I hate sci-fi. Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut is the best game I’ve played all year. Both statements are true. How can this be? Put simply: good writing is good writing is good writing. Twenty hours in, I was woe-stricken, worried about the end coming too soon. Thirty-eight hours in, cue the credits. I reclined, hands behind head with puffed cheeks. What happens to my team? What about the loose ends? Do I enjoy the tremendously satisfying resolution or mourn the end of my adventure? Whatever the answers, the questions are inspired by one hell of an experience.
Though I have never played a Shadowrun title (yes, really), I quickly learned the “rules” of this universe as the developers eased me into the gameplay and plot with little tutorial or introduction. Shadowrun opens at the start of a simple, routine run. What follows changes not only the team, but their entire home. Your character plays the newbie who shares some background with Monika, the leader of your group of shadowrunners. While the game follows a central plot, much of the experience involves side missions that offer insight into your team and culture of Berlin. The city’s denizens engage in constant strife, with gangs and corporations constantly vying for power and influence.
As players traverse this decrepit landscape, frequent conversations provide opportunities to act as a force of good–or a force of good. Though choices don’t necessarily alter the trajectory of the central plot or the composition of the group, responses often feel catered to actions and words spoken. Err on the side of muscle and allies may lambaste the lead. Favor diplomacy and allies may complain just as much. Moral ambiguity rears its lovely head throughout, demanding a response to lose-lose situations. Most dialogue choices differ significantly from each other and oftentimes hits the mark. I frequently felt as if the developers considered every conceivable contingency during conversations and rarely left me dissatisfied with the outcome. Even if the result wasn’t strategically optimal, it was my choice.
The impact of choice must be highlighted here: gamers who seek dialogue options that unlock equally fascinating, branching plots will be dissatisfied, while those who want to feel as if they’re having a conversation with a now-pacifist retired war general will bask in the inky ocean the writers have laid out. At no point did I feel as if my detailed dialogue decision was met with a canned response catered toward all three dialogue options I could have chosen. Although all three paths probably led to the same overall result, the conversation felt genuine. Though, benefits occasionally occur, such as different routes to completing a scenario (stealth vs. combat) and increased Karma (skill) points.
Perhaps one of the most engrossing aspects of gameplay is how skill points are allocated to characters and what they mean in terms of dialogue choices. While this concept is nothing new to RPGs, I truly felt as if the character I crafted was limited given the circumstance. Developing a brainy, brawny hacker who can summon all manner of beasts is almost impossible. Sure, I could have made someone who had some ability in all of those areas, but several of the choices throughout the game require a higher degree of skill in certain areas. In addition, charisma unlocks different “professions” that players can use exclusively for dialogue. Although some are used more than others, the idea that someone with a background in security can better infiltrate enemy security when questioned adds to the realism of Dragonfall. Neophytes beware: the skill tree is initially intimidating, but upon further inspection, one will quickly realize that only about a third of the tree will be relevant depending on the character built.
Non-violent interaction with NPCs is one benefit of skill points, but, of course, a grander and more deeply felt result is combat efficiency. Though the numbers don’t exactly translate in a meaningful way, one can simply accept that an increase in strength offers greater melee damage. Skill points allocated in this fashion feel less interesting, but they are an occasional necessity, especially on higher difficulties. The difficulties, by the way, may not be a true indication of the skill level required. This is always challenging to comment on, as I consider myself fairly skilled, but by no means a strategic mastermind. I began the game on Hard and I felt this initially. However, upon reviewing forums following my completion of the game, I read that perhaps Adepts are overpowered, which may have made my experience easier. Without trying out other classes, I can’t comment on this personally, but I read several complaints from people who struggled on missions on the normal difficulty when I had little trouble mopping up enemies.
Regardless of difficulty, Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut is pure strategy RPG heaven. If not for the splendid dialogue and atmosphere, this would easily be my greatest talking point in this review. Fortunately, Dragonfall provides the entire package. Tacticians who thrive on calculated risk and strong positioning will be at home here. Cover is probably the most important factor to consider, as standing out in the open almost promises a quick death. Since most of the combat is gun-driven, expect to leave your characters hugging walls or ducking behind barrels. Those more accustomed to JRPG fantasy-based SRPGs shouldn’t worry: Dragonfall will make you fall in love with gun combat. The other driving force behind combat is economic use of Action Points and managing skill cooldowns. Knowing how best to use a skill and in what proximity one can afford to do so is thrilling. When fortuitous outcomes occurred, I felt triumphant; conversely, when I took unnecessary risks and was gunned down, I had only myself to blame. Some might find fault with the Random Number Generator gods, but if one is truly inspecting tactics used, one might find a more cautious (or aggressive) approach useful.
In terms of gear, the game offers a surplus of choices, but I only found myself upgrading equipment once in my thirty-eight hour excursion. In addition, one can toss aside one’s humanity–or at least some of it–in favor of machine parts to become better than before. Better…stronger…faster. The tradeoff here is Essence, meaning that a character forgoes magical capabilities in favor of speed, strength, armor, and action points. More equipment becomes available after completing certain side quests, of which Dragonfall offers many.
In terms of aesthetics, Dragonfall is second to none. Those who favor 3D models will be left wanting, but to someone with a discerning eye, the detail in the environments is baffling. At times, I found myself just staring at dilapidated buildings, household appliances, graffiti, trash, and just about everything on my screen. Keep in mind: this is a sort of post-apocalyptic cyberpunk future wherein most people live in ghettos and disarray. The designers took hold of this and spared no expense as they put excruciating detail into every nook and cranny, including areas players are likely to pass by without ever exploring. Dragonfall was designed for someone who wants to experience a world, not someone who simply wants to get from point A to B and crunch numbers.
In contrast, the auditory aspect of Dragonfall is average. Everything clicks and pew-pews as necessary, but the music accentuates little. This may sound like a complaint or drawback, but that is not what’s intended here. True, in light of the incredible package presented, this may be considered a weakness relative to the entirety of Dragonfall, but I have nothing to complain about here. If I were to add something to the aural experience, it’d be voice actors.
In terms of control, Dragonfall functions properly, as one would expect from a turn-based SRPG. That said, clicking can sometimes result in some difficulty as character models almost completely block the tile diagonally behind it. This is one problem an isometric game may have, but the developers could have remedied the problem in any number of ways that similar titles have done. Still, this is only a minor complaint in light of the otherwise sound controls.
Games like Dragonfall don’t come about too often. For those of us who’ve grown accustomed to B+ grade titles, we forget what it’s like to experience a top-shelf game. I reflect on my time with Dragonfall and have to call into question all of my previous reviews. Now, with this standard of design and absolute heart that went into Dragonfall, the bar is that much higher for competition. We know what talent and hard work can produce now. Best of all? It’s indie.