The second in the revive Shadowrun series by Harebrained Schemes certainly upped the ante in terms of design, writing quality and characterizations, as well as rebalancing its gameplay. But does Dragonfall end up bringing the franchise to new heights in the realm of gaming, or is it simply the beginning of a long fall?
Shadowrun Returns proved to be a successful return for the Shadowrun franchise to the realm of gaming, especially after an underwhelming foray into team-based first person shooter action on the XBox 360. It drew criticism for a few elements, though - notably that you could only make hard saves during transitions to new parts of the game, as well as a few bugs (both of which were patched in later versions of the game). Still, it sold quite well, and its built-in modding tools ensured that a number of fan-made modules and expansions built on the base the original game built up.
Dragonfall itself began as an officially-developed module for Returns, but was later made into a standalone game with the release of a Director's Cut that also added some extra side missions. The setting is entirely separate from Returns, now taking place in an anarchic Germany as your character reunites with Monika, an old friend of theirs, and takes on a job to break into an old mansion and steal some data. They quickly encounter much more than they bargained for, though - Monika is killed attempting to hack into their security system, and they're forced to retreat as a heavily armed militia team arrives to fight them off. Wondering what went wrong (with the only clue they're given being Monika's final words about a 'firewing'), they seek the aid of a high profile data broker who charges quite hefty prices, necessitating they take on a number of new jobs to pay.
Like the previous game (and Shadowrun in general), you're given a classless job system to work with, using "Karma" earned from completed objectives to purchase upgrades to your core stats and skills. You have quite a bit of flexibility in how you build your character for this reason, though it is of course best to build one that plays to your race's strengths - Orks work better as more physical fighters while ones geared more toward intelligence (like Elves) make better casters, for example. One changeup from the original games is that you get a new race in Trolls - obviously based on the Nordic type, as they're extremely large and have rather low intelligence but can be devastatingly strong and durable when built right. Deckers (hacker types) are also given some more combat actions not limited to cyberspace - namely that they can now control armed drones to attack their foes, which can also slip through some small spaces that they may not be able to.
The core gameplay remains much the same as the original, with a turn based tactical combat system that's largely based around cover and flanking, though it's been rebalanced a fair bit since the last game. Some spells are made more effective, while many weapons have been added and balanced to make more builds viable. One annoyance, though, is that many firearms split their damage, doing the brunt of their harm with the first hit and one or two points with a second hit; this renders your healing spells effectively useless since they only heal the most recent bit of damage you took, so I had to rely a lot more on medkits and purchase more health upgrades than I did in Returns to stand a chance, especially later on.
The writing in Dragonfall has also seen a significant step up from the previous game, letting you converse with your fellow runners between missions to learn more about them and what ultimately led them to join Monika's team. It's nice to see a western RPG with characters who have genuine motives and personalities beyond "eighth level Elf" or "caster type", and it helps that they're all brilliantly written, having genine motivations and regrets and friends and family whom they often talk about (and occasionally factor into side missions). Just more proof that worldbuilding isn't just about banging out 30 pages of dry articles for an online codex you have to bring the whole game to a dead stop to read, but actually pulling you in to the setting and letting you interact with the locals and experience their lives and the world they live in for yourself. Something I honestly wish much more RPGs, western ones in particular, would take note of. That goes miles further than just having more reskinned variants of monsters to whack with a stick to gather gold, for sure.
So, while its core gameplay remains mostly unchanged from Returns, Shadowrun: Dragonfall introduces enough new improvements to keep itself fresh. The open-ended, choice based gameplay, a strong narrative that makes it feel like every choice you make is the wrong one, a wonderfully realized supporting cast and the grim dystopian setting fully immerse you in the experience, making it an excellent RPG whether you're a big Shadowrun fan or not. Can't recommend it enough.
Developer: Harebrained Schemes
Publisher: Harebrained Schemes
Platform: PC, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Switch, PS4, PS5, XBox One, XBox Series
Released: 2014, 2022
Recommended Version: All versions seem to be more or less the same from what I can tell, but as ever, the PC version is my favorite for its mouse/keyboard interface and for having several mods and additional fan-made modules to play. You can get all three games in a single bundle called "Shadowrun Trilogy" at a discounted price as well.