Westwood wasn’t the first, or the last, studio to diversify its library of games. Though it was well known for Command & Conquer, it dabbled with action RPGs via its Lands of Lore series and adventure games spinning stories set in the world of Kyrandia. Back then, it wasn’t too unusual for many studios to experiment within different genres to offer as much to as many audiences as possible. Just look at EA back then and compare to their retail offerings now.
Dynamix was one of those studios that went outside of its own box of action games and flight sims, like the well-known Red Baron (which didn’t quite succeed with its first attempt at a revival via Kickstarter). Games like 1990’s gritty sci-fi detective story, Rise of the Dragon, with its ‘action sequence’ additions to a tried and true formula helping it to stand out in a crowded market. In 1991, Dynamix would also introduce audiences to The Adventures of Willy Beamish and then take them on a high flying adventure into the 1930s with Heart of China which, thanks to the miracle of DOSBox, was able to play through.
This was a big game. For example, it originally came on seven 5.25″ disks for MS-DOS machines (or six high density 3.5″ ones) and boasted support for VGA graphics. It was also released for both the Amiga and the Macintosh and all three shared the same, “big box” packaging that computer games enjoyed back then.
In this case, “big box” meant a big, illustrated box featuring painted sketches of the live actors whose likenesses were digitized into the game — some of whom were fellow co-workers and family members because of budget constraints — and included a “travel guide” describing the locales and the main characters along with a manual taking players through the interface.
Players took on the role of “Lucky” Jake Masters, a WW1 flying ace with a small export business in Hong Kong which has seen better times. Kate Lomax, a nurse working in Chengdu, has been kidnapped by a local warlord for his ‘collection’ and the father, E.A. Lomax, wants her back.
That he’s also a big business magnate who now owns the debt that Jake’s company as accrued has also encouraged the former WW1 ace to get on the job. But it’s not all blackmail. Succeed, and Lomax is willing to pay as much as $200k (roughly $2.8 million on 2013 bucks) while also covering food and supplies. He really does want his daughter back despite being something of an asshole. He’s also going to dock $20k for every day that passes in the game to give Jake another incentive in saving his daughter.
Heart of China’s story is mostly a lighthearted adventure with plenty of jokes and banter between the characters and seen in though bubbles that occasionally come up giving the player a unique insight into their motivations. So despite seeing the world in first-person as Jake, or as any of the other characters who join up with him such as Zhao Chi, a Chinese Ninja (there’s actually an explanation in the travel guide on how that happened), the player will be privy to a few mental hints thrown onscreen.
The interface has almost been lifted, pixel for pixel, from Rise of the Dragon’s (and there’s even an Easter Egg related to that game in Heart). Clicking on the character icon in the lower right hand corner brings it up as a big panel and you can do the usual things like combine items, right click to see what they are, and then exit the description screen to actually bring up the picture of whichever character is active to try equip them with it. Why your character profile isn’t there at the start, something carried over from Rise, is kind of strange which can make it a bit awkward. On the other hand, Heart allows players to pass items to different characters in your “party” with just a click which painted me into a puzzle corner at one point in the game. Thank goodness for saves!
Heart of China also has multiple ways with which to go through the game and a degree of risk when it assesses how you answer and treat people. Romance between Jake and Kate may or may not bloom by the time they reach Paris depending on Jake’s behavior and the choices he’s made. There are a number of optional moments in the game that the player “should” do but at which the game won’t actually stop planting the seeds for which of the endings that will be their reward seeing Jake with the success, and romance, that he’s been missing out on — or utterly destitute and alone.
This is also a game created during the heyday of adventures when they weren’t shy about killing the player. No guard rails or overprotective safeties here — if Jake or his pals screw up, they can end up shot by guards, poisoned by snakes, have their throats crushed by dogs, blown up by a tank, killed by guards in Istanbul, or crashed into the ground without enough left to mail back home in an envelope. Right near the start, it’s totally possible to lose it by getting kidnapped and sold into white slavery.
A number of puzzles are also timed — something it also shares with Rise of the Dragon. Fail to escape a sewer in time, and the slowly rising water level will end the game. Take too long in Kathmandu, kiss your plane teetering on the edge of a cliff goodbye. Walking away from that keyboard without saving the game or pausing it by bringing up the options screen could get you killed.
There are also two big action sequences in the game – a tank one and another where the player is fighting on top of the Orient Express with a sword versus a strangely not-so-Chinese thug from that warlord you saved Kate from. Fail them multiple times and the game eventually allows you to skip them with a win condition, something that had also been used in Rise of the Dragon and, relatively recently, in a game such as Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire in 2011, which was a boon for gamers who hated having to play arcade games in the middle of their adventures. Both sequences allow the player to use either just the mouse, keyboard, a joystick, or a combination of these to battle their way through.
The tank one was actually kind of fun. In that one, our heroes escape in a first-person tank across a low-poly, 3D world to try and get away from the bad guys by getting to their plane which was somewhere out there. That took me several tries to actually discover that I should have used the landscape to my advantage to avoid getting blown up. The fight on the train, on the other hand, didn’t work out for me which might have had to do with the speed of my machine. In that instance, I just opted to automatically win it and get on with the story.
Even though the title is “Heart of China”, your adventure will eventually take you as far as the streets of Istanbul right before the big finish by taking the Orient Express to a train station in Paris. The graphics, even after more than twenty years, still hold up as a mix of painted pixels and digitized stills of live actors — at least in VGA. Sound-wise, not bad especially if you had a fancy Roland, and the music fit in with each locale.
Story-wise, it kept things simple and lite with its characters and humor and had even marked specific points with a visual marker to let you know that there was another option you could have explored before moving on to the next area. You can even finish the game in one sitting if you’re really that determined to get through it which is a stark contrast to the tougher adventures that had come out at the time and probably its greatest weakness. At the same time, the multiple solutions and endings attempted to encourage the player to replay it and try different approaches, though with multiple saves, going through it again from beginning to end wasn’t really needed.
As a Sierra studio (Sierra On-Line bought into the studio in 1990), one might have expected it to follow a number of its parent’s titles onto a service like Good Old Games in the same way. Instead, much of Dynamix’s library such as Rise of the Dragon and Willy Beamish exist only as abandonware today. The Sierra Help Pages, an archive of tips to help get classic Sierra games running on more modern machines, has a page dedicated to Heart of China complete with scanned copies of its documentation.
Heart of China followed after Dynamix’ sci-fi, Blade Runnerish title, Rise of the Dragon, later to be joined by the animated antics of The Adventures of Willy Beamish completing a trio of traditional adventure titles created by the studio which then focused its efforts back onto sims, strategy games, and sports. For a brief moment, Dynamix’ artists and designers succeeded in crafting together a pulpy adventure in the spirit of the 1930s adding to the mix of dystopian sci-fi and lighthearted after-school fun that Jeff Tunnell and his team created with their titles. Heart of China might not pack a lot into its overnight bag with its gameplay, but it was still a fun and exciting way to see the world.