US: 27 Feb 2013
The campaign created for Shadowrun Returns, while the main feature of the game for many, was there mainly to show off the user creator content tools of this product developed by Harebrained Schemes by giving a excellent example of what designs are possible when using the tools. It’s one thing to give potential creators a bunch of tools and leave them to their own devices and quite another to given a model mock up of what can be built given the right design application. The original campaign, Dead Man’s Switch, is a walking tour of the various aspects of the Shadowrun universe, a tour taking the player from an underground Shadowrunner bar to gangland hideouts to the corporate offices of the elite.
While it is great to give potential creators the ability to jumpstart their visions by giving them a goal to set their sights on with a professionally designed and tuned campaign, doing so also has its drawbacks. In creating a campaign, Harebrained Schemes set the initial tenets of how to design a turn-based tabletop RPG adventure using their toolset and how to bring it to the digital environment. They lead by example. While doing so and despite the large amount of user created campaigns out now, however, Dead Man’s Switch remains the most played and most influential campaign among Shadowrun Returns players. Influence can inspire, but it can also stifle creativity. Players see what is possible and unless reconsidered will still follow the familiar structure and design of the campaign that familiarized them with the game. Dragonfall, in a way, can be viewed as a way of countering such programming.
Dead Man’s Switch began with a prologue in which the protagonist receives a request to find his or her friend’s killer. From there, that protagonist is sent on a bunch of topically important, but seemingly unrelated missions in the hopes of tracking down leads to achieve the overall goal of solving the mystery of that friend’s death. Eventually, the pieces fall into place, and you make a grand attack on the enemy in order to complete your quest.
By contrast, Dragonfall begins with your character meeting up with an old friend, Monika, and her team on a job at a mansion on the outskirts of Berlin. Soon the job goes sour and you and your new team want answers and more than a little revenge. Monika’s employer turns up dead and signs point to a new threat to both the fragile anarchist state of Berlin and to the whole world. That threat is a dragon if you couldn’t tell from the title. You need answers and information of this sort isn’t cheap. So, you’ll have to go on a bunch of unrelated runs just to earn the money to begin unraveling what is going on.
The game’s Berlin based expansion adds quite a bit to the game: new tile sets, weapons, enemies, and other additions to expand the game’s toolbox. And the campaign does a more than adequate job of showing these additions off. However, Dragonfall does more than that by changing the structure of the adventure and in the process creating a far more malleable story. Dragonfall is Baldur’s Gate II to Dead Man Switch‘s Baldur’s Gate.
That analogy is more than just a reference to the near mirror to the story structure of each game, but it also alludes to the almost complete overall done to the design and systems between titles. As noted, you will spend a good third to half of the game doing a bunch of unrelated jobs to scrounge together the money to pay off the information broker, meaning that these jobs aren’t connected to one another and that the consequences of your choices will not affect anything outside of them. But that the game does so allows the player to balance decisions in their own way and lets them define their own character as well.
We were already introduced to the Shadowrun universe in the first game, so Dragonfall is allowed to develop more particular settings and themes within that universe. ideas only briefly touched upon previously. Class warfare and capitalism morphing into a corporate governed world are endemic concepts in the Shadowrun setting, but here they are more than window dressing and an excuse to go on raids. Berlin is a unique city in this universe. It is the only one that is not controlled by any government or corporation. No group does so. Instead, it is governed only by shifting spheres of influence. The city is almost tribal. And from this more chaotic system, the design of the missions has expanded.
Much of the original campaign’s challenges were resolved through combat. There is still plenty of combat in Dragonfall and the difficulty spikes in the final act of the story (so, word to the wise, use consumables), but because of this particular setting, the game offers alternative solutions to conflict. I was downright astounded during one side quest when a negotiation with gunrunners did not end in a shootout, but instead in a prolonged negotiation with people in the same situation as ourselves, just ones living in a different neighborhood. I ended up forging an alliance with this group. That same situation could have very easily devolved into bullets and spells had I so chosen. Much of the time, Dragonfall lets you come to terms with what your character believes. Are they a survivor at any costs? Do they have a moral code and what are that code’s limits? What are the lines that they can’t cross?
In Dead Man’s Switch, the player worked solo for much of the campaign, hiring much of your party on a per mission basis. In Dragonfall, following the Bioware model, you have an in house team, each character coming with their own personality and backstory that you can tease out in the downtime between missions. Glory’s story is particularly heartbreaking, not to mention those of the various people around the square in which you are based. By the end of the game, I began to see this collection of ragtag downtrodden as my people. This was my section of the city, and I would defend it no matter what it took.
For as long as it is (a good one and half times the original campaign), there doesn’t feel like there is any padding in the game. I give it high marks for the organic nature of its plot twists and the unexpected complications that arise one after another. But it was the ending that left me stunned. In it, I realized that all the conflicts up to now (with their subtle political undertones) were a thematic set up to answer constant questions about what you believe about the situation as a whole. It doesn’t ask outright, instead leaving the situation in your hands.
I really hope Harebrained Schemes continues to release Shadowrun Returns expansions that raise the bar as Dragonfall does or even ones that continue to take the game’s tools in new design directions. It shows what can be done when a studio with a malleable set of tools is allowed to create instead of having to reinvent the wheel all over again.