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Thursday 3 November 2016


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 from 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 are 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; instadeath. Simply selecting the wrong response to a conversation can do this. For example, taking up 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 makes for 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 are 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

Like this? Try These...

Ripley's Believe It Or Not: The Riddle of Master Lu  Titanic: Adventure Out Of Time  Rise of the Dragon


  1. Maybe my favourite game when it comes to an FMV Remake! However, the wish for such a project seeing the light of day sometime probably remains a pious one; but it doesn't hurt to dream, does it? :-)

    1. I sadly doubt any of the Dynamix Three will be remade. They're all excellent in their own way, but at least the other two got CD releases.

  2. On fire Biffman! Got this one working myself a long time ago... but a great addition.

    Drowned God and Black Dhalia have confused me though. Cannot get either of these to work at all. If you are looking for a challenge!

    1. Hmm, I've got Black Dahlia but the last time I played it was when Windows 98 was current. It might work on an emulated Windows 95 build but the 9 CDs may be an issue. Win 95 can't read HDDs larger than 2GB, or have more than 2 HDDs at a time (although I think the latter is a DOSBox limitation).

      Not played Drowned God but I'll give them both a go.

  3. just wanted to let you know that the amiga version gets an error when you try to start the game,,,,an error occurred starting fs-uae launcher permission error (13 access is denied) fs-uae launcher connot start because of this... Iinstalled version 2 of the file.

    1. Hello, I've just done a quick test of V2 (which removes disk swapping) and it's working for me. I did a search and it seems like some files may be write protected.

      From your install directory, make sure all files in AMIGA/Hard Drives and AMIGA/Kickstarts aren't write protected (right click-properties). Do the same for all files and folders in the FS-UAE directory in you Documents folder if it's been created. I couldn't replicate the error so can only go by what I found online. Did it install correctly? Does version 1 do the same thing?