Better cyberpunk than The Last Night.
How did I not know about Shadowrun before now? If I had to guess, the title probably threw me off. “Shadowrun.” That’s the type of generic, lifeless name you’d expect to see on the newest financial bomb FPS from Activision or EA. That is not a name that inspires confidence or interest …these days. Back in the table top scene of 1989, Shadowrun was something fresh and new. It was a bizarre combination of cyberpunk and fantasy, and those two very different flavors somehow fit together better than peanut butter and chocolate.
Shadowrun exists on Earth, starting in the 2050s, forty years after the rebirth of magic in 2012 that completely changed the norm. Dragons are real, and run massive multi-national conglomerates. Race relations have changed as humanity has been split into five different metahuman sub-classes based on classic fantasy archetypes. Every single country is run by some sort of conspiracy, and the world turns as these conspiracies clash with each other, humans becoming wage slaves of dehumanizing corporations willing to sacrifice thousands for the same of their bottom line, quenching their thirst for control.
It’s a world of masters and slaves …and then there are those who choose to be neither, the shadowrunners. Think of them as for hire saboteurs. They’ll do most anything for money, based on their own personal values, but screwing it to a corp is always a big plus for them. They tend to live short lives, but they’re free lives, and their work can shift the direction of the world in unforeseen ways. Of course, they can easily just be bugs to the unimaginably powerful behemoths that control the planet. Shadowrun works has a cyberpunk classic because the mythical elements are used to enhance the themes of cyberpunk, turning exaggerated realism into something truly grand, and even a tad eldrich at times.
Now Shadowrun’s forays into gaming have been …mixed, to put it lightly. The SNES and Genesis games are considered cult classics, but the rough edges are impossible to ignore. I tried the SNES game a good while ago, and had absolutely no idea what I was doing or what was happening. The SEGA CD game was Japanese only, and the last game made before today’s subjects was a shooter in an alternate timeline made for Vista that absolutely nobody remembers. The fact that nobody remembers it is apparently the most memorable thing about it, ironically. Also, all of these games were just named “Shadowrun.” So, uh, yeah. Branding problems.
The franchise seemed unlikely to ever return to games, until one of the series creators, Jordan Weisman, created game studio Hairbrained Schemes and launched a Kickstarter for Shadowrun Returns, a new game in the franchise that would finally be a full fledged RPG that the fans always wanted. The game launched in 2013, and got even more releases based off the base game in 2014 and 2015 with Shadowrun: Dragonfall and Shadowrun: Hong Kong, both starting as DLC that spun into something much bigger. There’s also this thing called Shadowrun Chronicles, but I honestly have no idea what it is, so I’m just sticking to the Returns trilogy here. Seriously, is Chronicles a single player game, or an online multiplayer game!? Trying to figure it out from the store page is like trying to decipher hieroglyphics without the rosetta stone, or trying to figure out how Burger King arrived at the idea of giant cheetos filled with cheese noodles or milkshakes with bits of fruit loops in them.
Let me tell you right now, these are some high class RPGs. Alpha Protocol was an interesting experiment, and Dragon Age Origins was a great big budget romp with a surprising amount of choice complexity. However, both, while great, suffered problems from their respective approaches, bugs for AP and DA bogged down by far too much unnecessary content (DEEEEEEEEP ROAAAAAADS!!!! *angrily shakes fist*). These Shadowrun games, on the other hand …have both of these issues. Bugs and control issues do pop up a good bit, especially in Hong Kong, while Dragonfall and Hong Kong get dragged down a bit by overly long runs, or simply badly paced ones. Hong Kong’s epilogue campaign is a genuine battle slog, light on narrative content and heavy on shoot shoot bang bang explosion. It gets very tiring, especially if you choose to take neither side in the Detention side run, which even when you figure out how to do it, lasts an eternity.
Ironically, Returns is the weakest for a completely different reason: There’s not enough of it. Each game is centered around one campaign, and Returns has Dead Man’s Switch, a story that has you traveling to Seattle to find the killer of an old runner friend of yours that has absolutely no focus. You start out as a down on their luck runner looking into a murder, get wrapped into finding a serial killer, then discover an evil cult your friend’s sister is in, and then discover it’s trying to summon bug ghosts (yes, bug ghosts) to feast on the living, and then you have to help some hacker guy who pretends to be the bad guy from Princess and the Frog break into a megacorp to steal a secret weapon that will kill the bugs, and then you’re captured by the megacorp head, and then you’re recruited to do the thing you were already going to do, and then you win and the story just stops. A lot of stuff happens, including two drug den infiltrations (one having nothing to do with the main story), but there are almost no side runs are available, you don’t get an actual party and just have to hire other runners, and all the side characters you meet don’t really get any closure.
The only two truly notable names that join your side in the campaign are Jake Armitage, the main character of the SNES game, and Coyote, a runner you save from certain death. They’re the only two people who seemed to like your dead friend, Sam, but Jake is only here for the tutorial area and two short cameos, while Coyote’s story has nothing to do with Sam or anything in the main story. Her vendetta against BTL (“Better That Life” VRs jacked directly into the brain) dealers doesn’t get the development it deserves, and everyone else that helps you out is under-explored to the point of barely being characters. The game being so streamlined doesn’t help, putting you on a track to follow with barely any wiggle room. The few times you do have choices to make with actual affectable outcomes, they have little, if any, impact on the main story.
That’s not to say Returns is a waste, though. Dead Man’s Switch has the proper themes at work, and the proper villains. The Ripper ends up being quite the despicable, effective starter villain, and Sam’s sister ends up being a strong tragic character in her own right. Her obsession with the past and inability to process reality have left her completely manic and monstrous, but in a very human way. It’s hard not to sympathize with her on some level, making the Universal Brotherhood cult that brainwashed her all the more vile. The game even treats players to a broader look at the world of Shadowrun, having various big names in the mythology meet to deal with the bug spirit crisis, including one of the most powerful dragons in the world. It also gives a Harlequin cameo, one of the most powerful characters in the series canon, a chaotic neutral elf in clown wear who does whatever they want for whatever reason. Harlequin also gives the ending speech that perfectly describes a shadowrunner: Someone who sees the lies that run the world and refuses to use them or be used by them.
Returns is pretty much a taste of what Shadowrun is as a franchise. It shows you some of the big names in the mythology, hints at bigger stories (those ghost bugs end up destroying Chicago), and gives you a firm understanding of how people in this world live and the issues they all face. It even humanizes the heads of two megacorps, and it works very well, showing that these people are still people, but their ambitions and immorality make them world changers and true evils. It also paints you as someone both important and incredibly insignificant in a one-two punch of an ending, making you feel like the baddest badass ever before reality slaps you right back in the face. It’s empowering and sobering at the same time – the mark of good cyberpunk. However, it doesn’t leave much impact because of how extra the main story is.
I get the idea at work. You start the game thinking you’ll do the one thing, but this leads to you being tossed around the stories of various other characters, including a Native American shaman and the aforementioned voodoo man hacker, leading to something far more urgent than what you were doing originally. This sort of structure can work (the Tales series in particular uses that set-up endlessly, and occasionally to great effect), but the narrative doesn’t get the time to sink in, and some of what you do in the game doesn’t add to the whole, becoming a detour that leads nowhere. Coyote’s BTL crusade really is pointless, and it’s strange because there’s a lot of promise there. It does not help that the ultimate major threat, the bug spirits, don’t really work for newcomers. Fans will get their importance right away, but if you’re a franchise newcomer, as the designers and writers seem to assume you’d be, they just sort of come out of nowhere and fail to be a significantly gripping threat. You kill them easily, and the only build up they get requires prior knowledge of the franchise lore.
Still, the last scene, where you realize that Sam was indeed tricking you because there was no way he’d have a huge life insurance policy for you to collect, is done perfectly. It gives you three different ways to respond to the reveal that all perfectly fit the flashback fight from the start of the campaign, giving proper closure to the story that caught your interest before suddenly ghost bugs want to eat everyone. It’s the emotion from this moment that the other two games try to tap into in their own ways, and that is where the series excels beyond anything else on the market. Dragonfall and Hong Kong and genuinely two of the best cyberpunk games ever made, and I do not say this lightly.
But before we get there, I gotta talk about Returns’ skeleton, because all three games use it with only minor deviation (minus decking in Hong Kong, but give me a sec). The basic structure of all three games is that you create your own character that’s given a basic back story within the game proper, and you can choose the details on your character’s past at set points, though Returns settles for keeping all details vague beyond all of your friends are dead, you have no money, and you were friends with this one guy. After selecting your sex, you select one of five races, then a class (or choose to go free style) and poll your remaining karma as you see fit.
