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Shadowrun Dragonfall

Glory is the best character in the game

Rating: A-

Playing Time: approx. 50 hours

Having played Shadowrun Returns recently, it seemed sensible to continue with the trilogy; thus, Dragonfall. I'll skip the rambling background intro (it'd be a repeat of what I said for Returns, more or less) and get right into things.

This game was great.

The story starts out in Berlin during the time of the anarchist Flux State, with your character joining a team led by an old acquaintance to pull off what was supposed to be an easy job, but of course shit goes sideways because it wouldn't be very interesting if it didn't (you even get a little chance to Lampshade this by says there's no such thing as a milk run in your experience). The rest of the game is pretty much all about finding out who was responsible and thwarting them, once again reaching a suitably apocalyptic-but-still-reasonable-for-the-protagonist-to-handle climax (though it stretches suspension of disbelief a little further on that front than Returns did). While there are a couple of cool twists along the way, including one of those "surprising in the moment but nicely foreshadowed in hindsight"-sort of twists like Jade Empire pulled off, it's not exactly going to explode any heads over how brilliant and original it is. I liked it more overall than the main story in Returns, but I'm not about to pretend either one is going to compete with the likes of Digital Devil Saga on that front.

To get my main complaint out of the way up front, I didn't like the combat UI, especially compared to how it had been in Returns. There's a large bar at the bottom with buttons for all of the various attacks that your current weapon can do and buttons for all of your items/spells/skills/etc. (depending on which group you have active), and it just feels like it takes up a lot of space without any real benefit over the previous approach. Granted, I can get behind adding the group selectors to make it more obvious that the active character has more options than what's displayed at the moment, but the approach as a whole just felt a bit overboard.

Just look at that ugly bar over the bottom of the screen

That's pretty much my biggest complaint about the game, though, which should put into perspective how much I liked it.

As with Returns, the gameplay is pretty streamlined. There is some more to be done outside of combat/dialogue, and I really liked both being able to see dialogue choices and environment interactions that I didn't qualify for and often (albeit not always) being able to use an NPC party member to meet stat/skill-gated requirements. Granted, the increase in environment interactions did sometimes leave me annoyed at programming restrictions stopping me from being able to do that more, so the game didn't hit a perfect balance in how much it allowed, but nevertheless, the additional possibilities were welcome.

What was even more welcome, though, was addressing one of my main complaints about Returns by having a persistent group of NPC party members. Sure, you could still hire random shadowrunners to go out on jobs with you if you really wanted someone with a different build, but the team covers a nice set of builds already (melee specialist, ranged specialist, hacker, and support mage/summoner), so I never felt any need to get outside help, not to mention that would mean spending money in return for missing out on their extra bits of dialogue during jobs. Oh, and they each gain some unique perks from both leveling up and doing their personal side missions, so they're pretty much just better than hireable shadowrunners fulfilling the same roles from a mechanical perspective, too.

Which brings me to one of the best parts about Dragonfall: Glory. As of this moment, she's one of my favorite fictional characters. Not only is she a queer woman presented in a refreshingly ordinary way, neither fetishizing nor pandering when her sexuality is brought up; not only is she just really cool, being able to essentially Haste herself with her unique adrenaline injector cybernetics before going to town with her melee claws (and unlike in Returns, there is a clear benefit to melee in Dragonfall because it removes the target's cover bonuses for the round on hit, so having her smack someone lets everyone else shoot them that much better); but she's a great example of how to write an emotionally-traumatized character trying to work through the healing process. There are multiple points where she shuts down and just can't talk more. There are multiple points where she puts up resistance despite wanting to talk more. There are times when pushing too much upsets her, and there are times where she'll broach the subject herself after recognizing that it's helping her despite the pain. Yes, the whole thing does progress too quickly in order to fit it into the timescale of the rest of the game, but even by the end, she's still clearly damaged; she's just able to handle it better. I can't say whether whoever wrote her did it so well because of personal experience or a great effort in researching the topic, but it was a great portrayal.

This isn't to say that the other persistent NPCs are bad, either. I actually liked almost all of them (Blitz being the lone exception, as he's merely tolerable). It's just that Glory was handled so well in areas that media often struggles with that it was impossible for her not to stand out the most to me.

Dietrich showing more self-awareness than certain singers in the real world

Incidentally, on the topic of research, I have to give Harebrained Schemes a lot of credit there. I knew they had done a good job with making Returns feel like a future version of the real Seattle (I actually visited the city shortly after playing it and got to see some of the locations like Pike Place), but the studio is based in Seattle, so that was to be expected. Dragonfall stepped up how much their research showed; putting Glory aside, there were lots of little touches above and beyond standard media depictions like how urban parts of Germany and particularly Berlin actually are (again, not a location I'm extremely familiar with, but I have been there a few times), the makeups of immigrant populations, integration of society with religion, informed discussions around the dynamics of power in an anarchist state and its interactions with external forces of domination (in addition to the usual musings on bigotry and transhumanism that are core to the cyberpunk genre), and so on. This certainly seems to be a developer who cares about their work.

I'd dare to say that's also why Dragonfall feels more like being an actual shadowrunner. Not that I hated that Returns was very linear (linear vs. open progression isn't about one being better or worse, in my judgment, just about which fits the game better), but it was nice that Dragonfall incorporates being able to choose which jobs you're doing and working with or against side factions for most of its length. It's not always the smoothest integration (a couple missions felt like they started out with my characters stutter-stepping in between getting calls for side/alternate objectives), but it was something that I appreciated.

Circling back to my earlier point about having more stat/skill-gated choices in dialogue, that ties in nicely with another strong point about Dragonfall: there don't seem to be any terrible stats/skills. I'm not saying that all builds are equal, but no matter what you invest in, there will be opportunities to use it effectively. In fact, one of the most common checks in dialogue was for having a certain level of biotech skill, coming up far more often than checks for any given etiquette.

While I wouldn't say the game was hard (despite me playing on Very Hard difficulty), it was harder than Returns in general, and I did have a couple of game overs. I appreciated having to put some more effort into tactics, even if the game could've gone further with this.

In terms of graphics and sound design, this was pretty much in line with Returns, being nothing spectacular but definitely doing well at what it needs to do. I did notice a common bug with gunshots animating incorrectly when using full auto attacks with either rifles or miniguns, but that's such a minor thing to my mind that the difference in mouth and lip widths on character portraits bothered me more.

Always two years away from being two years away

Overall, Shadowrun Dragonfall was a great game. I went into it with high expectations from Returns, and it pretty much met or surpassed all of them. I'll admit that I'm not as keen on replaying it as I am for Returns, both since it's significantly longer and because being able to use NPCs for most stat/skill checks means I missed out on less by virtue of how my character was built, but it was a wonderful experience while it lasted (which was already about twice as long as Returns, at any rate). Highly recommended.

Rating: A-

Playing Time: approx. 50 hours


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