Review: “Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut” (Computer Game)

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Well, although I am stuck on the final boss battle at the time of writing, I thought that it was about time that I finally reviewed this game. Although this isn’t technically the full review I’d planned to write, I’m probably about 95% of the way through the game, so it’s pretty close.

I first heard of “Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut” from this video review that I saw on Youtube. Although it didn’t really look like my type of game, the fact that it was a highly-praised modern game in the cyberpunk genre (that would actually run on my computer) made me interested.

I bought a direct download of this game quite a while ago when it was on special offer on GoG, although it is also available on services such as Steam. However, the GoG version comes with some extra goodies, such as a complimentary MP3 soundtrack download. Likewise, the GoG version is – of course – DRM-free too.

However, expect to take a while to get this game running. Although it uses pre-rendered backgrounds, text-based dialogue and relatively simple 3D graphics, the game download is over a gigabyte in size! In the 1990s/early 2000s, a game of this type would have probably fit onto a CD ROM! It also takes up a surprising amount of disk space when installed too. Not only that, it also comes with a 20mb patch which, for some bizarre reason, takes almost as long to install as the actual game itself does!

This review may also contain some mild gameplay SPOILERS, but I’ll try to avoid major ones.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut”:

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“Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut” is a cyberpunk fantasy role-playing game (with turn-based combat) that was released in 2014.

The storyline of the game is somewhat complicated, but the basic premise is that the game is set in a vaguely “Neuromancer“-like future where – due to various events – dragons, trolls, orcs, elves, magic etc.. have also become part of the world. Yes, it sounds hilariously silly, but the game actually handles this part of the story fairly well.

The game begins in Berlin with a team of mercenaries (or “Shadowrunners”) led by the legendary computer hacker, Monika SchΓ€fer. She’s also the closest thing to the leader of an anarchist mini-state called “the Kreuzbasar”, and you are her second-in-command.

It is a night like any other, and you’ve got a mission to raid a nearby stately house and grab some data for a client. What could possibly go wrong….

See! It's an easy introductory level that will help you learn how to play the game... Of course!

See! It’s an easy introductory level that will help you learn how to play the game… Of course!

Joking aside, as much as I grew to like this game, the first level almost put me off completely. Although the events of the level are essential to the game’s rich and detailed story, it is probably one of the more difficult levels in the game! Yes, this sudden difficulty spike forces you to actually learn the game’s combat system. But, it isn’t exactly the friendliest way to introduce new players to the game.

That said, most of the game plays fairly well. You, of course, begin by creating a character. I created a human computer hacker called “Molly Millions” (because ‘Neuromancer’). You can choose to play as a variety of races (eg: human, orc, troll etc…) and you can choose to specialise in a number of skills too (eg: magic, hacking, drones etc..). There are a reasonable (but limited) number of pre-set appearance options for your character, but the level of customisation is still fairly impressive.

Although you can customise your 3D avatar somewhat, there are a fixed number of character portraits to choose from

Although you can customise your 3D avatar somewhat, there are a fixed number of character portraits to choose from

The gameplay itself revolves around exploration, dialogue and turn-based combat. Between missions, your character can explore the Kreuzbasar alone, stock up on items and talk to the local residents. Although the Kreuzbasar is a relatively small place, this limited size (along with one or two side missions early in the game) quickly helps you to learn where everything and everyone who matters is.

Plus, it just looks really cool too :)

Plus, it just looks really cool too πŸ™‚

 Plus, at one point, you have to look for a DVD player. It's like that episode of "Cowboy Bebop" with the VCR :)

Plus, at one point, you have to look for a DVD player. It’s like that episode of “Cowboy Bebop” with the VCR πŸ™‚

However, there are also both compulsory and optional missions that you have to complete. During these missions, you’ll usually be accompanied by up to three team members of your choice. Each team member has a different specialisation, and you’ll have to work out who is best for each mission.

For example, Glory is a medic who also excels at close combat, Eiger is an ex-military troll who is an ace with a sniper rifle and Dietrich is a washed-up punk rocker who can use magic. Likewise, you can also expand the team by temporarily hiring other mercenaries and/or letting a character called Blitz join the team a bit later in the game.

Plus, surprisingly, these characters are actual characters. For example, after the first mission, one member of the team will be incredibly pissed off at you. You can try to talk to her about it and win back her support, you can ignore her or you can argue with her. Although this doesn’t seem to affect the actual gameplay too much, it was kind of surprising to see the supporting cast acting and reacting in such a realistic character-based way, rather than just unquestioningly admiring the player.