Instead of experience, Shadowrun uses the karma system, rewarding you with karma points when certain objectives are completed. It’s a complicated history that started as rewarding good behavior over bad, but in these games, it’s more a reward for doing something difficult, like surviving a particularly hard fight or managing to avoid conflict at certain moments. It’s a nice idea for these sorts of solo experience games, making constant growth easier than with the usual every other level skill point system. Karma goes into Body (deciding health points), strength, quickness, intelligence, willpower, and charisma. All of these stats also have skill trees under them that allow different specializations, and it is recommended you pick your specialization early in both Dragonfall and Hong Kong, as both don’t give out karma nearly as often as Return’s Dead Man Switch campaign does. You should also note that Hong Kong introduces a cyberware skill branch under body, allowing you to make a cyborg focused character with special moves.
Offense classes include the damage dealing Street Samurais that require ranged combat under quickness or brawling skills under strength, magic slinging Mages that use high willpower, and the hand to hand fighting Adepts, who focus on using passive buffs and self-buff skills to become deadly weapons. The three odder classes, on the other hand, make all those others function to the best of their ability, mixing will and strength. Shamans are the passive counterparts of mages, using high charisma and putting a focus on party buffs and summoning spirits to assist in fights. Riggers can use drones for combat and to explore vents and holes others can’t enter, and Deckers, a class you will absolutely need in the later two games, can mark targets to make them easier to hit and explore the matrix, hacking into computer systems with their minds. Both riggers and deckers require high intelligence, and it’s possible to make a full decker/rigger build …if you don’t mind being in the back for fire fights.
All these classes have their uses and benefits, and the later two games make them all viable in different ways if you like making shortcuts or avoiding conflict. While Returns focuses on charisma and etiquette checks (unlocked by pooling in charisma), Dragonfall and Hong Kong expand on things by giving every possible skill branch a chance to do something. Hong Kong also makes use of its even larger cast to allow you to use them to make shortcuts, giving you more connection to your team. In theory, this makes both games a joy no matter how you build (if you remember to specialize), but trust me, you don’t get the full experience without some decking.
Both later games also make your race another aspect to spice things up and get shortcuts and additional dialog, but they don’t do anything too interesting with race …which is probably a good thing. Shadowrun suffers from fantasy race syndrome. This popped up in Dragon Age Origins as well, but I didn’t get too much into it because those problems come out worse in later titles and in larger lore (though I should have gone more into the terrible city elf stuff). Basically, fantasy races are often used like mutants in the X-Men comics, an analogue for racism or other xenophobias, but neither works as well as you’d initially think because they’re also kind of grossly xenophobic in a few aspects, or the metaphor siply breaks down after the tiniest bit of thought. I get the intent, and I give a lot of credit to the writing staff for trying to make the games surprisingly inclusive (for example, Duncan in Hong Kong, your character’s brother, is either gay or bi). Real world races are widely represented, and the fantasy races can fit into those races as well. They avoid stereotypes with real represented races (like Is0bel being a Somali immigrant in China) …but then hit a brick wall with the elves, orks, and trolls.
Humans being dicks due to numbers, fair enough, and good on the game not really doing anything with dwarfs (and points for making them the race best suited for magic, which is not terribly common in fantasy). But things start falling apart with the other three races. Elves are supposed to be a sort of analogue for white people, except white people exist in this universe. The nature connection stuff is ignored mostly, instead placing elves as members of high society and giving them snotty, racist views of their own that don’t really work cause, you know, white people still exist in this universe. Like every race, there’s plenty exceptions in the games to the expected stereotypes, in and out of universe, but it’s hard to ignore how awkward this allegory is.
But it’s worse for trolls and orcs. While the series states that they’re no more or less intelligent than any other race, they have the biggest caps on intelligence of all races, plus the biggest branches for strength and body. They are closest to African Americans in the allegory, especially because they’re commonly put in stereotypical tribal gear in other fantasy stories. The problems with their presentation are so large that you can see them from space. That’s not to say the games adhere to characterizing these characters as black stereotypes, quite on the contrary. They get a wide level of representation and a ton of body types, like Gobbet in Hong Kong being think and lanky instead of buff. However, the subtext that comes from their initial creation for a table top game is still there and used mechanically with stat limitations. It’s an obnoxious hold over from table top and fantasy story norms, not helped by their outright racist depictions in other franchises. Shadowrun, as a franchise, tries to overcome a lot of those expected stereotypes and subvert them in rather progressive ways, but the fact that these stat caps are still in place negates a good deal of that, a hard coded example of sub-textual racism in the work. Plus, Returns has a mentally handicapped strongman troll serving the Ripper. *why*
But let’s shelf text discussion for a bit so we can get into the mechanical meat, and there’s a good deal there worth looking at. In particular, how these games heavily streamline a lot of the norms of Shadowrun for the sake of a satisfying solo-player experience. It’s something every table top adaptation does at some point these days, and it’s understandable. Table top games are about sharing any experience with others, living out a story with friends. WRPGs of the modern era, however, are solo affairs, so the clunkiness of the old systems is less forgivable. Hairbrained Schemes’ approach to the issue is an elegant one, making the game a simple point and click, with obvious points of interest and a solid amount of people to talk to and objects to interact with or examine.
The entire game is portrayed in a sort of isometric angle with painted maps that act as the environment. These maps are beautifully designed works, mixing in bright blues, yellows and reds to make striking shadows, making every area feel full of life, but keeping the oppressive atmosphere. Even in the middle of a post-apocalypse, the world still turns, and life continues. Even corp buildings have shades of this, but replacing blacks, neons, and earth tones with lifeless silver or dull copper. It perfectly captures a different sort of oppression, one of a soul-crushing grind, making the harsh but free worlds you normally explore far more inviting. The maps are easy to explore, and the issues of walls are solved by just having character models become easily visible outlines behind structures, which definitely helps out in combat.
Hairbrained Schemes foregoes more popular battle systems reliant on speed stats or semi-real time strategy in exchange for turn-based strategy, and that was definitely a good call. Each side of the battle (yours, the enemy side, and neutral characters) take turns and can move their side’s characters as they see fit. You have a set amount of action points for every character, and skills and spells can eat up extra AP, so you need to plan out who does what and in what order. You also need to take position into account, avoid putting characters to close in case of grenades or area of effect spells, and try to make use of cover as much as possible.
This is probably the most interesting and useful aspect of the battle system. There are objects on maps your characters can hide behind, gaining different levels of cover that bring a chance of protecting a character from significant damage, but also opening them to flanking by attacks from other positions, increasing chances of criticals. It can also affect your character’s line of sight if the cover is tall enough, restricting offensive capabilities. This turns battles into tactical, by the moment firefights, trying to figure out the best way to attack and end the fight as soon as possible without getting unnecessary damage or causalities. That said, death is not the end all of a party member, and they can come back in later runs. You can also equip revive items to get characters back up and running …and you’ll need a lot of them if you plan to play as a mage.
The AI is fairly intelligent, I found, but the moment they see a mage, they go INSANE. This may be why your two mage characters in Dragonfall and Hong Kong, Dietrich and Gobbet, focus on buffs and don’t need to get close to the fray that often. Once a mage is in strike range, enemies make an instant bee-line for them, focusing all fire before they can do anything. This makes playing as a mage insanely difficult because your character tends to be in front of the party when combat starts, so if the enemy gets the first move, guess what happens. You’ll spend more money on medkits and revive items than spells. It’s a significant draw back, though Hong Kong seems to have mellowed that little quirk out a bit, just not as much as it should.
Now, you may remember that deckers have hacking skills, not battle skills. For a decker, they have matrix grid battles to look forward to. Returns and Dragonfall share the same system, where your character explores a sort of grid and fights programs designed to stop hackers, then reach a node, interact, and cause a change somewhere in the area or gather paydata you can sell for extra money. In order to fight, along with a basic projectile, you get programs and ESPs (basically minor fighters of different types you control) that you buy and loaded into your deck, giving you different abilities to play with. These matrix fights are …eh. They suffer from a lack of variety, with very samey enemies and the same map style used every time. It’s especially frustrating in timed missions, where you have a set number of turns to finish things.
Hong Kong, however, completely revamps them and really makes you feel like the mythologized hacker archetype. Now, instead of a turn-based system at all times, you only enter battle when spotted, and enemies detect your presence, adding five to twenty points to an alarm bar. Once full, you get bombarded with enemies, complicating matters. As a result, most of these areas are based around studying patterns and moving around enemies’ line of sight, weaving through the system to reach your target. Nodes are also now protected by firewalls you have to deal with in hacking minigames, which are simple remember the code and punch it in to get extra time, then find the correct symbol pattern. They keep you involved, and keep the feeling of infiltration going, making decking play far more enjoyable and rewarding than previously. Hong Kong also seems to beef up the use of cover, making flanking a far more effective strategy you need to use.
