Between missions my crew of data thieves and mercenaries stay in a hideout in Berlin’s Kreuzbasar. As well as hackers and killers, one of them’s a shaman – Shadowrun mixes magic with its near-future technology – and he used to front a punk band. When was the last time you met an actual punk in a cyberpunk game? So I ask him, “You can sing?”
“I was the front man for a punk band, boss,” he replies, as if I’m an idiot. “Fuck no, I can’t sing.”
Shadowrun takes a chrome-and-neon BladeRunner setting and smooshes it together with fantasy. The story goes that ordinary people suddenly start developing magical powers or transforming into elves, orks, and whatnot. Turns out Dungeons & Dragons was basically an accurate description of history. It can be as silly as that sounds, but it can also be an enjoyable mash-up where familiar archetypes are tweaked just enough to refresh them – a dragon who hoards a portfolio of shares instead of gold, a dwarf who crafts illegal software instead of magic swords.
Originally a tabletop RPG, it’s also been adapted into several video games, most recently Shadowrun Returns in 2013. Dragonfall is a new campaign for Shadowrun Returns, which you need the original version to play. It’s a showcase for an overhaul of that base game.
This is the kind of old-fashioned RPG that talks to you a lot: atmospheric loading screen descriptions; pop-ups on objects you click on; conversations with branching paths – all communicated purely in text, no voice acting. But the original campaign that came with Shadowrun Returns, Dead Man’s Switch, didn’t have great writing. Your squadmates had little to say, the plot was linear, characters from the tabletop game would show up to out-cool you, and the tone was juvenile. Set in the criminal underworld of Seattle, it felt like seedy nightclubs, crooked cops, and drug deals as imagined by someone too sheltered to even watch HBO. Although it’s a world with troll security guards you still want things like that to seem believable.
The linearity could be forgiven because Shadowrun Returns was stuck with a system that only saved your progress when you moved from scene to scene. It’s hard to do open design when it’s easy for players to lose significant progress. Simpler to use smaller locations, have the turn-based battles at the start of those areas, have a plot that’s on rails. Players wanted something more sandbox though, as could be seen in the user-made campaigns – Shadowrun Returns isn’t just a game, but a toolbox for making your own scenarios that can be shared online. Early attempts to make open-world campaigns were all frustrated because of that damn save system.
As well as a new story, Dragonfall comes with new assets for use in player-made campaigns and a working save-anywhere system. The difference it makes in terms of freedom and variety are dramatic. The hub area of the Kreuzbasar is full of people to talk to and things to do, the second act has plenty of optional side-missions, and those missions feature multiple paths and bonus objectives. After being hired to break into a fascist compound I was given three extra goals – an anarchist organisation wanted me to steal funding data they could publicise, a mysterious group called “the Lodge” wanted me to spare the fascist’s leader because he was useful to them, and my squad’s punk shaman wanted to rescue his nephew who’d been brainwashed into joining.
You’re often weighing decisions about who to help and whether the rewards are worth the risk or compromise. Sometimes it’s like you’re wading through filth, wondering if the good things you do balance the bad. When you catch up with your team after the job’s done you find out what they thought of your decisions, as well as getting to pry into their dark pasts. Each has a story to uncover and an engaging personality – the ex-military troll who doesn’t think you’re leadership material, the chromed-up girl whose cybernetic armour hides her emotions, even the dog has a secret for Christ’s sake. And each is written without too much ridiculous in-setting slang, just as likely to use real swears as the occasional “drek” or “frag”.
Your team-mates are so great it’s a shame you can bring a maximum of three on each job. It’s not just an arbitrary limit but one the writing itself ignores: characters who weren’t brought along will still tell you what they thought of the events as if they were there. Dragonfall’s only other real flaws are that it drags towards the end, with too many fights thrown in to stretch it out, and that the hacking is still repetitive, each computer you jack into looking and feeling the same. But overall Dragonfall is still satisfyingly open, morally murky, and just plain memorable. It’s also made me far more excited about what the players do with these tools than I was before. This is what Shadowrun Returns should have been like from the start.