Shadowrun: Dragonfall

The game frequently hits you with challenging moral choices so gray, you’ll forget what defines good . . . No matter what you do, you will feel a bit jaded after.

Shadowrun: Dragonfall

Shadowrun: Dragonfall

How often is it said that a video game is “important”?

Entertaining, incredible, fun. Sure, we say that all the time. But important? Almost never.

So if you were told about a franchise universe that involves elves, orcs, cyberpunk, modernism, corporatism, shamanic mysticism and nature spirits, urban culture, grimdarkness (think Warhammer 40k), racial tensions, poverty, gang life and more, the very first question on your mind would be, “How could that be anything except a total steaming mess of science fantasy crap?”

The very last thing you’d expect is something so well written, it actually challenges the classics of today.

Shadowrun: Dragonfall approaches disturbing and harrowing adult themes and philosophies in an incredibly thoughtful way, without tiring melodrama or clichés.

Set in Berlin, the main character (your avatar) joins an old friend named Monika who runs both a clique and looks after an entire neighborhood. The game begins with a sordid data heist that swiftly goes wrong, putting both you and the team in the cross hairs of a shadowy and well funded organization. There’s no choice but to go on the offense and find out who they are and stop them before they stop you.

The main character (who you design from scratch) has a past, though you choose certain elements of it. Your race and your job both weigh heavy factors in dialogue options. Your first instinct might be to go as a human, but there are interesting interactions and results to be partaken if you choose one of the metaraces, like Orc or Dwarf.

But Boss . . .

Even better, you’re given a team of four individuals with their own back stories. There’s Dietrich, a former punk rocker with strong anti-racist attitudes, who felt the call of shamanism. Blitz, a smart mouth decker (futuristic hacker) with lingering problems of his own, mostly romantic. Glory, a chrome (cyborg) combat medic with one hell of a history that I refuse to risk spoiling. And Eiger, a troll woman hung up on military protocol after her career in the special forces came to an end.

I think Glory has earned a nomination for best video game character of the year.

If it were up to me, Glory here would earn a nomination for best character design of the year.

Besides the depth each of these four characters brings, I really appreciate that Harebrained Schemes only used half a formula for getting to know them. Between missions, you just talk to them, branching out into multiple paths that you can influence. As I played the kinder, understanding leader in the first go around, playing an uncaring ass in the second game is harder.

But sometimes during missions, you get to learn more about them too. It’s interesting to see the conflicts in the team arise from the choices you have to make. Dietrich had a particularly interesting story about a familial relation who happened to have been caught up in the Humanis Policlub, a hate group who advocates a human race “purified” of metahumans. And guess what? Never once did they use the four letter N-word.

That’s another point. The game frequently hits you with challenging moral choices so gray, you’ll forget what defines good. You can forget the Mass Effect “make everyone happy” approach because it doesn’t exist here. You’ll be forced to make decisions you don’t like, and you’ll discover that the seemingly “good” decisions you make have hard unforeseen consequences that aren’t as simple as being stabbed in the back. You’ll rarely see it coming.

No matter what you do, you will feel a bit jaded after.

That Thing’s Operational!

There are many elves out there. Magic elves, dark elves, Keebler and North Pole elves. Trust me, stay away from the party elves.

Party elf: There’s a party in his body and every drug is invited.

Fighting takes place on a grid board. Each character gets a certain number of action points to either move, fight, use items or cast spells. If you hold a defensive position for example, you can actually shoot twice in a round.

And the area isn’t just flat either. There are bottlenecks through doorways and hallways to take advantage of. Sometimes, there are static defenses like turrets, sources of cover with varying strength to reduce the chance of being hit, and terminals that can be hacked to give you an advantage. The setting is quite interactive.

One of the coolest features about the Shadowrun Returns series is the capacity to have two separate yet connected fights going on at the same time: One in the real “meat” world, and one online called the Matrix. Certain missions revolve around your street samurai and magicians protecting a decker as he/she breaks into the building’s sub-net.