All three games do suffer from run design at points, though. Returns loves making runs with a single path and approach, really shown off with the side run where you find a scientist for an unknown group. It makes decker builds feel lame during these moments, as the only time that build comes truly in handy besides finding extra goodies is when you’re hacking into the computer during the office raid run, but only because all other deckers you can hire kind of suck. Returns is so focused on getting from point A to point B that it never lets itself breathe properly, so nothing sinks in. It also lacks some much needed morally questionable situations. However, this style makes the game move fast, and it leaves you wanting more than what it gives you, using the linear direction to make every run really count in their own ways. It’s an appreciated touch the other games trade in for more ambitious, complex runs.
Still, Dragonfall does like railroading you into certain play styles for a good few missions, sometimes to great effect and sometimes to the point of monotony. The Lodge tryout is one of the few runs that benefits from this design style, basically keeping you on a particular track with only minor variations outside shooting everything. It also keeps you on your toes with that strong structure on replays, because the way the run sets itself up and what it ends up doing leads to a whole mess of surprises and outright challenges your perspective on every other run you do and why you do them. It’s a bit of fringe brilliance (even if the subplot doesn’t go anywhere), but other missions are just an overly long slog to get through even the first time through. The prototype extraction run forces you into a lot of battles, and they’re made obnoxious by deckers in the far back and behind cover trying to hijack said prototype and give you a very bad day. The bloodline run also stands out as obtuse for characters who like talking their way through a situation, requiring ridiculously high stats in multiple areas to avoid conflict, which is important because that eventually leads to a re-enforcement countdown. The worst part is you need high body or adapt skills as the last step, both areas commonly ignored for the decker build you almost need entirely to get enough money to do much of anything.
All of this is outweighed by Dragonfall’s ambition, mind you. Dragonfall introduces a lot of new ways to interact with the world and characters, giving special options for all builds (though adapts mostly get the shaft). Blitz, your decker party member, just needs a few upgrades and he can handle most decking himself, though this does mean you have to bring him on every mission. That leaves you open to try other builds and make them more viable than in Returns, where you were the only one who could possibly deck at all. The game is carefully designed so that every run can be challenged successfully by any build outside mages or shamans, who exist solely to get slaughtered. It also tests your resourcefulness more, thanks to the more limited karma rewards available compared to the karma rich Dead Man’s Switch campaign. This makes specialization all the more important to consider, and sometimes forces you to consider how to handle situations where you can’t easily take a shortcut with high charisma or the proper etiquette.
Hong Kong is where the run design really finds some refinement. These runs allow for a lot of chances to change how things are moving through those stat, charisma and etiquette options, which can lead to some wildly different outcomes. One mission where you’re kidnapping a gang member sticks out, as it lets you poison a bodyguard who will appear later for a fight and take damage due to his food allergies. On top of this, there are a lot of different approaches you can take based on your build and who you brought with you. Having Gaichu, the ghoul, attend a fancy party with you allows an easy bluff to get in without any extra skulduggery simply because the doorman is so freaked out by him. Everyone can find valuable evidence for you during the serial killer investigation run, allowing for the best ending scenario if you bring a party with the proper range of abilities. Can’t figure out the password on a computer in the museum run to move a bookcase to go into the hidden passage way (which you can’t do without knowing obscure art history or googling in real life)? Just have a strong character smash the bookshelf!
These situations are in Dragonfall too, but nowhere near at the same extent as in Hong Kong, which makes most every run possible very open. Most of them can be finished without a single fight, and that always feels the most satisfying (at least to me). The epilogue campaign is more battle focused, but still has moments like these. The mall tower run sticks out, rewarding outside the box thinking and exploring, though a big final battle at the end is unavoidable, not to mention a huge pain in the ass by just the sheer size. There’s one other mission similar to it in the main campaign, but it is dwarfed in terms of enemy numbers you have to slog through. The enemy numbers are just absurd, making the final battle in the campaign tame by comparison.
Mechanically and from a game design perspective, these games are all filled with good ideas, but they tend to slip up on the whole from too much ambition. The inability to see how all the parts work together is a significant flaw, with Hong Kong sometimes having so many variables in play that many of them end up leading nowhere of importance. However, having too much ambition yet meeting so much of it is far better than just sticking to what the team knew they could handle. It’s what makes Dragonfall and Hong Kong so much more memorable than Returns, which just aims at being good enough instead of trying to swing for the fences. The growth of these designers is something to behold, especially in the three years it took to release all these titles. That is a ridiculous amount of improvement in such a short time.
However, one aspect they always had aced was the presentation. The sound design is great, with plenty of sound effects that add life to the world, from the crunchy gushing resulting from a fatal blow to the satisfying ring of a shotgun blast. The soundtrack for every single game is absolutely fantastic, with rough percussion, shredding electric guitar and haunting synth pieces. They all feel like high tech urban themes worthy of most any cyberpunk story worth its salt, especially for the punkish world of Shadowrun. Dragonfall adds a lot more tense pieces, with Double Cross sticking out as a personal fave for its wailing guitar solo and fast drum work. Hong Kong also does a great job at working in traditional Chinese bits into its tracks, fitting the setting and creating a lighter atmosphere.
The art design is stellar across the board, with each game focusing on different colors alongside the heavy use of black. Returns uses purples and blues to create an urban nightlife feel, while Dragonfall’s Berlin uses more grays to create a feeling of desolation and ruin. It’s generally more subdued, but it fits with the tone of the story. Hong Kong goes the complete opposite direction, shoving in yellows, reds and light blues, creating a lively world with a slight edge to it. This style also works better with the more exaggerated cast and stories at play, meeting the narrative’s heavier use of archetypes at full blast with a world that screams riches and blood. It just makes you feel great to explore these maps.
I especially like the portrait art, packing in all sorts of strange designs that take full advantage of the setting. No orc or troll looks like another, with a vast array of body types, while every character is loaded with all sorts of details and accessories that tell you so much about the sort of person a character is with just a glance. Gobbet and Blitz probably have my favorite designs overall in terms of how much they tell you about the character. Gobbet gets a mischievous expression, long dreads, what appears to be a cape or hood, and a rat on her shoulder, giving you a heads up that she’s the most ridiculous member of the cast and someone who prefers to move and explore than think. Blitz, on the other hand, has one of the dumbest outfits and hair-dos, matching a fur lined coat with a mohawk and sideburns combo. Combined with his confident pose, the portrait says he’s someone who thinks he knows what he’s doing but actually doesn’t, and that is him at the core. The art team really deserves some kudos for their outstanding work with limited technology, managing to distract from the rather ugly character models on the area maps.
Speaking of limited technology, all three games run into glitches here and there, especially Hong Kong. There are apparently code issues resulting from the complexity of the game’s structure, which once resulted in a bug that locked you out of the best ending if you didn’t explore your home city of Heoi every time you finished a run (though this was fixed well before I played it). Returns runs the smoothest, but you can see the cracks in it from its mod scene. The novel and surprisingly large Nightmare Harvest campaign (which I recommend solely for a sequence involving mind-controlled stripper assassins) is crippled by constant map loading whenever you transition from in and out of buildings, a problem Dragonfall’s commercial released solved and made exploring the base city much more enjoyable. Each game shows much more competency on the technical end, though Hong Kong’s sheer size somehow creates more minor issues than in the others. I was always puzzled to why Heoi’s map kept having to reload everything hidden in the constant fog of war that runs in all of the games, where the Kreuzbasar in Dragonfall loaded with no issues.
That’s the long and short of how these games play, and I know that was a lot to get through, but we’re still nowhere near done. While I think I’ve made my thoughts on Returns clear, they are VERY different for Dragonfall and Hong Kong – two games I might consider all time favorites now. I am dead serious. The biggest strength of all three of these games is character writing and the use of common themes, and how each game offers a slightly different take on those themes to create incredibly compelling stories filled with surprises and occasionally brilliant subversions of the genre. These Shadowrun games look at the big budget epic quests of Bioware and twists those narratives around. These aren’t blockbusters, no matter how high the stakes are, and even with the world at stake, that is never what the characters truly care about. Hairbrained Schemes understands something very important about cyberpunk most miss. It’s not a genre where you can save the world with your adventure, or even make it suck slightly less most of the time. It’s a genre where the adventure is your own survival, and fighting for what YOU care about, not what is more objectionably good on the grander scale.
