It oughtn’t to work. Games often attempt to imbue their artificial playgrounds with a sense of place; to make something fake feel alive. When playing Shadowrun: Dragonfall, I found myself lost in the dingy streets of Berlin’s Kreuzbasar district, and caring about the details of its down and out inhabitants.
This in a game which follows a decidedly underwhelming first installment, with a buffet of mechanics whose routes can be traced through a multitude of lineages; from the isometric styling of an infinity engine RPG, to the turn-based combat of XCOM. All of that sounds about as generic as it comes. As I say, it oughtn’t to work. So why does it?
You’d expect a fancy triple-A game to do the best with this sort of worldbuilding. They can throw serious money on fancy 3D assets. They can record thousands of lines of dialog using professional actors. Despite all that, these games can often seem frayed around the edges.
Dragon Age 2 comes to mind as an obvious example of this; the backdrop of Kirkwall, which in of itself was an appealing idea, never managed to achieve the feeling of a place that was alive. A big part of the problem was asset reuse – often the same dungeon maps would be used, with certain doorway blocked up with an awful looking stone block, which was jarring, but there were other problems too. The game shifted through several time periods, intending to show the way Kirkwall changes over time, but I found the opposite happened; because NPCs would often stand in the same place in the same locations it felt a bit of a hard sell. Despite plenty of other more positive features, the end result felt fake.
The maps of Dragonfall could not have had the same amount of money poured into them. Regardless, they feel much more lived in. They too feature repeat assets and recycled artwork, but this style plays into a strength rather than a weakness. The isometric, cartoon look works well, and asset reuse is limited to objects rather than entire maps. The timeshifts aren’t so pronounced, and thus it matters less that characters keep largely to their spots.
Both games feel a bit like plays taking place on a large elaborate stage, but the limits don’t hurt Dragonfall the way they hurt Dragon Age. The Kreubasar feels old despite being futuristic. It feels steeped in history; it stinks of it, in fact. The tropes of cyberpunk, Neuromancer and Blade Runner are obvious influences, as well as the background of the roleplaying game it is based on, but it never feels derivative of those things.
It doesn’t hurt that the writing is strong too, helping to paint a picture with text which provides more flavour to bolster the simple graphical stylings. It’s functional writing rather than the elaborate prose of a game such as Pillars of Eternity. This isn’t a criticism, it works to the games advantage, and the exchanges are punchy and rarely overstay their welcome.
I’ve read some reviews saying the writing and characters sit in well worn cliches, which I think is unfair. I have, on occasion, found myself skipping the dialog of some games simply because it won’t shut up. With Dragonfall I never found myself mindlessly clicking through the text so I could start playing the game. Showing restraint in prose while giving enough detail to enhance what is happening on screen is a skill. The game doesn’t have a detailed set animation animations for showing you, so it needs to tell you, but the writing is functional in a way that stops it from being a slog to get through.
Not that Dragonfall doesn’t give you background when it needs to. Your companions backstories are interesting, and feed into their present predicaments. The most memorable for me was Glory, a companion who is more metal than human, and initially extremely distance and cold. So far so generic, but the game reveals later that Glory once was a powerful magic user who got caught up with some bad people and, to stop herself being used for evil loaded, herself with as much metal as possible. In the world of Shadowrun, adding augments permanently strips away at your humanity.
So Glory purposefully destroys the essence of her soul to escape evil. In doing so she turns herself into a unfeeling machine. I love this, as it takes one of the mechanics of the game and explores it through the narrative. For the player character, the essence rule is there to force a play-style choice. Do you go for magic or cybernetic enhancements? We see the impact of those choices in a quest that branches off with a surprising number of potential resolutions. Dragonfall is generous with player choice throughout the game, in both the main quest line and the side missions.
It all ties together; the confident taut writing, freedom of choice in the action, and the simple yet detailed art. This is a game about affecting the story and leaving it having made a lasting change. I’ve played plenty of games with larger worlds and more impressive graphics. Very few of them breathe the way Dragonfall does. That it does that with a relatively meagre set of tools is an impressive achievement. It’s an example proving that you don’t always need big budgets to make something feel real. It oughtn’t to work – but it does.