As I mentioned earlier, this game uses turn-based combat. In each round, every member of your team has a fixed number of actions they can perform. So, you have to make tactical decisions about whether to use your characters’ limited number of action points to move to more advantageous locations, to reload their guns, to heal their wounded comrades and/or to attack any nearby enemies. This system can take a while to get used to, but it lends the combat an almost chess-like level of strategy.

 It'll take you a while to learn the combat system, but it's relatively self-explanatory.

It’ll take you a while to learn the combat system, but it’s relatively self-explanatory.

One of the things that is both a benefit and a flaw is that this is a “slow” game. Thanks to the long loading times (on older computers at least) and the chess-like pacing of the combat, this isn’t the kind of game that you can just play for five minutes.

On the plus side, the loading screens contain written narration that helps to pass the time...

On the plus side, the loading screens contain written narration that helps to pass the time…

To make any progress, you have to sink at least an hour or two into it at a time. Likewise, the game has a somewhat inconsistent saving system (eg: the “save” button will work in some areas, and it won’t work in others). So, you sometimes have to keep playing for a while longer than you expect if you want to save your progress.

But, on the plus side, putting a bit more time into this game is worth it because it’s wonderfully immersive, satisfyingly relaxing and thrillingly cerebral. Even the dreaded “timed segments” in this game rely on you having a limited number of turns, rather than an actual timer (which is brilliant!). It’s an action adventure game that is as relaxing to play as a “point and click” game is.

Yes, the timed levels are suspenseful. But, thanks to the timer not being an actual timer, you actually have enough thinking time and planning time for these levels to be enjoyable too.

Yes, the timed levels are suspenseful. But, thanks to the timer not being an actual timer, you actually have enough thinking time and planning time for these levels to be enjoyable too.

This “slowness” also gives you time to absorb the story and the world of the game. And, yes, this is one of those intelligent games that will really fire your imagination. The game includes things like a nuanced portrayal of an anarchist society (which is neither a utopia nor a dystopia), complex moral decisions, detailed written descriptions, character backstories and things like that.

Even though I’ve probably put at least 10-20 hours into this game, a brief glance at the Wiki for this game shows me that there’s still tons of optional story stuff that I’ve missed.

 Plus, there are lots of brief mentions of fascinating pieces of backstory which are then partially left to your imagination. Like this futuristic German version of the Battle Of Cable Street that Dietrich talks about before an optional mission.

Plus, there are lots of brief mentions of fascinating pieces of backstory which are then partially left to your imagination. Like this futuristic German version of the Battle Of Cable Street that Dietrich talks about before an optional mission.

For the most part, the game is fairly linear – although there are a few optional missions and additional mission objectives that you can choose to follow. Plus, whilst it isn’t even vaguely close to the versatility of a game like “Deus Ex“, there are sometimes multiple ways to complete particular missions.

For example, I got stuck on a level called “Bloodline” for a while because I didn’t have enough charisma points to sweet talk an electrician who was working on a building that the characters were supposed to break into (and my previous “all guns blazing” approach to entering the building had ended in failure).

Worried that I was completely stuck, I consulted a walkthrough and learnt that there’s a slightly hidden area nearby which allows yet another way to enter the building. Yes, it isn’t quite “Deus Ex”, but it’s still good that there are multiple ways to complete some of the missions.

Plus, this is a level where you pretty much need to have Blitz come along for the mission if you want to take a particular approach to completing the level.

Plus, this is a level where you pretty much need to have Blitz come along for the mission if you want to take a particular approach to completing the level.

Plus, being a cyberpunk game, there are also the obligatory “cyberspace” areas too. Interestingly, you can only access these if you play as a hacker (or have one on your team) but they look really cool. Not only that, your character also gets more “turns” within cyberspace than he or she does outside of cyberspace. For example, in a round of combat, your character can perform the equivalent of 9-15 actions in cyberspace per turn, whilst the characters outside of cyberspace are limited to just 2-3 actions per turn.

Well, it IS a cyberpunk game. So, I'd have been more shocked if there WEREN'T cheesy  "Tron"-like cyberspace segments :)

Well, it IS a cyberpunk game. So, I’d have been more shocked if there WEREN’T cheesy “Tron”-like cyberspace segments πŸ™‚

Likewise, a few earlier parts of the game have knock-on effects later in the game. For example, in one optional mission, you have to investigate mysterious disappearances in the sewers beneath the Kreuzbasar. In the end, you have a choice between siding with the hungry ghouls who live in the sewers or exterminating them. If you side with them then, when you have to visit the sewers to fight some bad guys later in the game, they’ll join forces with you and help you out.

Yes, contrary to what many other games have taught me, NOT killing the zombies is by far the best approach!

Yes, contrary to what many other games have taught me, NOT killing the zombies is by far the best approach!