Dragon Age and Mass Effect tell stories with massive, world ending hordes corrupting everything we know and have ever known that must be stopped. These Shadowrun games do not do this. The world of Shadowrun is already fucked beyond possible repair within this generation. Corporations control everything, dragons take and horde whatever they can find through cruel manipulations, countless horrifying threats exist beyond human comprehension, and we’ve managed to become our own worst enemies by either becoming wage slaves for heartless slave drivers or vagrants who try carving out a little something for themselves at the cost of many innocents. Thus we go back to the shadowrunner, the people who are neither slave nor master. It’s what makes them both the least powerless and most powerful people in this world: They fight for what they believe in and what they desire, not in the names of others or for others who will follow their will. Basically, the shadowrunner is just a normal person in a world where normalcy has been crushed out by dehumanizing systems. Just with less art revolution and more corporate sabotage. Ultimately, no matter what you do, you only solve one big problem among about hundreds of others. You’re only playing a small role in the world, but that isn’t entirely insignificant, and realizing that may just save yourself.
Returns plays with this theme the most purely. What named characters you meet in the shadows are trying to do is entirely personal. They all have personal grudges, issues, and just daily life to grind through, and they do what they believe is right to the fullest. Jake is the only exception, but he’s an interesting one if you look up some extended universe information. He’s already accomplished more than most anyone in the game could ever hope to achieve, and now he’s left aimless, disconnected from his totem spirit. When your runner comes by, he finds a purpose for a short while and decides to help you out a little to find Sam’s killer, someone he only had the most minor of connections to. It’s something, a reminder of why he’s a runner.
Coyote’s boyfriend Paco is trying to be the type of guy he thinks Coyote needs, not realizing she doesn’t want a tough gang member. What she wants, as you look through her journals, is the kind, passionate, and artistic person he actually is. Coyote herself is mainly interested in taking down BTL dealers, herself escaping from the hell they make for themselves and the addicts they prey on. She does before she thinks, getting her in a lot of trouble, but it keeps her scrapping by. When you rescue her from a dealer house, she actually fights back against her captor with her bare hands, and does solid damage in the process. She’s basically the most free runner you can ever hope to find.
Baron Samedi presents himself as some dangerous, tricky agent of justice, but he’s really just a crippled guy trying to help the person he cares about most whatever way he can. He was personally harmed by corps, as the girl he fell in love with was the daughter of James Telestrian III, head of Telestrian Industries, and he knows better than anyone that trying to play by the rules leads nowhere. His right way is protecting and serving the one he cares for most, and she thankfully loves him for it. Shannon is similar, a simple woman who wants to avenge her brother’s death and put the ripper’s victims to rest with her shaman powers. She cares not about the word of human law or corporate interest, only in what little she can do for those who need help now.
Your character is ultimately trying to find Sam’s killer for whatever reason you give them, but it results in an ending where Sam’s charade is revealed. He never had the money, and advises you ask one of his family members. Ironic, as you can get 100,000 from Telestrian before the convo with Sam’s fake lawyer. You can respond however you feel from here, taking away your own meaning from what just happened. Seattle is saved from the bug spirits and you got paid, yet it feels like you did little. You saw a glimpse of the people who control the world, and you got an idea how truly small you actually are. What really changed? Little, honestly. These people put out these fires all the time, and most the world will never know.
But you saw behind the curtain. You did something. You’re still standing, and so are the people you met, free to go after their own goals.
Dragonfall and Hong Kong both have this running theme of speaking truth to power and finding your own meaning in your actions, but they explore far, FAR more I the process. They make Returns look like a school project at times. They each start by using hub towns, something absent in Returns. Rather than just having one location with a few shops, Dragonfall and Hong Kong introduce Flux-State Anarchist collective Kreuzbasar in Berlin and the Yellow Lotus Triad controlled Heoi in Hong Kong. Every character you can speak to hear has a side mission or a story to sell, and if not, they at least have some sort of personality or function in the game world that endears them to you. Returns treats the Seamstress Union cast as distractions who get very little screen time, so having so many well defined characters was kind of a shock the first time I started Dragonfall.
Both games uses these towns in different ways. Dragonfall sets you up as the new patriarch or matriarch of the Kreuzbasar, replacing your deceased friend Monica. It becomes your role to try and care for these people, their way of life, and the quality of life. Some side missions in this game simply revolve around making sure the town has access to supplies or the sewage system is working properly. You learn more about how the Flux State that is Berlin functions, what Monica’s decisions were, and most importantly, that she wasn’t always right. The Kreuzbasar becomes a character in itself, making the intro to the final act all the more shocking.
Hong Kong’s Heoi, on the other hand, is a community your character and their brother Duncan join upon being wrongfully framed as terrorists. You get a first hand look at how a society under the rule of a criminal organization runs …and it’s surprisingly calm. Even when one shopkeeper starts blabbing, you can help guide and teach him instead of doing the generic mob murder. You’re one of the many parts that keeps the machine moving, equal with others who decided to live free and outside corp control. Of course, working for the Yellow Lotus also makes you a bit different than everyone else in Heoi, and the game uses this to brilliant effect later. The irony of both games is that you’re never completely free. The Anarchists still need some form of power that keeps things from becoming all out chaos, and the Yellow Lotus is a truly despicable organization you can work against at points for the sake of others, as long as you keep handling the big jobs you and your employer see eye to eye on.
Dragonfall’s narrative is a mixture of noir and mythical hero fair, following a shadowrunner team who go on an easy run at a mansion. You’re new, but have a history with team leader Monica, whom vows for your skill. Everything goes wrong in the most spectacular way, as Monica is attacked by something in the vault security system and dies as she manages to say one last word – “Feuerschwinge.” That is the name of the Firewing, one of the first dragons to awaken all the way back in 2012, a dragon who burned down almost all of Germany in a rage before being shot down by Dr. Adrian Vauclair. The team suspects that Firewing is coming back upon finding their hire dead in the same manner as Monica in his own apartment, deciding that finding the long missing Vauclair is their best bet to stop the monster.
The central theme of Dragonfall is “family.” The people of the Kreuzbasar were essentially Monica’s children, and without her, many of them don’t know what all to do or start misbehaving. A runner named Lucky Strike points this out when you talk to her at a bar, one of the few voices in the area willing to openly criticize your fallen ally. Dr. Ezkibel goes back on his deal with the ghouls in the sewers who keep the town infrastructure going, people start conspiring to take over, gangs who normally stayed away start stealing supply shipments, and everyone is generally broken up about losing their safeguard. This goes especially for Simmy Kim, a BTL addict who got that way on Monica’s suggestion to try and help her with some serious grief. There are plenty of other problems that need addressing as well, such as Samuel trying to keep his charity shelter up and running for the poorer residents of the Kreuzabsar.
Your role is to basically help guide all these people and handle issues that affect the entire community, or just personal problems among members. It endears all of these people to you, especially well handled with Altug’s coffee shop. It houses four significant, wildly different characters, each who have their own amusing and interesting stories. Altug himself is an information broker with a sense of honor and very clear morality, his messenger Kami gives Atlug a new layer of depth and reveals a bit more about himself, and regular customer Goldschmidt, a man who seems to genuinely enjoy Altug’s constant insults. It’s a microcosm example of the thought and care put into the Kreuzbasar, choosing flavor and character over mechanical purpose. A lot of what you can explore and do here has no real mechanical reason to be, just to create a place that truly feels lived in and real. It makes you care about this place and the people in it from just the casual conversations you have, and that is something few RPGs really manage to pull off well, becoming even more motivation in the main quest.
Oh, and that forth character at the coffee shop is one of the most interesting characters in all three games. There’s a man in a beret named Luca Duerr, someone who represents a group called “The Lodge” whom you can accept work from. You quickly find out over the course of his very strange trial run, where you have to work with a different team that includes a character who can’t speak your language and a regular electrician, that Luca’s organization is not a good one by any means. What’s even worse is that if you decide to finish the run at a point where it’s very clear that everything going on is incredibly questionable, the game itself will call you out on it. Granted, there was no way to know you were arming a bomb that kills hundreds of innocent people, but everything up till that point was so fishy that you knew something bad would happen. Upon finishing, Luca sometimes gives you extra assignments on runs, and while they seem harmless, they tend to lead to some wild, unpredictable bad outcomes. About the only one that may be genuinely good for everyone is letting the leader of Humanis (basically Nazis against metahumans) live so that they can later capture him and take him out without making him a martyr.