Fighting in the Matrix has its own quirks, from summoning special program allies, taking on guard protocols and trying to beat the “heat” a clock countdown that will summon defenses both online and off. The whole effect has a Return of the Jedi Battle of Endor feel to it, where one fight effects and is even dependent upon the other. Often, mutually.

Final Judgment . . .

While I want to brag about Dragonfall‘s fair price of only $15, the problem is that the game is technically a DLC, meaning you have to get the original Shadowrun Returns with the slightly less amazing campaign “Deadman’s Switch.” Maybe in the future, Harebrained Schemes will figure out how to branch off and release the game as an independent, standalone product with the Shadowrun Core libraries.

However, I can attest that overall, Dragonfall is an amazing RPG experience. It’s fun and rewarding, with an inspired story and campaign design that keeps things interesting. Unlike Mass Effect where we were given good vs bad choices until the end, Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall forces the player to really make hard, regrettable decisions that prompt great self reflection. It’s something you likely won’t see in AAA titles.

I already can’t wait to see what Harebrained Schemes cooks up next.

Pen, Paper, Processing

A lot of the earliest pencil and paper roleplaying games have tended to ease their formulas to provide the right mix of complexity with ease. A lot of basic math is applied to calculate certain values, which are then the basis of desired values for an act of chance, the results of which are reflected for better or worse in the game.

“But many game fans out there enjoy the depth of skill-based adventuring, not just action.”

The appeal of these roleplaying games has always been the sense of legitimate adventure confined more by the scopes of human imagination than the limited scopes of a digitally designed world. Combine this with a sense of social interaction these games require and you have a fun and flexible product to be shared with friends.

The computer and especially the smart phone have opened up new possibilities of complex skill-based calculations, story telling and dungeon creation. This ease of use often comes at a cost, as many of the worlds created in larger titles have been the signature of someone else’s vision.

The ordinary dungeon master in his room often has access to some tools for creating his own world, such as dungeon designers and map building applications. But to apply one’s pure, artistic mark to the creation using these tools is overshadowed by the visions of the artists who created them in the first place.

There’s no real solution to this. The difficulty here is art and science versus engineering. The artists focus on creating something, the sciences on discovery. But the engineer is bound by these visions, working within the confines of what is available. These dungeon builders and systems are tools for game engineering, and they are useful if not necessary. But creating original art is much more challenging, and there is no real way to formulize it.

It requires a vision that the machine isn’t able to provide, at least at the moment.

“Exploring things is a form of very vast, unrealized gambling.”

Going back to my original point, I’ve noticed that people enjoy these complexities of game rules. Forums are awash with break downs of how the math of Diablo II worked. Some fans grumble at the lost RPG elements found in Mass Effect, taken away and replaced with a simplified system combat and no real adventure elements outside of where a conversation can take you. Discussion of the value of skills and stats in the Fallout series is a major consideration.

Simple and accessible is certainly nice. But many game fans out there enjoy the depth of skill-based adventuring, not just action. Fighting and violence is not going anywhere. But the explorative nature of alternatives can breath a lot of addictive elements into a game, as a result of discovery.

Why is this? Probably because exploring things is a form of very vast, unrealized gambling. Maybe hacking that terminal will give you easy access to your goal, or bring security down on your head. Perhaps there’s nothing in that cave, or a mountain of treasure. When you open that door, you have no idea what’s behind it. Maybe it’s an army of guards. Maybe it’s the princess. Maybe it’s One-Eyed Willy’s rich stuff. Maybe it’s a rolling boulder. Who knows? Absolutely no one, until you find out.

For a while, that’s the direction that games were evolving. Sometimes we’re still moving in that direction, or at least toying with the concept. But I have a vision to create a world of infinitely renewable adventures. Where there’s always a story oriented goal, another door to open, a mountain to be climbed. No attempt at it has satisfied me thus far. Call me mad, but I know it can, and will, be done.