The game contains a couple of counter-intuitive parts like this. For example, earlier in the game, you find a hotel room with a warning message on the door. If you open it anyway, you are confronted with a giant mutant scorpion that attacks you. Once you’ve defeated the scorpion, you can investigate the room…. where you promptly learn that it was someone’s beloved pet scorpion. Needless to say, I quickly loaded a previous saved game out of shame and then promptly ignored the room.

Yes, YOU'RE actually the villain in this scene!

Yes, YOU’RE actually the villain in this scene!

In terms of length, this game is massive! When I heard that it was a low-budget indie game, I expected something relatively short. But, I’ve spent about a month playing this game every couple of days or so and I’m still stuck on the final boss battle at the time of writing. Make no mistake, this is a full-length game – of the type that was pretty much standard back in the 1990s.

On a technical level, this game is (mostly) good. It will run on a computer that is over a decade old! However, there are a few small glitches and flaws. I’ve already mentioned the unpredictable availability of the “save” button, but also expect to mess around with the camera options for a while when you start playing (eg: be sure to set the camera to “fixed”, otherwise you have to move it manually). Likewise, the game froze up once (but only once) when I was playing it.

Plus, the game obscures any areas of the map that are not directly within your characters’ vision. Normally, this adds some suspense to the game – but, especially if you’re using an older computer, the game can sometimes take a bit longer to reveal “new” areas that you’ve entered. So, you can end up standing around in a background-less void for a few seconds before the background loads:

Either that, or the game has a hidden "goth mode".

Either that, or the game has a hidden “goth mode”.

As for the sound in this game, it’s brilliant. Although all of the dialogue is text-only, the weapons sound suitably dramatic and the background music is absolutely sublime. It’s a little bit reminiscent of the soundtrack to “Deus Ex” and it has a very atmospheric, electronic kind of sound to it. Whilst the music isn’t quite up to Perturbator levels of retro-futuristic awesomeness, it still sounds suitably cyberpunk.

All in all, “Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut” is a brilliant cyberpunk game. It’s intelligent, atmospheric and imaginative. It’s the kind of game that has to be played for hours at a time and can’t be completed in a couple of days. It’s a brilliantly immersive game that will linger in your imagination after you’ve finished playing it. Yes, a few parts are a little bit flawed and it isn’t a “perfect” game. But, it’s still an extremely good game nonetheless.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four and a half.

Why The Cyberpunk Genre Is A Genre About Creativity Itself (And Why It’s Good For The World)- A Ramble

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Even though this is a long rambling article about why the cyberpunk genre is a metaphor for creativity and imagination itself and why the world needs the cyberpunk genre, I’m going to have to start by talking about about the experience of reading and playing various things. There’s a reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later in the article.

Although I had been busy with making my Halloween webcomic the night before I wrote this article, I got distracted. Naturally, the cause of this procrastination was none other than a computer game. Yes, “Shadowrun: Dragonfall” again. I’d originally planned to set aside an hour or two to play it, but I ended up having the kind of marathon 3-5 hour gaming session that I haven’t had in a while. And I still haven’t finished the damn thing yet!

This, in combination with a few other things I’d been looking at recently, made me think about the subject of trances and creative works. Because, one thing I noticed when playing “Shadowrun: Dragonfall” was that I was feeling a slightly similar sense of.. immersion.. to the one I feel when watching a good TV show or reading a good novel. But, because of the game’s interactive nature, it was a bit more like the sense of immersion I feel when I’m making an inspired piece of art or, more accurately, when I’m writing fiction (and feeling very inspired)!

This is the kind of feeling where the outside world seems to fade away slightly and you become part of the thing that you’re reading, writing, drawing, playing, watching etc…

The best way to experience this for yourself is to put a playlist or a CD of good music on in the background whilst reading a really good novel. When you stop reading the novel, you’ll suddenly realise that you can’t remember hearing the last few songs on the playlist. They were playing, but you didn’t notice them because your consciousness was somewhere else.

Likewise, the experience of suddenly looking away from the screen after binge-watching a compelling TV show or playing a fascinating computer game for a few hours can feel like a very mild existential crisis of sorts. For half a second, the world around you seems both starkly empty and bizarrely alien at the same time. For a second, nothing seems to mean anything.

In essence, being immersed in a creative work (whether making or experiencing it) is almost a mild trance-like state. The best description that I’ve read of this can be found in a short story called “An Extra Smidgen Of Eternity” By Robert Rodi. Rodi’s description is: ‘Stories are hope. They take you out of yourself for a bit, and when you’re dropped back in, you’re different – you’re stronger, you’ve seen more, you’ve felt more. Stories are like spiritual currency.’

Likewise, I also found a fascinating Youtube video which pointed out that patterns of brain activity whilst playing a computer game that you’re really good at are actually closer to patterns of brain activity during daydreams than anything else. And, yes, I haven’t mentioned daydreams in this article because that would be a whole article in and of itself.

