Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Shadowrun Series's Calfree Trilogy Mods Are Seriously Awesome

Shadowrun Returns, Shadowrun: Dragonfall, and Shadowrun: Hong Kong are all swell RPGs (well, okay, Returns really isn’t, but 2 out of 3 ain’t bad). They do, however, come with some unfortunate baggage for me: I didn’t realize just how much I need a cyberpunk RPG adventure periodically in my life until Harebrained Schemes brought the defining franchise of the genre to RPG form. And unfortunately, HS apparently decided to call it quits on the franchise for the foreseeable future after Hong Kong, meaning that since late 2015, I’ve started jonesing for more cyberpunk goodness. Dex helped me a bit with it, but hang it all, 1 cyberpunk RPG in 3 years just wasn’t enough, and it’s at least another year until CD Projekt Red’s done with Cyberpunk 2077!

Thankfully, though, Harebrained Schemes provided some relief for junkies like me, in that the Shadowrun PC trilogy wasn’t meant to just be the single campaign story of each game. In the tradition of Neverwinter Nights, the Shadowrun games were made with the intent that fans would use the game’s engine to create their own adventures and campaigns out of it, to share with other players. It’s a great idea, really, because it worked very well with Neverwinter Nights 1, with that title becoming 1 of the first huge mod scenes of PC games, and Shadowrun, like Neverwinter Nights, is based on a tabletop RPG, so people sharing campaign ideas is already a part of the culture of the series. And so, in this terrible post-Harebrained-Schemes period of drudgery, I thankfully do have some options for getting my cyberpunk RPG fix, in the campaigns that other players have created for the Shadowrun PC trilogy.

Unfortunately, like any junkie, I have very little self-control or logic when it comes to my drug of choice, so once I started playing these mods, I just went through them all at once, like an idiot. So I’m screwed until Cyberpunk 2077, after all.

Still, if I’ve run out of new Shadowrun mods to actually play, then perhaps I can at least get a contact high from talking about them, right?

There is a decent handful at this moment of mod campaigns for the Shadowrun trilogy available for runners to enjoy, and most of them are pretty good. I like A Stitch in Time, Mercurial, and Nightmare Harvest to varying degrees, and you should check them out if you feel yourself adrift in the same cyberpunk doldrums within which I find myself floating aimlessly. But what I want to talk about today is a trilogy of mod campaigns by one Cirion, or Seberin, depending on whether you get it through Steam or Nexus. And the reason I want to talk about these 3 user-generated campaigns is because they are fucking AWESOME.

Cirion’s trilogy, which I have decided to call the Calfree Trilogy since it takes place in the California Free State of the Shadowrun universe, is expertly crafted, in all regards. It plays as smoothly as any officially published RPG might. In fact, in terms of technical prowess, it goes beyond what you could expect from an official publisher, because Cirion has actually added features to 2 of the 3 campaigns he’s made--most notably, a character Influence system, where no such thing had existed in the original schematics of the Shadowrun games. That’s a pretty damn complicated feature to add to a game not originally designed for it, I would think!

More importantly for me, the story, characters, and themes of this trilogy are smooth, natural, and skillful, to a greater extent than most “real” RPG publishers manage. Additionally, these adventures provide great side-stories and fleshing-out of the lore that Shadowrun has already canonically established for Calfree, which will provide a pleasant anchor to more intense fans of the series, while the campaigns remain standalone enough as stories that players not entirely familiar with the long history of Shadowrun (which, honestly, is mostly the case for myself) won’t have any problem keeping up.

So, to start with, we have The Antumbra Saga, a mod for Shadowrun: Dragonfall. This is an episodic story which is engaging from the start with a tiny little shadowrun underneath a nightclub, which snowballs into an all-out war for the future of the California Free State. The pacing is great, which is essential in this sort of small-adventure-turned-grand-epic, and the characters are well-written, nuanced, and fun. It’s really good as a story for the sake of the adventure and conflict, and while I don’t think you’ll be moved or find much in the way of deep ideas or wisdom, The Antumbra Saga keeps you invested throughout its course. And it obviously was a great test-run for Cirion in Shadowrun mod-making, because he took the characters he had created and adapted, and used the knowledge he had gained to make the next mod campaign even better.

If the Antumbra Saga is awesome, The Caldecott Caper, its sequel, which is a mod for Shadowrun: Hong Kong, is super awesome. I greatly enjoyed The Antumbra Saga, obviously, but it was, for me, limited by its nature of being an adventure focused upon its own events and story than upon the human element within. It’s got solid characters, and a purpose, don’t get me wrong, but The Antumbra Saga was an adventure for the sake of its adventure, where the focus was more on what was happening and how it was happening, rather than the who and why, if that makes any sense. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing! The Antumbra Saga was, obviously, very good, and there are some legendary RPGs that share that focus on the events and overall story over the individuals involved, such as Deus Ex 1, Romancing Saga 1 + 2, and Fallout 1. Still, to me, a really great story usually comes from the heart, really speaks to us on a human level, and you’ll see that reflected in my list of the greatest RPGs I’ve played: the vast majority of them put a substantial focus on the human element of their stories, making a priority of developing their characters, capturing the audience’s emotion, and making statements about us as a people.