The kicker is that he admits at the end that he was just trying to discredit rivals and rise in rank within the Lodge, giving him global reach for his goals, whatever they may actually be. There’s no real closure or sense of accomplishment to be found in this subplot, which is the point. It’s one of the few times these games present you something obviously wrong without an easy alternative option that leads to the morally best outcome. Sometimes the only winning move is not to play.
The game is filled with morally questionable moments, like discovering the clones housed in the Aztechnology lab, learning that a weapon prototype is actually a troll with negative essence that is fully aware of itself while having no control over its body, and having to infiltrate a Humanis compound with some metahuman smugglers making a shipment for them. Dragonfall has clear evils, but very few clear goods. Everyone has at least one smear on their record, one significant fault that makes them questionable. There are clear right choices a lot of the time, but many others that aren’t so cut and dry, and you sometimes don’t know the full extent of your actions until after you’ve made a call.
The party addition in this game is something that should have always been in Returns. Your inherited team of the ex-punk singer shaman Dietrich, scarred human weapon Glory, experienced and rigid vet Eiger, and later idiot savant decker Blitz end up becoming the strongest motivators through the game. All four have different perspectives on life, their work, and relationships, not to mention each carries a very different chip on their shoulder. They all have wildly different perspectives and aren’t afraid to question your decisions, offer advice, or get pissed off when you do something particularly questionable.
Dietrich is the most morally upright of the team, and he’s willing to fight for what’s right. His totem spirit, Dragonslayer, drives him to fight injustice and stronger and stronger enemies, which lead him to become the “singer” of punk band MESSERKAMPF! (which translates to “knife fight”) and do his part in bashing in nazi skulls. He’s haunted by the people his fiery spirit dragged into carnage, and has mellowed out to try and help those he cares about without letting them follow his bloody path. He’s a very fatherly person, shown off well in his personal mission of saving his nephew from Humanis brainwashing. It’s fitting that his best skill is a barrier spell that vastly weakens enemy attacks against those in the circle. Despite the name of “Dragonslayer,” Dietrich’s real strength comes from protecting others from injustice, not simply punishing the guilty. Helping him cements this in him and helps keep him on the right path.
Glory is more pragmatic and detached, thanks to much of her essence having been wiped out by the cyberware she had installed on her body. Glory used to be a magically in-tuned girl, before her grossly racist, magic hating father smashed her body apart upon finding out. She did a lot of things on the streets to survive, and then wound up in a cult run by a toxic shaman who convinced her to serve the Adversary (basically the Christian devil). She got her cyberware to escape its influence, stunting her emotions in the process by robbing her of much of her soul. You can help her deal with the trauma she went through and her feelings of guilt, eventually taking on her old cult to either kill its leader or save the kids in it. She can regain a lost part of herself here, gaining the power to heal others, showing just how much empathy she has with even her essence shredded so heavily. She’s basically the big sister that keeps herself at arm’s length most of the time, but comes through when it’s really needed.
Eiger is the most vocal member of the team, someone who wants to stick with a plan and keep a run simple and easy for the sake of the team’s well being. She’s a former soldier, and she’s seen some horrible things, particularly the death of her entire squad. She does have a moral compass like Dietrich, but she also wishes to keep the team safe above all else, to have structure over taking things as they come. She takes Monica’s death hardest and is the toughest on you, but appreciates it when you show back bone, authority, and make good calls. She may be suffering from mild-PTSD, only ever pushed over the line when reminded of her greatest trauma, not to mention when the person who screwed up the mission that got her squad killed murders an innocent man out of paranoia. It didn’t end well for him. Eiger is someone who needs people to challenge her in order to move on from her fears, and it’s why she respected Monica so much. Think of Monica as the fun mom, and Eiger as the strict one. While you may want to tell Eiger off at first, her advice and ideas have real merit and can lead to the best outcomes.
Blitz takes the role of the dumbass brother. He’s a former gang member who was hunted by his former friends after a power struggle, and he had to bring in an entirely different gang to take them out and save his own skin. That backfired, though, because he ended up stuck in a hotel under siege of a new, worse gang. Talking with him reveals that his life is basically a vacuum of broken relationships and bad decisions, as his undeserved ego has lead him to being unable to think things through. He’s talented, but his impulsiveness keep getting him in trouble. He’s short sighted, and his run and the end of his dialog line has him deal with the lesser aspect of himself. He does deserve respect, but it’s hard to give it to him because ego is his biggest problem. Like Glory, he’s one of the kids in the family, and needs the most parenting and guidance for his own good. Unlike Glory, his problem isn’t a lack of confidence, but that he has so much that it becomes destructive for himself and everyone around him. He’s one of the most decisive characters, but I kind of love what an idiot he is, and that he does learn from his mistakes by the very end. You just need patience for the dolt.
The family theme even runs into the villains proper. Green Winters, the man who hired you for the initial bad run, is the little brother of Dr. Vauclair. He’s desperate to find his brother and help him stop the return of Firewing, and the tapes you find from his apartment reveal that he tried helping Vauclair with his dragon obsession before the man disappeared. He was someone who truly cared for his older brother and only saw the best in him, but also saw that this brave hero needed someone to tell him it was okay to stop. He does a lot of despicable things to do what he saw as right, partly because of cowardliness, but he truly did care about his big brother.
The game’s big twist is that it’s Vauclair who’s the real villain, and Firewing is the victim. Vauclair, scarred by Firewing’s attack, is obsessed with dragons. He rightfully understands that they threaten the world, hording all they can and enslaving others, but his solution is absurdly extreme. He created a powerful bio-weapon he plans to spread with Firewing’s physical body, one that will wipe out all dragons everywhere. In the worst ending, the weapon works, but a lack of dragon leads to being called horrors slipping into the world., dooming everyone. The only way he can be talked out of his plan is to remind him of Winters – Herman Vauclair. Both brothers loved each other, even as they fought over their worldviews, and the realization that he died because of the doctor’s plans will eventually get him to relent, to do as his brother wished and think over his plans.
However, those plans don’t stop because Vauclair ended up being a genuinely awful father.
Vauclair’s two “children” are the A.I APEX and the dangerous orc Audran. Both of them are terrible, terrible people, but for vastly different reasons. APEX, as an A.I, has a limited understanding of morality, mortality, and empathy. It’s responsible for the cyber attacks on the likes of Monica and Winters, but its encounter with Monica changed it. APEX “eats” the brains of deckers it encounters who got close to the conspiracy and pretended to be them online for the sake of a cover up, but it usually casts out unnecessary memories. Monica ended up being an exception, as her beliefs in freedom caused it to become even more aware of itself and make a gamble to break free from its enslavement.
APEX is an intelligence aware of itself, a person who needs to be taught and never was. The end result is a spoiled child who only knows what it wants and nothing more. It lacks Monica’s compassion, leaving only her selfish behaviors. Releasing it for its help only means that you’re unleashing and incredibly powerful being on the world, and it has no reason to control itself. APEX, though, is a victim in all of this, a victim of Vauclair’s obsessions and inability to see more than his mad goals. There’s sadly no way to save it, if only because Vauclair’s power over it and the timer of the clock robs you of a chance to really teach it anything.
Audran, on the other hand, truly does believe in Vauclair’s ideals for his own reasons, so much so that he will kill Vauclair if he changes his mind. Audran is basically your character without a sense of responsibility or empathy, and one who has become worn down by the way of things. Audran followed Vauclair, who he saw as a father, because he wanted to kill the dragons due to how horrible the current state of the world was. He hates that people are powerless to the greed of these creatures and megacorps, so he just wants to make a huge change to do away with that. He just doesn’t care if he causes something worse. Audran, like most shadowrunners, recognizes the true state of the world, but he has never found satisfaction in making his own life and undercutting them. He’s a hardcore nihilist, one who has lost all hope and only wishes to leave some sort of mark of his existence. He’s arguably just as tragic a figure as Vauclair himself, and it’s hard not to see his point if you listen to him on the path where he killed Vauclair for changing his mind. He’s the best example of why hope is so vastly important to hang onto, because without at least a shred of it, nothing may stop us from becoming so dangerously jaded.
And Firewing …is one of the most sympathetic characters in the entire game. Firewing isn’t like other dragons, she only wishes to protect mother nature. When she first awoke into the current age, she saw the green of the planet vanished in exchange for metal, man-made structures drowning out the lush forests she once knew. If you challenge her for the massacre she caused, she shows guilt. She covers her mouth in horror, finally understanding the true extent of her actions. Since her initial rampage, she’s lived in endless suffering by Vauclair’s hands, and once she has a chance to rejoin with her body again, she’s horrified by what he had done to her body. By the end, she just wants to be put out of her misery. The best possible choice you can make for her is to convince her that nature still exists and will carry on, and she agrees to go to sleep until the next magic cycle. Even Dietrich’s Dragonslayer sees this as right. Despite everything, Firewing was never evil, just angry and alone. They say dragons only see humans as bugs or pawns, but Firewing is nothing like the rest of them. You can really see the painful empathy at her core.
