just your own personal choices, but the wishes of your team.
Long story short, the “milk run” turns out to be anything but. The man who tasked you with this mission hadn't let on to his true intent for hiring you, your team takes a hit and you soon find yourself guiding these characters everywhere from seedy slums to corporate offices in the hopes of tracking down your nameless backstabber. When you finally catch your mark, however, you are quickly confronted with the fact that all this was just an element of a much larger picture and now you and your team are far, far in over your heads, stuck in a conflict that is much bigger than a run gone wrong.
While the base game was no slouch when it came to its writing, Harebrained Schemes certainly weaves a stronger narrative this time around. Dragonfall is a much more character driven affair in comparison to the noire-lite mystery of the original. This is done so by the addition of multiple main characters and how they can influence your choices and how your choices can influence them.
You have Dietrich, the team's ex-punk rocker Shaman. He can be the most laid back of the group one minute, pushing you to bring the fight to your enemies the next. He is often the voice of reason of the group, just don't go against his ideals. Glory, the team's part time medic, full time street samurai. She is the quiet, subdued one of the group. As much parts as she is person, her personality is a metaphor for this; cold and mechanical. She is certainly the hardest shell to break through. Then there's Eiger. The straight-laced military type. Don't try to flatter her. Don't try to be her friend. Do your job, do it well and you'll have her respect. Enough said. Finally there's Blitz, the smartass decker who you help out early in the game, gaining is companionship in return. Talented, slightly egotistical and just a bit paranoid to boot, he is certainly the most entertaining of your little team and he provides his own form of comic relief in a game that certainly needs it from time to time.
Let's be honest. You have seen these characters before. They are very much genre staples and you have seen similar characters in games before. That being said, that doesn't make them any less interesting nor any less the fun characters they most certainly are. They are indeed rather realized characters with their own interesting backstories that you must put the work in to uncover. Probably the weakest aspect about the characters is that the game doesn't quite cover them enough and I felt the want to know more about them when there was no more to be said. They really could have been more fleshed out but, by the end of the game, I still thought I knew the strong characters I felt they were.
As for the game itself, little has been changed from what was seen the first time around. The game plays very much like XCOM, set in the world of Shadowrun and with a heavy reliance on stats and player choice. While I certainly enjoyed the base game, there was definitely room for improvement. I am happy to say that improvements were made. Where in the original game you were often confronted with multiple choices, they often times were superficial and left little to no impact on the game itself. Dragonfall does a much better job in presenting the player with actual choices that can affect you, your team, the mission and can even reflect on the story itself. That isn't to say that the story branches off in any meaningful way this time around, but you are tasked with making choices that will affect how certain scenarios play out and can affect the way certain teammates feel about you. It does a lot to make the player feel included in the overall plot and adds weight to the choices made. There were a handful of times where I had to sit back for minute and really think about the choice I was about to make. I can't say that that is something that happens too often in RPG's of today, sadly.
It is here where the comparisons to the more old-school style of CRPG's begins to surface. Dragonfall is a game about choice and living with those choices. The game constantly throws such choices the players way. You are constantly confronted with challenges that your character may or may not be equipped to take on. Stats play a huge role in the game, not only in the way of combat but also in how certain conversations can play out or in finding creative ways to take on certain situations.
Playing a tech-savvy character? Chances are he isn't also the toughest guy around. He may not be the one kicking down doors, but he may just be the guy who can open said door by hacking the terminal in the other room. Have a weapons specialist who lives and breathes steel and explosives? Probably not the most charming person to hold a conversation with, but he sure as hell will get you where you need to go. The game is all about creating the character you want to play, working their strengths and trying to work around their weaknesses. It really is a game where you need to stop and think about the mission ahead, deciding who and what you really need for the job. It's a game where you really think about what you want to say and what sort of character you want to be. It's an actual RPG, and it's pretty damn good at what it does.
There have not been enough games like Shadowrun on the market as of late. The RPG has moved further and further towards what is essentially an action game and you constantly see what made RPG's great in the first place stripped away. It's about presenting the player with challenges and decision and having them handle that as best they can with the character they created. Shadowrun Returns and, even more so, Dragonfall, do this in a rather great fashion. This expansion proves that Harebrained Schemes knows what they are doing, know what the players want and are only getting better over time. This is fantastic expansion that only serves to trump what was already a very solid game to begin with. One of the better expansions of recent memory, this one comes highly recommended. If you haven't already bought the base game, now is the time to do so. You not only get a fine experience with the game proper, but you then allow yourself access to the much more refined and engaging experience that is Dragonfall.