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by Wild Weasel - November 22, 2009

Heart of China - DOS, Macintosh, Amiga (1991)

DOS Cover

Heart of China

Dynamix, back in the '80s, was mainly known for their tank and plane simulation games, usually published by companies like Electronic Arts and Activision. But in 1990, it was decided that the company simply wasn't selling enough games to keep themselves afloat, and they opted to put the company up for sale. In August of that year, Sierra On-Line answered the call and inducted Dynamix into the Sierra family.

After that, things started to change. While Dynamix was still making their simulation games - and even enjoying somewhat improved sales from them, thanks to Sierra's improved marketing - the company started to veer in different directions. As early as 1990, Dynamix began making point and click adventure games. Despite Dynamix being a division of Sierra, Dynamix's adventure games take on a markedly different style from Sierra's. While Sierra's adventures like Space Quest were presented from the third person and tended to have more of a sense of humor, Dynamix's games stuck with a first person perspective. All three of their point n' click adventures were based off bits of popular media - Rise of the Dragon was based heavily on Blade Runner, while The Adventures of Willy Beamish took liberally from Chuck Jones cartoons. The most obscure of their point n' clicks is Heart of China, which is inspired by the globe trotting adventures of Indiana Jones.

The story goes that the daughter of a wealthy land-owner is kidnapped by a Chinese warlord, and it's up to former Great War ace pilot "Lucky" Jake Masters to bail her out and get her back to her father - whether she likes it or not. Lucky's out of work and mostly broke, with nothing left but his wits and his plane, a Colt 1911. He's a stereotypically arrogant American, often approaching situations in a rather brutish if somewhat humorous manner. Still, it's easy to envision his lines read in a deadpan manner by Harrison Ford, and the writing fits him pretty well. The basic plot is also suspiciously similar to Tom Selleck's lesser known 1983 adventure flick High Road to China.

As the game begins, your "client", E. A. Lomax (gee, which famous game company this man is supposed to represent?), has sent you to the Chinese mainland to track down some leads as to Kate Lomax's disappearance. To ensure Lucky gets the job done quickly, Lomax makes a deal: $200,000 will be awarded to Lucky for the safe return of his daughter, but $20,000 will be deducted for every day that passes, denoted with a silly animation of dollar bills flying across the screen. This leaves Lucky with no room for mistakes - and no boat, as a hired goon lobs a grenade into it at the beginning of the game.

Heart of China plays out an awful lot like an Indiana Jones movie - the American protagonist, the ethnic sidekick, the love interest that isn't actually interested. The title is also a bit of a misnomer, because only the first quarter of the story actually takes place in Chengdu. Once you've rescued Kate, you need to travel the globe - from Kathmandu to Paris to Istanbul - to find a cure for her poison.

However, Dynamix does some unique things that set it apart from other adventure games. For starters, the game has numerous plot branches that, while events seem similar, might end up making the game even harder. For example, the first task is to find a man named Zhao Chi, a Chinese ninja, and get him to join you on rescue. However, he's incredibly scared of your "arrow-plane" and requires a bit of convincing. You don't technically have to do this, though - the game lets you proceed without Zhao, although good luck trying to sneak into the fortress without him. Sometimes it's possible to get yourself screwed over if you're not careful, but it does lend to some replay value if you want to see every alternate approach to the situation. Once you've recruited Zhao (and eventually Kate), you can switch between the characters, each having different skills. For certain areas, you need to equip Zhao's ninja mask, lest you get caught by the enemy. Other times you'll need Lucky's gun to shoot your way through bad guys. You can switch between them at any time, although they only affect certain puzzles. Many tasks are slightly silly - the first one involves hunting down seagull poop.