The last talks with Vauclair, Audran, and Firewing are some of the most emotional moments I have ever gone through in any game, especially with Firewing. These people are the inversions of the brave hero fighting the dragon story, showing the real moral complexity lost in those stories. While Audran is hopeless, Vauclair and Firewing can still remember theirs and be saved by their lesser impulses and hatred. Their stories can have a quiet, dignified end of some sort. By the end, I didn’t really care much about the larger stakes, I just cared about rekindling an old dragon’s hope for the world.
The final moment of the game is a discussion with Hans Brackhaus, aka Lofwyr, the dragon head of Saeder-Krupp and the person who set all of this in motion, tipping Winters off to the conspiracy. You get to talk to him about your beliefs and why you did what you did, and he’ll eventually offer you a job. Those who know Shadowrun lore know that the Flux State of Berlin is doomed. Eventually, Lofwyr will take over, and that day is soon. You can be on his side when it happens and guide the world.
But I told him no. That’s not freedom. That ending conversation is staged perfectly, and really allows you to reflect on everything you’ve done and accomplish, and really make you think about what matters most to you. In the end, I chose the freedom to decide my own destiny with my new family over any sort of gain I could make for myself. Plus, it invalidates Lofwyr’s entire goal of scouting new talent, so it’s a nice way to tell him to go screw himself and speak truth to power.
Shadowrun: Dragonfall would have been the entire focus of this article for its thematic depth and sheer emotion, but then I played Hong Kong and it blew it out of the water. Mostly. Hong Kong, as mentioned earlier, is more technically rocky, including code script issues and absurdly long loading times. However, what new things it brings to the table more than makes up for this.
Hong Kong makes a lot of nice little tweaks. My favorite is that the team leveling has a bit more thematic depth. In Dragonfall, it was framed mostly just as which of the two class aspects you wanted to focus on, with only Glory’s build having some thematic connection to her ultimate story that decides if she hurts others or helps those who need it. Everyone in Hong Kong but Ractor and Gobbet has a thematically fitting skill tree, and it even works with Ractor and Gobbet considering their character.
Duncan, a cop, has either lethal attacks or AP damaging moves that rob enemies of actions. Gaichu, a ghoul who used to be a red samurai soldier, can either focus on his humanity with his swordplay, or embrace his new inhuman powers and nature. Is0bel either gains decking abilities or regular combat abilities, fitting her desire to exist in cyberspace more than in her real body. Ractor is completely absorbed in his rigging research, so he just outfits his rig for long and short range, plus gaining some buff abilities he can use with it. Lastly, Gobbet either works with spirit control or spell upgrades, neither too different from each other thematically because of Gobbet’s near complete inability to reflect on herself.
The city of Heoi, while kind of a pain to walk around regularly due to its size, feels much livelier. Hong Kong switches out “family” for “community,” as I mentioned, which results in very different relationships with the people littering the town. Instead of trying to help keep things running as the head of things, you’re simply working for the actual owners. So, you talk with each person differently here than in Dragonfall, since everyone is of mostly equal status. The main story motivation does most of the heavy lifting instead of the town, but that doesn’t make the town pointless. Thanks to that main story, Heoi changes overtime, ad there are a few events with the residents to deal with. You also have to talk with a lot of people to get the best ending, which is encouraged through mysterious dreams everyone seems to be having.
While Paul Amsel in Dragonfall is mostly an afterthought of a fixer (the person who finds jobs for you), Hong Kong’s Kindly Cheng is a completely different story. She’s a middle level crime boss, and utterly terrifying to every single party member, including the constantly fearless Gaichu and Ractor. She carries herself with obvious false manners mixed with silent threats, and that way of talking has a habit of breaking into swearing and frustration. She steals every scene she’s in, and the friendly/hostile relationship you gain with her is unlike anything these games have shown thus far. She’s the boss of Heoi and keeps business running, and she’ll be your best friend as long as you never cross or disobey her.
The people of Heoi are some of the best characters in all three games, with the Ka Fai family, Ten Armed Ambrose, and Reliable Matthew worthy of solo articles by themselves. The least interesting character is Spider Shen, though only by process of elimination. Shen is an assassin monk who decided to go into the business of swords and poisons to stick it to the megacorps, a truly noble goal that has lead them to being willing to do questionable things, something your character has a common. It’s just always amusing to see Shen in a constant state of anger, no matter what other mood they have going on at the moment.
Gin, Lau, and Shyu are simply some old guys playing Go in the corner of the docks, but they have a lot of personality to them. They mostly exist as a warning and hint of what to expect in the main campaign climax, but you can learn a lot about them just by listening to them, like how the seemingly young Lau is older than he appears, or the friendship Gin and Shyu manage to have despite their vastly different attitudes and views on life. They could have easily been removed due to a lack of impact on the main game, but their inclusion gives Heoi far more character and further moral grayness. Neither of these three seem to have a criminal past, and yet they live here. That fact alone makes them interesting inclusions.
Maximum Law represents the Whampoan tribe, a group of tech-savvy people who supply most non-corporate controlled China with internet and power. He’s also clearly a kid who has no idea what he’s doing, leading to him blabbing about your runs on message boards if you sell him “metadata.” Going with the route can lead you to giving Law a better idea of how the underworld works and what he can do to stay safe. Amusingly, he can end up shooting himself in the foot after the last run if you give him a gun without explaining to him how it works. Basically, you can stop Law from becoming an idiot man-child like Blitz, doing everyone a favor.
The Ka Fai family are at odds with each other, as the kids have different ambitions than their parents. Once the Walled City dreams start becoming more intense, the four start to break apart due to their various wants and ambitions. Henry, the father, misses his days as a fisherman and is having second thoughts about his choices that lead to him running a club. Frederick and Callum are aiming at different things, the former wanting to become a pirate and follow what he thought were his father’s footsteps, and the latter wanting to join the business world and re-connect with his biological father. Ermine, the mother, gets stressed trying to keep things together, and she’s terrified of Callum’s real father because of her history with him and how he takes part in hunting metahumans to humiliate them.
Their family dynamic is basically telling one story from four perspectives, and the writing does a great job exploring them. They’re all likable in some way, from Henry’s relaxed tone to Callum’s ambitions. You get where they’re coming from, and understand a lack of communication is their big issue. Ultimately, you can push them in the right direction, eventually showing them working as a family and not as frustrated individuals unable to connect.
The two most interesting characters in Heoi, though, are two loners with significant chips on their shoulders. Drone dealer Reliable Matthew and the local doc Ten Armed Ambrose are both significantly troubled people, and their stories tackle their conditions differently. While it’s never said out loud, Matthew suffers from depression. He always wears a smile, no matter how tough things get for him (and they get TOUGH constantly), and throws out a lot of sleazy salesman charm. After an argument with his supplier, though, you find the real Matthew, a reserved and sad man who just wants to be left alone.
Matthew medicates himself with a special type of BTL that installs a false persona for a short amount of time, sort of. The Reliable Matthew persona is a mixture of the fake persona, recorded from a coked up salesman, and the real Matthew. This persona sees itself as someone doing good, helping give Matthew confidence and some ease of mind for a bit, showing a great deal of sympathy for his situation. It’s like an anti-depressant was given a personality, in a weird way. Matthew is one of the most relatable characters in the cast for just how bad he has it and how he keeps trying to move along anyways. By the end of the game, if you support his decision, he’ll decide to try helping more people in his similar situation by recording his own false persona, the combination of the one he uses and the part of himself you help bring out into that persona.
I saved Ambrose for last, but he’s certainly not the least. Ambrose is a former shadowrunner from the states, and one with a complicated history that has left him in a sorry state. His body has so much cyberware that he can’t replace his limbs now, he constantly drinks to deal with his body’s physical pain, and let’s not even get into mental and emotional damage. He pulled a lot of dirty jobs, and as he talks about how he wound up in Hong Kong, it starts becoming clear a lot doesn’t add up, especially if you browse the Shadowland BBS and uncover some info that suggests he may have been a far, far worse person than you realized.