This naturally made me think about the cyberpunk genre, since I’d seen the word “trance” used in combination with it a couple of times recently. Once was when I played a game called “Technobabylon” a few months ago (in the game, connecting to virtual reality is called “trancing”) and the other was when I watched an absolutely brilliant low-budget sci-fi movie from the 80s called “Trancers“. It’s a weird film about time travel, zombies and hardboiled detectives. It’s barely cyberpunk in the technical sense of the term. But, neither is “Blade Runner” and the cyberpunk genre would be a lot poorer without that film. But, I digress….

In it’s most traditional form, the cyberpunk genre is entirely about this trance-like state that I mentioned earlier. It’s a genre of fiction/cinema/gaming about characters who spend more time existing in rich, detailed virtual reality worlds than they do in the stark, dystopian “real world” of the future. It’s a literal embodiment of the “existential crisis” thing that I mentioned earlier, when talking about looking away from the screen after being immersed in a game or DVD for hours.

But, more than that, it often frames this “escapism” into virtual reality as a heroic thing. Which is awesome πŸ™‚ The heroes and heroines of the cyberpunk genre aren’t muscular soldiers, charismatic figures or anything like that. They’re people with mediocre, boring and/or crappy “real” lives who only truly flourish within imagined artificial worlds. They become vaguely shamanic explorers who are more than they might appear to be on the surface. Writers, artists, introverts and/or nerds of all kinds can probably see the appeal of this metaphor.

Escapism tends to get a bad press. Even I had to suppress a bit of a laugh at myself when I talked about a “marathon 3-5 hour gaming session” at the beginning of the article. Ok, I didn’t drink any energy drinks or start talking in l33tspe4k or anything like that, but I couldn’t help but affectionately think of myself as a hilariously pathetic “nerd” afterwards.

But, if there’s anything that this world needs, it’s the trance-like state that comes from creative works. I write these articles quite far in advance, but I can’t imagine that the real world right now is any better than it was at the beginning of this year. Not only does this trance-like state help to preserve our sanity, but it also helps us to develop as people too. And, as much as activists of all kinds might disagree, it’s probably good for the world too.

If you enjoy this kind of thing you’re (like me) probably something of an introvert. Don’t worry, immersion in creative works isn’t going *ugh* to turn you into some kind of brash, superficial, hyper-social charismatic figure or anything like that. During 2016, several parts of the world were thrown into chaos by these kinds of charismatic businesspeople, journalists, politicians, celebrities, religious figures etc…. The world needs less of these type of “heroes”. They tend to mess things up. What the world needs is subtlety and nuance.

The world needs new heroes. It needs a type of heroism that can actually be translated into real life. Charismatic superhero-like “strong men” are always far better in fiction than they are in real life.

But, the kind of people who can navigate the landscape of their own imaginations and turn the things they find into things that inspire other people or expand other people’s view of the world (and themselves) are the kind of heroic people we need. Even if you just read/watch/play a lot of things and don’t create anything, you’re probably going to have a more intricate, nuanced and developed understanding of the world, of politics and humanity than you might think. It’s educational!

Going back to “Shadowrun: Dragonfall”, it is a cyberpunk fantasy computer game that is set in an anarchist mini-state in Berlin. Although this isn’t a major part of the game, it will probably teach you more about both the pitfalls and the benefits of anarchy than anything else will.

The main plot of the game is, in part, about the problems of relying on one person for leadership. The community of characters in the game is also an example of a (mostly) functioning society without a leader. People follow their vocations in life and, in the process, help other people. It’s a bit like John Lennon’s “Imagine” in some ways. Society is, mostly, fairly laid-back and non-judgemental (but not in a preachy way).

Yet, the game doesn’t shy away from the reality of anarchy either. With no police force, people are forced to rely on armed mercenaries (like the character you play as) to solve their problems. With no laws, people have to rely on verbal contracts that can easily be broken if they aren’t mutually-beneficial enough. Likewise, with no law or order, the only thing keeping amoral mega-corporations and violent political gangs in check is other mega-corporations and violent political gangs.

Spending hours in a trance-like state playing this game might seem like “wasted time”. But, it’ll make you think more about politics, humanity and the world than you might expect. It’ll help to add nuance to your opinions about things like the role of government etc… It’ll also give you a slightly deeper understanding of humanity itself, of the value of mutally-beneficial things etc…

It’s like the lyrics to a song (I can’t remember which one) by an acoustic punk band called Johnny Hobo And The Freight Trains: “A punk rock song will never change the world/ But I can tell you about a few that changed me“.

We need more introverted “heroes” in the world, and the cyberpunk genre provides these in abundance.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