Prophetic words, because in the world of Shadowrun: Dragonfall-DC (“Director’s Cut”, because the PC version also has an older edition of Dragonfall) you may have to face orks with steel plates grafted to their body, anti-intrusion software that can fry your brains, and disgruntled janitors who can incinerate you with a few arcane syllables. Welcome to the Flux State of Berlin.
A standalone expansion to the highly successful Shadowrun Returns, Dragonfall whisks you away from the Seattle streets of its predecessor, to the politically charged soils of Berlin, where a “stable anarchy” tries to maintain order among powerful mega-corporations, thuggish street-gangs and the downtrodden rest. You, of course, lie outside all the petty politics: you’re a shadowrunner, a specialized mercenary who operates out of the dark underbelly of the urban sprawl, selling your services to the highest bidders. Your team starts the game on a routine run that goes horribly awry, leaving you to pick up the pieces and find out who set you up and why. And worse, rumor has it that the supposedly dead dragon Feuerschwinge (“Firewing” for you Anglophones) is somehow involved. Needless to say, that’s a bad thing.
It’s this rich, murky, and morally ambiguous soup of a setting that really does it for me. As a tabletop RPG that began in the late 80’s, Shadowrun boasts a couple of decades of published material from which to draw on and Seattle-based studio Harebrained Schemes does an excellent job bringing out all the foul flavors and fetid odors of the cyberpunk/fantasy Sixth World. Sure you’ll find all the regular cyberpunk clichés, but few other settings combine both futuristic technology with the monstrous races and sorcery of high-fantasy. And Dragonfall uses clichés in an interesting way, discussing for example, the social repercussions of real elves, dwarfs and trolls existing among us, or whether or not decking yourself with cybernetic enhancements means sacrificing your humanity.
Humanity is really what much of the game is about: this isn’t your generic heroes-are-good-villains-are-evil world. In Dragonfall, most of your choices are tinged with ethical uncertainty; as the name implies, working from the shadows is what being a shadowrunner is all about. Do you kill the captive rigger (think robotics expert) in cold blood as your mission requires, or do you let him go and lie about taking him out? Is blowing up a civilian’s apartment truly for the greater good, or is your sponsor playing you for a fool? Aside from offering thought-provoking narrative experiences, these decisions do affect future points in the story (a hallmark of a well-written RPG). Unlike its predecessor, Dragonfall makes all story choices more interesting, giving you multiple ways to achieve your mission’s goals, a variety of endings and basically, a less linear plot.
Even if the story fails to excite you, the deeply tactical turn-based combat will appeal to even the most jaded hard-core gamer. Like in Shadowrun Returns, combat uses a grid-based, action-point-economy system, where clever tactical decisions such as ducking behind potted plants or standing on magical ley lines are rewarded. However, Dragonfall adds a whole host of new features, tweaks and options to the original. Most noticeable is the redesigned and much more user-friendly combat interface (you can see all your different weapons at once!). Then, there’s a bunch of new spells and weapons (the taser is my favorite: stuns an enemy for a bunch of turns but needs constant reloading, and hence, action points), as well as changes to make existing combat options more viable (throwing weapons have been improved, for example). Even at low difficulty settings (I played on “Normal”), combat remains challenging and interesting, with the game throwing interesting curveballs at you from time to time: kill enemy riggers before they take control of your cyborg teammate! Hack into the system and lock the doors before reinforcements arrive, all while facing a pair of murderous basilisks!
The other big change in Dragonfall (not taking into account improved graphics and technical fixes) concerns your teammates. Gone are the hired randos of Shadowrun Returns. Instead you have a crack team of professionals each with their distinctive skillset and role, and more importantly, each with an engaging backstory that you can explore. Dragonfall also introduces a new advancement system for your teammates. Every once in a while, teammates “level up” (unusual, because Shadowrun as a system tends to eschew traditional levelling systems in favor of skill points), allowing you to choose one of two new abilities for each teammate. It’s a simple system, but its elegance is ingenious: you get to somewhat customize your teammates to suit your playing style without pulling focus from your main character (or boring you with too much micromanagement).
The only major complaints I have about Dragonfall are technical. The most grievous sin is with the difficult-to-read text: it’s too darn small. For a story and dialogue-heavy game, this is inexcusable. As my colleague commented, “It really wouldn’t kill Hairbrained Schemes to invest in a large text option for mobile.” Then, there’s the issue of loading screens, which take forever. As someone who likes playing Android games on subway and bus rides, long delays between gameplay is thoroughly irritating. Finally, though I expect this to be fixed soon, the game is very RAM-heavy and has been known to crash on a couple of devices (mine would often fall apart when I tried saving). Despite the excellent gameplay, these issues do affect the overall Dragonfall in a very noticeable way.
Challenging combat with interesting tactical decisions? Check. Deep character customization? Check. Meaningful choices, puzzles and plot arcs? Check. Even with its technical faults, Shadowrun: Dragonfall-DC makes for and excellent RPG and is highly recommended.
But is it Hardcore?
It definitely is.
Though technical flaws may somewhat mar the experience, Dragonfall boasts excellent gameplay and a kick-ass story.