Dynamix, the classic Sierra owned developer, have an obvious love of Hollywood movies. This is especially true of their adventure games of which Rise of the Dragon is their first. I've already covered their 1991 release Heart of China which is their take on the globe-trotting adventuring of Indiana Jones, but one year earlier it was another Harrison Ford movie that gave them inspiration: Blade Runner.
Set in a cyberpunk Los Angeles in the year 2053, the country has become plagued with a deadly new recreational drug let loose on an unsuspecting public by a nefarious Chinese mafia. When it takes the life of the mayor's daughter, he calls upon a disgraced ex-cop by the name of William 'Blade' Hunter to investigate on the down-low. As Blade, you will get caught in a plot where a deadly cult intends to poison the reservoirs with the gene-altering designer drug giving them and their serpent god ultimate power. Taking the age of the game into account, it tells the tale rather well with its use of comic-book style cut-scenes and cinematic framing. If you've played Heart of China (reviewed here) you'll know what I mean for the similarities are obvious.
For better or worse it uses the same DGDS engine in the exact same way. You scour each beautifully-drawn location with the mouse and use or equip items from the inventory. Puzzles are mostly simple to figure out but it's nevertheless incredibly easy to get yourself into an unwinnable situation. Trial and error will not work here. For example, those familiar with TellTale or Quantic Dreams way of storytelling in the likes of The Walking Dead or Heavy Rain will know that all moves have consequences. Those games will continue to a satisfying ending, but a wrong move here will probably lead to a game over. That's not to say that style of branching storytelling is absent but it's not on the same level of polish or drama. At the beginning of the game, you can easily leave your apartment without any clothes and wander the streets naked. You might not think to get dressed because most adventures won't ask you to even back then. In the world of Rise of the Dragon, you will be arrested for indecent exposure. Game Over!
There are other easy ways to halt progress. Some keys may be needed multiple times so when you use it, make sure you pick it up again afterwards. Otherwise, you'll be stuck in a loop unable to progress. Important conversations can also be stopped dead if you choose the wrong option on the dialogue tree. Other games will allow you to begin the conversation anew but not here. Offend someone and he'll blank you til the end of time. Or at least for the three in-game days, the story takes place in.
Yes, this is another one of those adventures that attempts the illusion of time passing. You have to keep an eye on the clock otherwise events, meeting and dates will be missed again making for an unwinnable situation. I know I've made it sound incredibly hard as if the game is deliberately making life difficult, but in truth, it's just a matter of deciphering a very particular logic. The first few puzzles adequately demonstrate this at a time when a game-over doesn't make much of an impact. You are required to put on your clothes and take your key-card from the computer (where some vital video messages are played) so you won't be locked out. These are simple tasks that signal that attention needs to be paid to the little things. Pay attention to early chats which will hint that you have to be aware of what you say to people. Your girlfriend's nagging talk about not being late for your date reminds you that time is a factor. The clues of how to play are there, so pay extra attention. They're so far out of the norm you still might slip up. Perhaps the designers chose this route as a way to give the game a sense of realism, and in my opinion, it works.
Locations are presented in the first person with some small animations to liven things up a little. Just like the follow-up, it all looks stunning. The streets are rain-soaked reflecting back the neon lights of the city. From the window of your apartment, the lights from the traffic temporarily illuminate the crumbling walls. The seductive nightlife in the local strip joint is alive with atmosphere. And those weren't scenes from Blade Runner.
I know comparisons to Heart of China are obvious, but if it weren't for the story and style it would be the exact same game. Hell, even the narrative shares some similarities. The Chinese underbelly plays a big role in both games along with the way each tale begin. Our hero with a punchy nick-name is contacted by a wealthy man of power who has issues with his daughter. Except here she's dead instead of missing.
Both games also have a couple of sub-par action sequences too, though they're stacked towards the end of the game here. The most prominent here are a couple of platform segments that serve to be a black mark on an otherwise impressive game. Armed with a gun, you guide Blade to the end of the level where a generic boss is waiting all the while avoiding gunfire and pitfalls. The controls are stiff and awkward but by far the most egregious decision was to implement two ways to do something as simple as jump. The first is a small jump performed by tapping the enter key. It's ineffective in reaching higher platforms or jumping over obstacles but its real purpose is to jump over bullets that are too low to duck under. In all honesty, it's easier to take the hit and move on. To jump higher, you have to hold up using the number pad as well and the jump button. This brings out your inner Inspector Gadget by allowing you to bounce more than twice your height. It's not exactly in keeping with a game that has been gritty and realistic up until now. The other action level is more in line with the adventure as a whole, being a light-gun style shooter. It plays as you'd expect. Thankfully both can be skipped after a couple of failed attempts without much a negative consequence. I guess Dynamix had an idea that these diversions may not be to everyone's taste.
Three years after the PC version it graced us with its five floppies (or a whopping ten for the Amiga), GameArts took on the task of converting it to the SEGA CD. This is the same GameArts that gave us the excellent Lunar and Grandia series of RPGs. There are a few notable differences that may be of some interest. For starters, this version is fully voice acted. The cast do an admirable job too with some recognisable voices among them. Blade is even voiced by Cam Clarke, the same guy who did Leonardo in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series. The CD audio is also stunning adding more atmosphere than the already rich music for the PC. Not quite Vangelis but still a worthy soundtrack.
There are a few downsides that show the limitations of both the machine and of the console market at the time. Because the Genesis can only handle 64 colours on screen at once compared to 256 for those with VGA cards, there's a green tint to all of the visuals. GameArts approached this quite cleverly in my opinion. They could've easily dithered the artwork even more than it is which would've resulted in an image that's far less defined. This colour grading keeps much of the detail while also adding an unexpected atmosphere to it. Call it mood lighting if you will. I don't think it's necessary a better art style, but it more than fits within the cold and gloomy context of the story.
VGA DOS Version vs. SEGA CD Version
If there's one thing that keeps this from being the definitive version it's censorship. Rise of the Dragon is a very adult story but even with the MA-17 rating in the US swear words and an entire character-driven sex-scene were cut. The gory deaths that happen in just as much detail as the era can provide are still there but God forbid a scene that implies sex but shows no nudity be allowed. It's nevertheless still a highlight for the content-starved system and well worth a try.
Rise of the Dragon certainly has its flaws on all of the systems it was released on, but they never once overpower the quality of its storytelling. Once you get used to the quirks of the gameplay you'll find an adventure made for adults that's as compelling as the movies it takes inspiration from.
As of 7th November 2017, Rise of the Dragon is now available to buy DRM-free on Good Old Games.
Buy on GOG
Rise of the Dragon is © Dynamix
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me