Dynamix may be best known for their simulation games with the likes EarthSiege, Tribes and Red Baron, but when they entered the Sierra family in 1990 they began to dabble in the adventure genre. The result is a trio of excellent adventures with a heavy focus on storytelling. The most underrated of the three was the globe-hopping yarn from 1991 named Heart of China.
You play as Jake 'Lucky' Masters who has been hired by a rich entrepreneur by the name of E.A. Lomax to locate and rescue his missing daughter, Kate. She's been kidnapped by a Chinese warlord for reasons unknown so it's only logical to start your search there. Mr. Lomax has offered you $200,000 to bring her back unharmed, though $20,000 will be deducted for each day she's absent (yes, time passes in this game). You may begin your search in the orient but your journey will also take you to the likes of Paris, Kathmandu and Istanbul.
Set just after the Great War in the 1930s, Heart of China evokes the same sense of adventure that Indiana Jones has become known for. In fact, I would've thought that those films along with Romancing the Stone and especially High Road to China were heavy influences. The latter film starring Tom Selleck even shares a basic plot, setting and characters. It's a good job it wasn't well remembered upon its release in 1983 let alone when this game appeared eight years later, otherwise I'd smell a lawsuit.
The gameplay is markedly different to the other adventures Sierra were known for. It uses Dynamix's proprietary engine known DGDS (Dynamix Game Development System) as opposed to Sierra's evergreen SCI engine. Outside of the comic book cut-scenes, the camera is stuck in the first person with little to no representation of movement. It is not a series of stills like Myst and its ilk, but more like a specific set of tableaus that convey a lot of important information (think Shannara or Callahan's Crosstime Saloon). The streets of China, and indeed every other location, are bustling with movement and intrigue as well as many points of interaction. Some areas will even scroll to offer a wider view of your surroundings.
And what surroundings they are! Every one of them is beautifully hand-painted. I could happily hang any one of them in a gallery were it not for the pixelated resolutions of 1991. Even so, it's still perhaps one of the most graphically stunning PC games of the era. Characters are represented by digitised live actors that have an impressive number of animations considering the floppy-only release. There's apparently around 100 actors represented in the whole game, most of whom were employees of Dynamix and their families.
The Amiga also saw a port released at the same time. It's gameplay is almost identical but the graphics surprisingly take a hit. The machine was certainly capable of displaying these images, as evidenced by the SCI games of the time, however unlike that engine, DGDS wasn't created with the Amiga jointly in mind. That, coupled with the obscene amount of disk swapping (there were 9 floppies in total), make the DOS version the one to play.
There is one thing that Dynamix has taken from Sierra's gaming rulebook; insta-death. Simply selecting the wrong response to a conversation can do this. For example, taking up of a prostitute's offer of a good time will lead to forced slavery for the next ten years. All I wanted was to see where this would go, but no. Slavery. If there's any advice I can give you it's this: the blandest, least humorous response is the correct one. The story branches in many ways too. For example both Kate and a Chinese Ninja named Zhao Chi can join your party and be playable characters. It is possible to play the entire game without meeting the latter. It'll make things a lot harder as his stealth abilities come in very handy, but it's interesting to see how events play out without him there.
All three characters bring their own unique skills to the table. Zhao with his Ninja mask (it has to be equipped to make use of it) and Lucky carries a gun (because of the second amendment). Kate spends most of the time missing or poisoned, so the only thing she really adds is drama. It's good drama though. There's a real investment to the characters that I've not seen in many graphical adventures of this time period. They might be a little broad and stereotypical or even ripped wholesale from other media but you nevertheless fall for them.
There are a few niggles in the game that don't really detract from the overall quality. There are two action sequences, one an awkward platforming segment and the other a 3D tank simulator. Both can be skipped after a couple of failures but the tank game is surprisingly fun. It plays to Dynamix's strengths in the genre, but I nevertheless wanted to play an adventure game. Also, why play this when there are more fleshed out full games on the market. Like every other adventure that attempts such detours, it's an annoyance that just seems out of place.
The inventory system is also a little clunky. There's two ways to access the inventory menu; clicking on the character icon at the bottom of the screen or right clicking. The former brings up a window that will allow you to drag an item onto something on in the main location. The latter goes fullscreen, nullifying the drag and drop method. This is also the only screen that allows you to equip items. An avatar of your character is displayed on the right. Dragon the gun or the ninja mask over to it to equip it. To use an item in the standard way from this screen, you'd first need to drop it. This will place it somewhere on the main screen where you can manipulate it as before. Remember to pick it up afterwards though as it will remain there until you pick it up again. It makes the whole try-everything-on-everything strategy very cumbersome and dangerous; forget to pick it back up again and you may find yourself in an unwinnable situation.
None of this detracts from the overall quality of the game. The story and writing are by far Heart of China's strongest elements, but the gameplay is no slouch either despite the obvious flaws. If you're still unconvinced, maybe you should track down a copy of High Road to China and give that a watch instead. For me, the unofficial and belated tie-in / homage / rip-off is superior.
As of 7th November 2017, Heart of China is now available to buy DRM-free on Good Old Games.
Buy from GOG
Heart of China is © Dynamix
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me