Beyond its unique structure lies an interesting visual style. All the characters in this game are digitized images of real actors, setting the standard for later Dynamix games like Betrayal at Krondor. Supposedly, this game has a cast numbering in the hundreds, although it really seems like they're probably the developers, or at least friends of the developers. Most of the graphics are comprised of comic book-style panels, with bits of animation on occasion. While most of the environments are hand-drawn and share the same style as Rise of the Dragon, they are done in a style that blends very well with the digitized actors. The photographs are occasionally a little grainy, but given the 256 color hardware limitations and time frame, they're better looking than most DOS games of the time. And while the music isn't especially memorable, it does a very good job of pulling you into the game's Eastern flavor. It's certainly a step up from Access' Martian Memorandum in every possible way.

Heart of China

Dynamix's style of adventure game hinges on trial and error, especially when it comes to dialogue. Oftentimes you're presented with multiple aggressive responses and you need to pick the one that's the least offensive. (Usually the funniest one is the wrong one, as to be expected. This approach is not only of the game's various puzzles, but of the very interface used to control the game. Like Rise of the Dragon before it, the inventory is icon-based and takes up most of the screen when open. There are two ways to use your inventory. Left-clicking on the icon representing your character will open a half-screen inventory, along the left side of the screen. From here you can drag the inventory items from the window and drop them on whatever object in the scene that you need to use it on. The other way is right-clicking on your character icon, which brings the inventory up to full-screen, though this doesn't give you any more space, it just adds a portrait of your character to the right side of the screen and disables the ability to drag the icons into the scene. From here, you can either drag items onto your portrait to equip them (like Lucky's gun, Zhao Chi's ninja mask, etc) or right-click on any object to get more information about it. Infuriatingly, looking at any item in half-screen mode kicks the inventory into full-screen, and there's no way to simply switch back - to use items while in full-screen mode, you'll have to drop them first (thankfully they aren't lost for good, but don't forget about them and leave them there), and then drag them from the bottom of the screen to where you need to use them at. Not a very intuitive system at all.

As if that weren't enough, occasionally the game will outright change the rules of how you're supposed to interact with things. Eventually, Lucky will need to use his Colt pistol, which to most people probably means to either drag it from the inventory and drop it on Lucky's target, or have Lucky equip it and then click on the target. Both are incorrect - the game expects you to equip the gun, then hold the right mouse button and click the left. This action doesn't work at all unless the game actually wants you to shoot something (which is rare), giving the player very little opportunity to get a feel for it.

Finally, true to Dynamix's style of interactive movie-style story telling, there are a few arcade sequences in Heart of China. One is a tank simulator using the 3D simulator engines that Dynamix is so fond of. The tank chase is a neat idea, and is pretty intense and fun the first couple of times, but it's really, really hard (especially if your computer is too fast, as there is no game speed cap). The other is a side-scroller action segment, not too unlike Rise of the Dragon. Thankfully, the developers opted to show mercy, allowing you to skip these sequences completely if you fail enough times.

While Heart of China has some design issues, stemming from both its structure and its interface, it's still a pretty fun game. Even in spite of some of the most harebrained puzzles, the strangest solutions, the completely innocuous ways you can find yourself losing, and the aggravating situations created by not having a certain inventory item (yes, this is one of those games where you can get irrevocably stuck!), there's still some pretty good writing. The inherent silliness to the whole affair shows that Dynamix clearly loved the story they worked so hard for, and it's apparent in the writing, the artwork, the expressions of the digitized actors, just about everything. In other words, it works as a nearly perfect B-movie parody.

Heart of China is Dynamix's most obscure game. Both Rise of the Dragon and Willy Beamish got CD releases, whereas this one not only never left the computers, but didn't get a CD release either. Still, as usual, it's worth checking out for fans.

Quick Info:

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Designer:

  • Jeffrey Tunnell

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Heart of China (IBM PC)

Heart of China (IBM PC)

Heart of China (IBM PC)

Heart of China (IBM PC)

Heart of China (IBM PC)

Heart of China (IBM PC)

Heart of China (IBM PC)


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