However, he’s not that person anymore. Ambrose is someone wicked who’s dedicated their remaining life to helping whomever he can, whenever he can, even sheltering walled city homeless in his shop during the game’s climax. And while it’s not entirely clear who he was, one thing he shares seems entirely clear. He had a woman he loved who went through trauma as bad as his, and she took her own life. She made sure not to make a scene, and she never talked to him about what she was going through. It’s hard not to emphasize with him, especially with how clear it is that he loved his wife. He truly loved Karen, and the fact he couldn’t do anything for her eats at him. Ambrose’s actions speak more truth than his words, and they tell the story of someone just desperately trying to help people however he can. It’s inspiring, despite how grim it is, and I left the game with the hope the guy finally finds some peace.
Along with all these folks, there are minor events throughout Heoi that build up the main story, including an encounter with a drug addict and his dealer that talks about how people cope with trauma (from the perspectives of both of them, surprisingly enough), but it’s your running crew that really make Hong Kong stand out. The Hong Kong crew are all examples of high grade character writing, tossing out Dragonfall’s more subdued tone for much louder, more seemingly simplistic characters, and exposing layers and layers of depth underneath for every single ally. The fact that the game pulls this off five times in a row is the real shocker.
The “community” theme here continues by making all of these characters wildly different in every way imaginable. With Dragonfall, the cast had some overlap, like sharing political idealogy and all equally being okay with killing nazis. That is not the case here. Hong Kong sticks closer to other WRPG party set-ups, having a variety of moralities on display. Duncan represents lawful good, Is0bel is true neutral, Gobbet chaotic neutral, and both Racter and Gaichu exist on the evil end of the spectrum, though it’s not an entirely apt label for them (maybe Ractor a bit).
Duncan is your character’s brother and opposite in most every way. Hong Kong’s player character served eight years in jail after running away from home for whatever reason you pick, leaving Duncan at a loss. Duncan and you spent your childhoods in the Barrens, a nasty slum that required you two to join a gang. Your character acts as the brains and uses Duncan as the brawn, up until you were adopted by Raymond Black. Duncan has always had anger issues, but found some sort of structure with your character calling the shots. When your character left, Duncan became a cop and found new purpose and discipline. Hong Kong changed that.
Duncan watches his mentor, Carter, killed by a HKPD sniper, and he and you are both framed as terrorists for some unknown reason. However, he doesn’t completely regress to his old self, and will have words about what you’re doing. Duncan’s defining trait is righteous anger, seeing the evils of the world and saying something about it. However, he stays within the system, because he knows the harsh truths of living outside it. Duncan is truly a better person because he was within that system, and when that system chews him up and spits him out, he doesn’t necessarily rebel against it. He already knew that was a risk, he just didn’t realize it could happen to him. He just wants back in because that’s the only time he’s truly felt like his own person. He believes in the law, he believes in order, and it’s telling that he has non-lethal attacks that knocks out enemies. He’s not a shadowrunner.
Everyone else most certainly is, especially Gobbet. A child of the streets and sea, Gobbet is a rat shaman who will eat whatever garbage she can find and like it, letting filthy rodent pets crawl around her body. Unlike most ork’s she’s lanky, lacking much for physical strength, instead making use of tricky style magic. She’s similar to Zevran from DAO, finding fun in a bad situation, though she trades out sexual deviancy for stuffing her mouth and silly shenanigans (she may have dressed up Ractor’s drone with cat ears).
Gobbet is hilarious just by how incredibly dense she is, but talking with her reveals that her thick skull may be a bigger problem than first appears. She acts in the moment and goes with the flow, not thinking out her actions, and it rarely goes well for those around her. Her story about a blown up apartment building that killed her own crew is funny, but also foreshadowing for her time on the Sinking Ship, a trash island of sorts populated mainly by rat shamans. She accidentally betrayed her friends after another tricked her into stealing a magical gem, leading her to coming back years later to sink the whole place upon realizing that the ship’s current leader has been corrupted by the gem and terrorizing the place with mutant rats. Needless to say, her decision is incredibly bad, so your character has to talk some sense into her and instead take down the ship’s leader and dispose of the gem for the sake of everyone else. It’s the first time in her life she’s acted after thinking, and her confused reaction to that realization speaks volumes about her.
Is0bel seems like the most put together at first glance, but she’s not. She lives almost entirely on the internet due to her own insecurities and awkwardness in real life, so she doesn’t really know how to handle social situations. This lead her to getting into a fight with a good friend for no good reason, dragging you along to beat him up and stuff him in a locker on her personal run. She thinks things through more than Gobbet, but when her emotions get high, which can happen pretty easily, she tends to make pretty questionable calls.
This becomes more understandable when you find out she grew up in the walled city, and she had to get help from Gobbet to escape, leaving her entire family behind. She saw a sibling die, among other horrid things, and even had those memories removed due to how much pain they caused her. When she gets them back from her personal run, it becomes clear why she wanted to forget just from her reactions. Gobbet needs a slap to the face, but Is0bel needs some support to grow, making a good counterpoint to Gobbet’s devil may care attitude. Gobbet needs to care more, and Is0bel needs to try and not care so much.
Ractor may be one of the most interesting party members of any RPG I’ve ever played. See, he seems like a creepy evil Russian mad scientist at first, and it’s not entire wrong, but it’s also a gross simplification. Ractor is a clinical psychopath, roughly on the mild part of the spectrum, and he’s portrayed in a mostly realistic light. He can get angry and act in anger, even outfitting his drone Koschei to act as his unrestrained id so it wants to kill when he lets it, but he otherwise has no violent urges. He understands morality, but simply reacts to it differently, having created his own moral code based around scientific progress and the evolution of metahumanity. He’ll consider you a friend in an intellectual manner, and a lot of what he talks about doesn’t sound particularly evil.
The only two points where Ractor trends into genuine evil territory is explaining that he designed Koschei to want to kill, and hinting at what may be necessary for his desired future. Ractor believes that humanity will eventually grow to be able to live as machines, especially people with his aliment, as he’s living proof that people like him can defeat the essence limit. Ractor was cut in half as a kid in a mechanical accident, and his entire lower half is mechanical. Yet, he suffers no essence shredding limitations. He sees people like him as necessary for humanity’s next step in their evolution.
Of course, this does lead to the obvious problem that not everyone would be okay with this possible next evolutionary step and fight those who choose to take it, and hints that this may lead to a particularly nasty outcome for things to finally progress. But I didn’t read it like he was excited for that outcome, just that it was one of many outcomes he understood may occur. That lack of empathy he has, and how he tries to create his own version of empathy through his scientific code, really makes Ractor a complex person. He’s not a monster, but he’s certainly no saint. The scary part is that he may be more human that any other character in the game, and he enjoys that humanity far too much.
Gaichu, on the other hand, is entirely the product of upbringing. Where everyone else grew up in relative poverty, Gaichu was the son of a successful businessman in Japan. In the Shadowrun universe, Japan is a xenophobic nation that ships all metahumans to Yomi Island to keep their society “pure.” So red flag one. Red flag two would be that Gaichu used to be a Renraku Red Samurai, the baddest of the bad among the cruel Renraku corporation. He was raised in a fascist society that taught that the self was disposable for the sake of the honor and name of Renraku, now effectively taking the place of the government in the eyes of the people. This screwed him up fairly badly, but he works through a lot of that programming through exploring his new life as a ghoul.
Gaichu was infected with a virus that turned him into a ghoul, but he didn’t lose his mind. Under normal circumstances, he would have killed himself, but even with his sight gone, he realized he could still fight and saw no reason to end things. Of course, now he was non-human, so he had to leave, and his team tried to hunt him down. They underestimated his new form, and one of them got their head cut off, and another a nasty scar across the face. This is when Gaichu started to question everything he learned, understanding that there was nothing about metahumans that made them weak or lesser.
What’s interesting about Gaichu that him moving past his racist upbringing has not necessarily made him a stand up citizen. When you first meet him, he’s been killing elders of the Whampoan tribe, though he has justification. He was originally hired as a shadowrunner to kill one of the elders by the others, but they ended up trying to weasel out of the deal by having some police off him for being a ghoul. He did not take this well and started killing elders until the offending party made right by their deal. This run you find him on still makes a point to show how human Gaichu is. Despite the horrible things he’s doing, he’s making sure that the victims don’t suffer, and his displays at crime scenes are solely to send a message to those who double crossed him so they know how to end this at any time. He’s by no means a monster.
Gaichu reveals himself in talks to be one of the most thoughtful characters of all of these games, a man who reflects on his past to figure out what the proper way for him to live now is. You can look at old knickknacks he keeps around, including a fan from a childhood sweetheart, a stuffed octopus he got from his mother, and a pair of chopsticks he used on a Renraku target in his first kill. You get a very good idea of why Gaichu is, what he’s done and how his perspective was former, and you can either help him embrace is ghoul nature or adopt a more merciful samurai code when you help him finish things with his old unit. He reminds me of Sten from DAO in terms of emotional and ethical complexity to his character, but the fact he’s tried to break away from certain aspects of his old culture is a tad more interesting.
