Heart of China
First posted on 19 February 2008. Last updated on 10 August 2009.
Following the success of Rise of the Dragon, arguably Dynamix's best known adventure game to date, Heart of China is the second adventure game title released shortly after by the developer. The game also represents the continuing effort by lead designer Jeff Tunnell to move onto a new direction to develop games that create a cinematic experience. Technically, Heart of China uses the same game engine as Rise of the Dragon. Inspired by movies such as Romancing the Stone and Raiders of the Lost Ark, the game takes the player on an adventure to many different exotic locales in the orients after World War I. Though commonly seen as being overshadowed by its predecessor, Heart of China is not a game that is to be forgotten by fans familiar with the history of the adventure genre. In fact, this game is a perfect example of how detailed and ambitious an adventure game can be made out to be.
The story starts off at the docks of Hong Kong. You play the role of "Lucky" Jake Masters, famed fighter ace from World War I whose house boat has just been blown up by his largest creditor and millionaire E.A. Lomax. The millionaire's motive is more than just to harass Lucky but to force Lucky to undertake a mission to rescue his daughter Kate who has been reported missing for several months. Kate, being the millionaire's daughter but refusing to become a domestic housewife, has instead chosen to live the life of a nurse working in the war torn regions of rural China. Together with Zhao Chi, the only Ninja currently living in China, Lucky will need to fly to Chengdu in order to find Kate, who has imprisoned by the evil Li Deng as an addition to his collection. Yet, the successful rescue of Kate marks not the end but just the beginning of a globe spanning adventure. Soon, the trio of friends will face more dangers and can only survive if they hold together as a team and use their individual strengths to help each other.
Dynamix has always been a game developer that combines innovative gameplay ideas with new technology. Heart of China is no exception. In fact, the game offers many technical and design breakthroughs. The artwork for the game includes a combination of digitized photos of no less than 100 different live actors and hand painted backdrop graphics. The game supports up to VGA resolution and 256 colors (the VGA version is available for the IBM PC; conversion is available for the Macintosh and Amiga; an exclusive EGA version is available for the PC and Tandy). Because of tight production budgets typical for games of that era, the cast of actors is actually recruited from Dynamix' own employees and their family members! The music score consists of many atmospheric tunes and complements perfectly to the oriental settings in the game. Apart from supporting AdLib and Sound Blaster, the MT-32's rendition of the score is particularly well done for its time and proves again why MIDI music is still so popular today. The game uses the proprietary Dynamix Game Development System (DGDS), an engine that is first introduced in Rise of the Dragon. By reusing this engine, the developers can instead focus even more on developing the game's complex storylines and characters. The overall packaging of the game is also done very nicely by adopting an adventurous style of the early 20th century. In line with other games from publisher Sierra On-Line, the game package is rich in detail and filled with lots of interesting game paraphernalia. The front box cover even has a unique 3D look made by physically pressing a shape into the box. Among the game paraphernalia is a fictional travel guide that not only introduces the game's characters and locations but also reveals some interesting related historical facts.
The main part of the game is controlled through a first person perspective that uses full screen. A separate menu can be called to use inventory objects with the environment or character. The point and click interface is simple and intuitive. Objects can be picked up and used with a single mouse click. The cursor is context sensitive. It changes shape if an item can be picked up, a conversation to another character is possible, or the screen can be exited via a certain direction.
Heart of China is filled with lots of unique elements that separate it from other classic adventure games of its time. All the characters behave like real humans and will remember whatever the player chooses to say or do to them. Time passes by just like in the real world, so that events will happen with or without the player being present. This also means that the time available to rescue Kate as well as the money that the player is given for support is limited. Since each of the party's characters has different strengths and weaknesses, it is up to the player to decide whose skills are best used in certain situations. The game's story is completely nonlinear, with different paths that are signaled as "Plot Branch Alert" within the game. The game also displays a "Romance Meter" that visually shows the changing relationship between Kate and Jake. The emotional development between these characters has a deep impact on the story's process. The game has mixed in 2 totally different arcade sequences. The first has the player taking control of a tank in a 3D simulation (which undoubtedly plays into Dynamix's strength as a developer in this genre). The second has the player completing a speedy jump 'n' run sequence on top of the running train, Orient Express.
With all these atypical gameplay elements added, Heart of China is less of a puzzle game. The puzzles are all kept to a basic level but are well integrated into the game's story. Although most of these puzzles can be solved by simply using objects gathered within the immediate environment, some puzzles require a strong sense of the character's current situation and may seem unusual at first sight.
Heart of China stands apart from other adventure game titles of its time in many aspects. The usage of live actors and genre crossing elements are rarities to be seen in an adventure game for its time. With the possibility of getting through the game in multiple ways, the game can be replayed many times before every plot branch is explored. For players who care only for the adventure elements, the difficulty of the arcade sequences can be adjusted and the arcade sequences can be even skipped completely. The developer must be honored for having done literally everything to satisfy the player's needs!
As with all ambitious game titles that break new grounds in terms of technology and gameplay, the pressure to make this game still acceptable to the average gamer is, of course, very high. Luckily, Heart of China has not suffered from the same curse as many other games that are over ambitious and run out of budget during mid production leading to a half finished state. However, this does not necessarily mean that the game is completely without any flaws. Although the game can be finished through different paths, not all of them lead to a successful end. The player may get caught in a dead end without knowing it. Even after completing all puzzles, the player may not be rewarded with the optimal ending if the player cannot keep Kate and Jake passionate to each other. In addition, the possibility of dying or running out of money too early can be frustrating to novice gamers.
Overall, Heart of China is an innovative adventure game that is rich in both production and gameplay. Experienced players who are looking for more challenging adventure games beyond the standard cliché will find enjoyment with this game. It is not a game recommended for novice players, though. Heart of China packs lots of action, romance, humor, and exotic locales all into a globetrotting adventure. So, head to the docks of Hong Kong and prepare to be impressed by the beautiful sunset!