I’m not going to lie.
I played this entire game through from end-to-end consulting a walk through every step of the way. That’s not typically the way I’d play one of these things, because that sort of defeats the purpose of “solving” an adventure game, but the problem with Rise of the Dragon is that it’s a special sort of beast.
For one thing, it has a timer. And God, how I hate timers in games.
If your game has a timer built into it, there’s a good chance I probably won’t bother with playing it. Timers are basically the worst sort of artificial tension a video game can possibly have. Want to stress the player out? Put a timer into your game. Want to make sure that they never know if they’re moving along the “best path” of the game? And while they’re going, you cut off paths so that their “decisions matter” by way of a time stream? By all means, add a timer to your game.
Timers are especially frustrating in adventure games, where the idea of the design is to move through a game slowly; finding and solving the puzzles you come across by using your wits.
But Rise of the Dragon wants to be different, so it establishes real early on that there’s only 72 hours in which to solve the mystery. Then, to add silly wonkiness on top of the timer, it adds events that you can totally miss if you’re not living or dying by the clock.
This is all sort of too bad, too, because the world of Rise of the Dragon is interesting. It’s not very fleshed out, but there’s enough of a skeleton there that you can see the potential of – what must have seemed at the time – a sure fire series.
So, the set up is that it’s the future. It’s a kind of Blade Runner vision of the future, with everything being dark, foreboding and somewhat gritty. None of the buildings are truly clean, nor are they new. Everything Blade owns seems somehow worse for wear, from his small, dingy apartment to his rattan clothing.
This is a future that was designed pre-internet, but you can see some of the stirrings of an internet-like setup in there. Blade interacts with his girlfriend, who has access to a database. The database is assumed to be online. Some personal travel happens by helicopter [but you’re too poor to part-take of that] and there seem to be robot troopers that show up on some interstitial screens. So, it’s not an especially bright and cheery tomorrow.
In this future, Blade is a Private Detective. Once, he was a cop, but some disgrace befell him [the game’s never clear on what happened, exactly] – now, he solves mysteries for other people in order to make ends meet.
When the game starts up, one such mystery shows up on his doorstep: The mayor loses his daughter to some particularly odd drug and it’s up to Blade to discover who’s behind the killing. It doesn’t take especially long for things to get deeper and scarier than that though, but you were expecting that, right? What with the title of the game being “Rise of the Dragon” and all.
The visuals, sound design and general feel of the game are very evocative of Blade Runner, and this is all good, because the tone comes across magnificently, but the game underneath this particular shell is – for adventure gamers, anyhow – sort of thin on the ground.
There are a handful of puzzles to solve, but they’re not particularly difficult, nor will they take you long to figure out, instead, the game directs itself in another way: you need to make the story move along through conversation. These little chats with NPC’s form the backbone for the adventure, fleshing out what’s at stake for the characters involved and the world of Rise of the Dragon at large.
So these become the “core puzzles” of the game. Doing something wrong here usually sets up some kind of bad situation. At best, you now need to find another way to do a specific task and at worst, you’re suddenly in an unwinnable situation.
For most modern gamers, the closest equivalent is probably TellTale’s The Walking Dead, with its particular emphasis on character interaction. This isn’t even a bad device, particularly because the game is rooted in the film noir school of detective story. By Act Three, there’s a damsel in distress, a genuinely terrible threat on the loose and a city to save.
But the other part of this puzzle is that this is also an action game. And that means that there are action sequences. And these totally break the flow of the Noir part of the story completely. One minute, you’re following up leads that result from the case, and next, you’re action hero Blade Hunter, guy with a rifle and some jump buttons!
The action sequences are…OK. To be fair, I played them on completely easy and I had the benefit of not having the original gun that you start with, which made things a tad bit saner and, really, you don’t need to be the most dextrous to finish the arcade bits, but they do yank you from “a reasonably simple adventure game” to “a barely competent action game.” And that’s kind of a problem. If you want to have me believing that Blade is an action hero, then make that game. On the other hand, if you want me to believe that he’s a brains-above-brawn sort of guy, stick with the adventure game elements. Fortunately, the designers of the game seemed to realize that they were selling to adventure gamers first, because there’s a “frustration point” that you can reach with the action sequences, hit that level [die five times] and the game offers to skip that action-based “level.”
I think this part of the design would have been better if they’d learned from Indiana Jones: if I take the path of wit, you should allow me “wit solutions” to the arcade sections. This compromise of “well, you failed, if you want to bail on the arcade sequence if you want” is…a little ham-fisted. It’s particularly jarring when you can win the game by hitting the “I’m frustrated” button.
One final thing I want to make special mention of is the music. There are some very pleasant themes here and – while they’re not especially memorable, they do help the mood along a whole lot.
Do I think you should play this? If you don’t mind the experiment, then yeah. Or if you want a game set in a Blade Runner style universe, then I think it’s completely worth getting into, but…you utterly need to play this one with a walkthrough. While the timer isn’t hidden and while the game is generally reasonable at “messaging” what’s going to happen, it’s totally possible for you to make the game considerably harder [and even unwinnable] by not “reacting in time” to some of the more pressing events.