The GoodRise of the Dragon is a pretty atypical game, it's one of those weird adventure games that Dynamix tried to popularize with titles like Heart of China, Willy Beamish and that old secret agent game.
In case you have no idea what of what I'm talking about you should know that come the early 90's, Dynamix tried to put their own twist into the adventure game genre, and released this weird collection of titles that stayed pretty much within the boundaries of the adventure genre, but used a first person perspective, included action sequences and ran against an internal clock among other details.
The changes in the typical adventure game design that simplify item interaction and the inclusion of day cycles and time limits place the focus mostly on scripting and storytelling rather than on mindless puzzle solving. The "adventuring" in these games deals mostly with knowing how to deal with each character and following the storytelling logic of the game while the game world around you does it's own thing, and thus these games work mostly as early ancestors of interactive movies with the point being mostly to enjoy the game world around you. The games also feature a universally simple and streamlined interface with little to no glitches that allow you to access the game's configuration, equip items and interact with the game world with little more than a mouse click, so with those issues solved you can bet there's plenty of room to develop the creative side of things.
Now, Rise of the Dragon is probably the most evolved of these games, and exploits most of this design's true potential for storytelling. Instead of the Kid-simulating quest of Willy Beamish, "Dragon" is a gritty detective story were you have to follow around leads, evidence, clues and need to be in certain places at the right time for things to develop.
The setting of Dragon is a true child of the 80's sci-fi. An edgy, post-modern blend of narrative styles (in this case, the police dramas and its Noir counterparts) mixed into a decidedly pessimistic retro-futuristic world where everything just plain sucks. If you are even slightly familiar with the cyberpunk genre then you know the basics, and they are all here: overpopulated urban sprawls, extreme cultural blends due to the extreme globalisation, corrupt states, rampant crime and lots of assorted garbage on the streets.
Basically the same blend that gave life to Blade Runner, the movie that to this day most closely represents the spirit spawned from this type of sci-fi and which most obviously influences Rise of the Dragon. Just like the movie, "Dragon" also takes several cues from the underground comics of the 80's, specially the European sci-fi that was so popularised in magazines like "Metal Hurlant", and in an excellent stylistic choice, the game's graphics are composed of lovely hand-drawn comic book illustrations that come to life in VGA with loads of colorful details and moody hues. The backgrounds are pretty much ripped from the pages of a comic book, being static screens that nevertheless exploit their perspective and include (being a game and all) looping animations and day/night variations of themselves. The characters themselves are equally rendered, with excellent (albeit completely still) drawings both on the cutscenes and the background overlays. The music is equally well crafted, being composed of a collection of catchy synth tunes that follow the tracks of Vangelis classic soundtrack for Blade Runner. It fits the game like a glove and manages to stay with you even after the game is long finished (I still remember the subway station music as if it was yesterday).
But so much about the game world, what about the game? As I mentioned the tight scripting-oriented design works perfectly with the game's concept. Yes, you have an inventory and get to use your items around, but mostly you have to keep an eye out for your surroundings, gathering clues around crime scenes and chatting with the right people and being smart about what you say or not with the use of the good'ol dialogue tree.
The most dedicated scripting feature is of course the game's internal clock, which goes up with every action you make and the travels you take around the city. Not only does it condition several events, ignoring it will cause dire consequences to your investigations, as for example arriving late to a meeting with a contact might result in his death, or not showing up at the correct timeframe might cause you to just waste your time (hint: the club's only alive at night) and wasting time is something you do not want to do, as the bad guys are always on the move and develop their schemes continually. Additionally the game imposes a realistic logic to your character's behaviour and those around him, ie: undercover means you do not wave your gun around asking were the bad guys are hiding (whether you have a weapon equipped or even in your inventory affects what places you can enter and who you can talk), you can't walk around the streets naked and be taken seriously or leave your house and then try to enter without your keys (duh!), and your girlfriend requires a minimum amount of TLC if you want her to stick by you and help you out. Some of these features work as ways of branching your investigation, but mostly they serve as a way to increase the sense of realism in the game and deepen the gameplay with simple details.
The BadThe graphics in the game are excellent but, due to the low resolution, appear extremely pixellated and a lot of their charm is lost, pity. The story, while including lots of adult themed details and interesting events falls to several shortcomings from a scripting point of view. Basically this is a detective story were you already know who did the crime. Yes, as I understand it, the mystery of solving who did what is not the first priority here, as it wasn't in Blade Runner. But it's fair to note that Dragon is pretty much devoid of the existential and stylistic elements that make BR such an interesting movie, thus leaving you with a pretty bland experience story-wise with extremely clichéd characters. From the wise-cracking and horribly named detective ("Blade Hunter".... PFFFFF!!) to the evil, evil BWAHAHAAHAHAA "evil" bad guy that hides somewhere in the city waiting for you to find him. There are good moments, mostly exploiting the adult nature of the story, and even some interesting developments, like the bad guys hunting YOU down for a second or so. But mostly it's an extremely oversimplified storyline that doesn't do much with all the potential it's got, developing fast into a "save the babe and the world" scenario before you know it.
The action sequences are another point to gripe about. They are pretty much the best proof there is as to why Dynamix never did an action game. They are horrible, poorly-controlled abominations whose only good element is to be able to skip them without penalization after you've failed them enough times (for the record, save for the last hellish one I finished all of them properly, ahum).
I would also have preferred to see more in the way of branching events, as there are some, but not nearly enough for the game to qualify as a non-linear experience. For instance, there's a moment where you meet up with a nice babe in a club, and if you keep laying on the charm, you'll walk home with her to further uhm... "investigate" her leads, however just as luck would have it, you cross paths with your girlfriend and after a scene she dumps you on the spot. Pretty cool, huh? Of course, as soon as this happens a nice sign pops up saying that your ex was critical to the game thus you won't be able to finish your adventure and you'd better reload... Niiice. This game would have been much more of a critically acclaimed classic if little moments like these were fully developed, I mean what if you could have continued the game with the babe from the club instead of your trusty girlfriend, huh? Now there's an option I would have loved to explore, not to mention that without these alternate paths the game falls to the poor replay value problems that would plague interactive movies in the future.
The Bottom LineBasically the playable version of an issue of Heavy Metal magazine minus the gratuitous sex and gore. Has enough interesting details and game play depth as to be considered a true jewel of the adventure gaming genre (an extremely odd and atypical jewel, but a jewel nonetheless), yet lacks that extra oomph that would have propelled it to videogame stardom. Still, an extremely recommended experience for anyone, and one of the seminal cyberpunk games (Non-Gibson influenced though) from the early 90's.