And The Caldecott Caper does that excellently. If I were to draw a comparison between TCC and other works, I’d say that this mod feels, in many ways, like an excellent Bioware-styled game from back in the days when the company knew what the bloody fuck they were doing with themselves. The cast is exceptionally likable and interesting, not to mention well-written and dynamic, and your interactions with them are as much a part of The Caldecott Caper’s greatness as any other component of the campaign. Each team member is a unique personality, easily as skillfully written and memorable as you might expect to find in a ‘real’ game--more than that, in fact! I daresay not even half the published RPGs I’ve played have casts as solid as this mod’s ensemble. The NPCs are very good, too, and the villains are serviceable. Finally, the romance subplots are top-notch stuff...in fact, as I have mentioned previously, the romance with Persi in this mod was the best love story I encountered in all the RPGs I played during 2017!

And make no mistake: Cirion did not have to compromise on the story’s quality to achieve this, because, if anything, this adventure’s plot is several steps up from The Antumbra Saga’s. It begins as a simple train heist, and, as Shadowrun stories do, develops into a bigger story of power struggles and social conflict. And the interesting thing about this one is that, though it is well-written, creative, and purposeful, it is also perfectly balanced. Things never get so grandiose in The Caldecott Caper that you lose the excitement of the simple heist story that it is, and yet, the events of preparing for said heist all unexpectedly but with subtle method coalesce into the grander schemes that the heroes suddenly find themselves intruding upon and entangled by. This mod has all the basic pleasure of a classic run through the shadows, but keeps that undercurrent of thoughtful substance strong with its musings about the society of the Shadowrun universe.

Ultimately, The Caldecott Caper is a terrific slice of Shadowrun, the kind of adventure that perfectly embodies the style of the series, and shows off the potential of user-generated content in games like this. It was, at the time I played it, second only to Shadowrun: Dragonfall in terms of quality of all the Shadowrun adventures I’ve experienced. So you can imagine my thorough delight when Cirion unexpectedly released a third and final campaign mod that was even better.

Calfree in Chains, also a mod for Shadowrun: Hong Kong, is the finale to Cirion’s trilogy, and it’s pretty fucking amazing. It honestly might be better than Shadowrun: Dragonfall, and if it’s not, then it’s at least equal to it--and I'd like to point out that Shadowrun: Dragonfall is so excellent an RPG that it frequently just barely misses getting onto my list of the greatest RPGs ever created. This mod is basically a perfect balance between The Antumbra Saga and The Caldecott Caper, in that it’s got a major, epic story much like The Antumbra Saga did, but it’s also majorly focused on the characters and human element of the players involved, as The Caldecott Caper was. Calfree in Chains is also even more than that, because this mod also has major themes running throughout its story of racial conflict and of whether it is better to respond to evil with violent or nonviolent resistance. And Calfree in Chains does a stellar job with exploring that question of violence versus nonviolence, too. Aside from Undertale, I daresay this is the best RPG I’ve played that examines the subject of nonviolence, and it’s less of a second-place and more of a good companion to Undertale, because where Undertale examines the concepts of violence and pacifism at their core and essence, Calfree in Chains examines them in terms of real-world application and conflict. It shows both the strengths and limitations of each philosophy, and the consequences of your actions and inactions are a constant aspect of the game’s environment and characters as you go along--which is, in itself, another virtue of Calfree in Chains, since western RPG players are very fond of both having choices in their games, and of those choices having consequences and weight.

As a standalone adventure, Calfree in Chains is great. The cast is solid, the romance (particularly with Arelia) is wonderful.* The story is engaging, meaningful, and natural, and it comes to have a powerful hold on its audience. It has worthwhile messages to convey and significant philosophy to explore: this is a work with purpose. And, quite frankly, there are multiple moments in this game which will hit you, and hit you hard. Some of my most powerful, emotional moments in 2018 as an RPG player have been with Calfree in Chains, in fact--I played The Witcher 3 and Bravely Default this year, and neither of those RPG titans possess moments of such emotional power as I found in Calfree in Chains. Romanced Arelia’s speech at the end of the game is just utterly beautiful.

And as a finish to this trilogy, Calfree in Chains is great, too. It brings the simmering issues of the previous 2 adventures to a head, feeling like it is, indeed, the story and conflict that Cirion’s works have been leading up to. And it uses the characters and lore established in The Antumbra Saga and The Caldecott Caper exactly as they should be used: as a foundation, as a point of familiarity to start at, without leaning on them so heavily that it can’t introduce and spotlight its new characters and lore.

I am completely serious, not exaggerating whatsoever, when I say that Cirion has crafted, in his Calfree Trilogy, the best video game Shadowrun experience to date. I’ve been a lifelong fan of the original SNES title, I really like Shadowrun: Hong Kong, and Shadowrun: Dragonfall keeps only barely missing my list of Greatest RPGs, but I say, with sincerity, that this collection of adventures that Cirion has created is the best Shadowrun experience out there. And I mean that both in terms of being the best example of a Shadowrun story, and in terms of being the best work as a whole. Shadowrun: Dragonfall might still be the best individual Shadowrun adventure, or it at least might be tied with Calfree in Chains...but if you put the actual, official Shadowrun trilogy of games that Harebrained Schemes created next to Cirion’s Calfree Trilogy, you will find, pound for pound, that Cirion’s work’s virtues outweigh Harebrained Schemes’s. I emphatically recommend the Calfree Trilogy to anyone who owns the Shadowrun PC games--and frankly, if you don’t, then you should strongly consider purchasing them, not just for their own virtues, but also for the fact that you can, through them, experience the genuinely superlative Calfree Trilogy.

* Though I do admit I still think Persi’s love story in The Caldecott Caper is the best of the trilogy.

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