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SummaryNovel story-telling technique + clichéd story = above average game.
The GoodKudos to Dynamix with Rise of the Dragon, they tried to create a game which plays like a real investigation, it's just a shame that the case is a bit silly. This is Dynamix's first adventure and it attempts a lot, promising a flexible story set in real world time limits. Gimmicks such as these have been claimed on other games and they are normally carried out in predictable ways nowhere near as organic as they promise, after all everything needs to have a system coded. Rise of the Dragon manages it fairly well and feels pretty sturdy.
It tries to pack a realistic punch as you play detective William 'Blade' Hunter, a retired cop called out on a case to investigate the death of the Mayor's daughter. I'll focus on the plagiarism later, but it sets a scene pretty well, also told in the accompanying comic, of a detective in a noir-esque near future etching a living from his tiny flat. You're thrown in at the beginning of the case having been rudely awakened and literally begin in your underwear. I really liked this touch as you have to get dressed to begin, gradually picking away at your leads. At the start the game is fairly unforgiving as you learn how to interact with the game world, so remember to save often. In fact regular saving before and after any action or conversation is a good idea. Just like in real life if you say the wrong thing to a character they can block you out, meaning you'll never get a vital lead. This may seem harsh when compared to most adventures but I quickly got used to spotting dead end conversations and learnt to be more careful about what I said, rather than just trying every option as in many other games.
The interface for the game is very static, but with pretty scenes depicting the nightmare future of Hollywood. I liked the art style, and the small background animations that bring the game alive, though the static nature can make the game boring after a few hours play. The game is mainly mouse driven aside from two arcade sequences which can both be skipped. It looks outdated now, especially as the images don;t occupy the full screen but it works well enough. The game uses a real time mechanic and makes bold claims about it, though I found it hardly played any role in the narrative, only serving to open and close the City Hall, in fact the time feature created a strange event for me (see later). Still the innovation is nifty even if it's not really integral to the game.
Despite my reservations about the plot, the way the narrative unfolds in the game is well managed. It feels natural as new locations are revealed as characters tell you about them, so you nearly always have a clue of what to do next. In fact the game required no leaps of logic to complete and the branching narrative forks smoothly so I wasn't aware of missing anything and despite not getting the optimum ending, felt I had a better dramatic journey. Definitely how the branching is managed is well done and a tribute to the storytelling.
The BadWhilst the narrative unfolds well, the over-arching plot is clichéd and borrows heavily from Blade Runner. In fact maybe the developers should have just paid for the license and released it in the Blade Runner world. Even the protagonist's name is 'Blade' Hunter! The neo-noir landscape is nice to see but it's a blatant copy which led me to another interesting point which I'll go into later.
Unfortunately despite copying the visual style of Blade Runner, the story avoids any moral questioning in favour of a straight beat-the-bad-guy story. What begins as a potential mysterious case never really develops with any twists and even ends with a shoot-out. It falls back on a dose of mysticism, though luckily it never develops into a super-natural threat. As a character Blade never progresses nor shows any sign of weakness to make him more rounded, wasting the game system really.
This may or may not be considered a bug, but the time system does produce some quirks. For example I completed most of my investigations on day 1, only to have to literally pass time for events to catch up. For example I triggered a meeting to happen 'immediately' but then had to wait 12 hours for it! In a more general sense the time system is inconsistently applied, whilst the City Hall opens and closes on a daily schedule, the same people play the same game of cards for four days non-stop. I put this down to the dangers of modelling time a game, when most adventure games rely on one event triggering another.
My final gripe was the terrible music. In places it tries to sound like Blade Runner, whilst in others it just settles for annoying. If only they had spent longer on it and also tried to create smooth sound-scapes to augment the pretty pictures, ones that faded between scenes. I know it would have been hard with the software of the time, but consider that standing outside the night-club has the same music at the same volume as standing inside!
I forgot another small gripe – the box art seems to be designed to repel, it's mainly a picture of a brick wall!
The Bottom LineI like what Rise of the Dragon was trying to be. With it's focus on realistic life and detective work, characters who can block you out and the aspect of time, it really tries to be a complete experience. However it does this with a hammy plot – if you want to kill people why turn them into dragons first? The plot is straight-forward, though it probably needs to be to allow the plot to branch and weave back in again and work effectively. Despite the static nature of the interface, the branching and above aspects make it a good game to play.
This game feels like a project in creating a story with branching plots, with it's consequential rough edges. Dynamix's next game Heart of China tries to learn from this, but I think Rise of the Dragon is better for taking the serious engaging tone. Heart of China pointed out the plot branches, destroying the illusion of choice, whereas Rise of the Dragon opts for immersion.
One strange thing I felt whilst playing is that whilst the game steals it's setting from Blade Runner, Westwood's licensed Blade Runner game borrows a lot of mechanics from Rise of the Dragon. Despite being a 3rd person game, Blade Runner shares a similar time mechanic requiring sleep and waiting. It also has a very similar method of navigating around the city (though so does Discworld Noir). Furthermore it's method of uncovering facts through normal investigative techniques is similar, plus there's the odd arcade sequence. In fact in some ways Rise of the Dragon is like a tech demo for Westwood's Blade Runner!