This team is the one you end up running with after that aforementioned police raid that leaves you and Duncan (along with Gobbet and Is0bel, who lose their old teammates in the process) branded as terrorists. The main story has Raymond, your adoptive father, calling you and Duncan to Hong Kong for some unknown reason, and he disappears as you’re suddenly thrown into the underworld and forced to become a shadowrunner to survive. Hong Kong lacks the same sort of focus as Dragonfall, requiring you to talk with people around Heoi for information to get a good understanding of the larger enemy (not always made easy by some code issues). Dragonfall used an information broker named Alice as a goalpost to continue the story, while Hong Kong most reveals it over time, while exploring Heoi reveals hints of what;s to come and a better understanding of how to get the golden ending. It feels more aimless as a result, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The joy of Hong Kong comes entirely from how your party interacts with each other and the people you meet on runs, something Dragonfall never quite got down. Having Gaichu in your party occasionally completely changes around what approaches you can make, the amount of useful advice you get goes to zero if you bring along the likes of the constantly distracted Gobbet, Ractor will fanboy over any sort of questionable science experiment and give some good arguments about letting them continue, and so on and so forth. You really feel like a team of individuals, instead of a unit you control. These characters have genuine will and ego that wasn’t quite as apparent in Dragonfall, as everyone there but Blitz was already very comfortable with each other. That little touch gives the game a big dose of personality. If I had to compare the two games to albums, Dragonfall would be Blue Oyster Cult’s “Fire of Unknown Origin,” moody and strange but ultimately orderly. Hong King would be Queen’s “A Night At The Opera,” wild and filled with tone whiplash to its benefit. That really goes double for the walled city portions.
See, Raymond is actually Edward Tsang, the son of the head of the powerful Tsang industries, and he’s returned to Hong Kong after living in the states for so long in order to destroy his old invention in the walled city’s center. Unlike his conniving, evil mother, Raymond really did want to help the people of China’s most infamous slum, unaware his mother sabotaged his miraculous fortune engine to siphon off the good fortune of the slum for her and leave only misery and hopelessness for the residents. In that process, however, she ended up letting something else come through. Something …bad. Very bad.
Hong Kong makes a clever bait in switch with the plastic face man, an assassin who’s built up as the big bad, but is revealed to be an ultimately powerless pawn who has his mind wiped regularly so he can’t spill company secrets. He has nothing to do with the game’s true villain, the evil Raymond’s mother let slip into the world, a creature that haunts the dreams of everyone in Hong Kong as she makes life in the walled city unbearable. She calls herself Qian Ya, the Queen of A Thousand Teeth, one of the Yama Kings that rules over the miserable pit the homeless of China find themselves trapped in. She makes dragons look like plush toys in comparison. Dragons want to horde the world. Qian Ya simply wants slaves.
She gets slaves by ripping out the teeth and tongues of her victims.
Also, underneath her veil, she is nothing but grotesque gums and teeth, endless rows of it given structure into something vile and wrong.
While you’re busy hunting down the plastic face man, Qian Ya slowly becomes a more and more significant presence in the world, giving people horrific visions as they sleep, causing the bad qi (or energy) of the walled city to become even more toxic. Eventually, you see a man drop dead on the street from the sheer stress, and you nearly kill yourself walking into the path of a moving train while in a trance. The game builds up this monster for hours and hours, and when you finally get to her as the walled city is freaking out over her return, she lives up to all expectations.
Hat’s refreshing about her is that in order to truly beat her without anyone sacrificing themselves, you have to help others reconnect to their families. The “family” theme isn’t as played up here as much as it was in Dragonfall, but it’s still significant and manages to sneak up on you. Every single character on your team became who they are through their interactions with their families. Gobbet became who she is by disconnecting, Duncan though respecting and butting heads with Raymond, Gaichu through what his father taught him, Ractor through his family’s long running history of psychopathy. Is0bel, however, ends up being the most significant in the theme, as she has to remember her family in order to become whole once more, to give you the information you need to stop Qian Ya.
You also need to talk with Crafty Xu. She’s the one shop owner I haven’t mentioned, the woman who runs the local magic shop. Her mother researched the nature of the walled city and the Yama Kings, and you can only truly stop Qian Ya yourself by convincing her to continue that research. Crafty kind of detests her mother for how she ignored her for most of her life, but as she continues the research, she begins to fully understand what her mother was so worried about and so absorbed by. Crafty is only able to truly understand herself once she tries to understand her mother, and ends up becoming one of the most significant players in the story as a result.
The scene right before you enter the walled city between Raymond and Duncan doesn’t seem like much at first, but it’s actually where the game brings the secondary family theme to a head in a way Dragonfall never did. Dragonfall was about how family could save and support each other, but Hong Kong’s take is on the need for understanding your family and knowing yourself based on how you saw and interacted with them. Duncan doesn’t take Raymond lying about who he is well, and Raymond is so self-absorbed with his guilt that he fails to understand how to properly act around his kids. Only by repeating a phrase you remembered with Duncan, a phrase you said on the day you left Raymond and left him speechless, do the two finally calm down and connect. You have multiple options, but the phrase generally calls for introspection, something everyone in the game has to make use of at some point to find their own personal answer. Yes, that includes Ractor.
Once you reach Qian Ya, if you’ve been dreaming regularly, gotten Raymond and Duncan to reconnect, and helped Is0bel and Crafty to remember their lost family and learn from what happened to them, you have everything you need to make a deal with Qian Ya that locks her out of the world, fearing other Yama Kings will come down on her. This sequence is one of the single most satisfying moments of any game I’ve ever played, as you use only the monster’s own logic to send it back from whence it came. More importantly, it’s the only ending where your character finally comes through for their family. History of using Duncan and disrespecting Raymond comes to a head as you manage to use your own talents to not only help them reconnect, but also save Raymond from his greatest mistake. You finally bring the both of them some peace, saving your family.
There’s some bitter-sweetness in this ending, still. Kindly doesn’t particularly care because she’s lived through this crap before, pointing out that Qian Ya ruling a slum wouldn’t be too different from the many dragons that currently run the world. She’s been around since the time when magic started appearing in the world, so she’s used to supposed end of the world scenarios. A reporter also points out that nobody will really know the truth of what happened in the walled city, nor particularly care. Yet, none of that really matters in the end. You impacted the world in a truly substantial way. It doesn’t really matter if anyone knew.
And then comes in the epilogue campaign and ..woah boy.
This campaign is a slog to get through, with overly long runs that tend to suffer from moments of bloat or vagueness in what a few choices really impact. However, it ends in a pretty shocking way. The set up is that the HKPD has taken your team in so you can work with them to bring down Chief Inspector Krait, the woman who framed you and Duncan as terrorists and killed Duncan’s mentor. It turns out that Krait is actively trying to sabotage the image of the HKPD so that Ares can buy it out from Mitsuhama, committing some horrific atrocities, including slaughtering innocent people during a riot they were trying to escape from, for the sake of bad press. Out of every villain in these games, Krait manages to be the most despicable in how completely heartless she is in her actions. She doesn’t even enjoy doing what she’s doing, she’s just doing it for the pay check.
The campaign ends on a character defining moment, where you can either help a detective reveal everything to her bosses to restore your burned SIN numbers and return to society, or burn a warehouse filled with weapons down for Kindly and continue with your shadowrunning life. The complication is that your choice affects Duncan. You help the detective, you can never return to the Yellow Lotus. You help Kindly, and you can’t restore Duncan’s SIN. He does not take it well.
This ending actually comes off as even stronger than the main campaigns. It forces you to make a choice that defines what you want and what you’re willing to do for it. It’s also a moment where, unlike every other story in the series thus far, you can’t get a best case scenario. It’s one or the other if you want to remain a shadowrunner, you or Duncan. This moment flips everything these games have told you on your head, and gives an important reminder. Living free doesn’t mean you get everything you want. Eventually, something has to give.
That one ending has be excited for whatever game Hairbrained Schemes cooks up next in this series. Their work with Shadowrun is some absolutely masterful cyberpunk, and the sheer thematic depth and fun scripting makes each game a delight to play through (though significantly less in Returns case). I spent nearly 16000 words talking about these games, so yeah, pretty good, 8/10 IGN.
Also please do not bully Gobbet she is my daughter and I will not stand for slander.