“A Crash Landing Globe Spanning Adventure”

The term “interactive movie” causes gamers of a certain vintage to immediately adopt the fetal position and rock incessantly at flashbacks of terrible voice acting, endless cut scenes and letterbox window videos strewn with artefacts and extreme levels of compression.  Shortly before the CD-ROM format landed and opened the doors to this new frontier however, the interactive movie is what the adventure game genre was striving for.

Games such as Sierra’s Police Quest series were incorporating more and more digitised sprites and sounds to take advantage of the video and audio hardware appearing in PC’s in the early 90’s, and the promise of seemingly unlimited storage capacity on the horizon as the CD format was finalised for computer use had us all convinced that hyper realistic, digitised adventure gaming was the future.

Dynamix, recently acquired by Sierra found itself in the enviable position of having access to far larger resources than they were accustomed to when they produced the likes of Arctic Fox in ’86 or Caveman Ugh-lympics in ’88, and set about creating the Dynamix Game Development System (DGDS), a flexible and powerful environment in which to produce adventure games, dialogue trees and custom triggered actions with the emphasis on creativity and accessibility.  Dynamix Founders Jeff Tunnell and Damon Slye first put their new system to use with “Rise of the Dragon”, a blade runner-esque sci-fi adventure with comic book style visuals which was well received and went on to find a home in the impending CD format with the Sega CD in later years.

The second outing in adventure games for Dynamix saw DGDS paired up with resident artist D. Brent Burkett leading the visual production in what would become “Heart of China“.

Works of art digitised for a 256 colour VGA palette

Released for MS-DOS, Macintosh and the Amiga in 1991, Heart of China follows the adventures of Jake “Lucky” Masters in his attempts to rescue Kate Lomax, daughter of a ruthless business mogul who persuades Lucky to go to her rescue against all the odds.

Presented on seven 5.25″ floppy disks (PC), Dynamix  weave an Indiana Jones style tongue in cheek story line with hand painted artwork and digitized animations, but thankfully without the endless cut-scenes or terrible voice acting soon the grace the genre.

As control of Lucky is assumed on the Chinese docks the minimalist interface is striking to players used to Lucas Arts SCUMM system.  The entire screen is real estate for the story but for a single icon of Lucky at the bottom right corner of the screen.  This is used to access the inventory.  All other actions are performed by clicking and dragging items to pick them up, right clicking, or in the case of the pistol holding down the right mouse button to show a cross hair.  The minimalism is refreshing and modern.

Digitized imagery on the PC and Macintosh give way to less detailed art on the Amiga

Time is of the essence in your bid to rescue Kate as $20,000 is lost with each day.  Maximising your return is likely to play a part in the bigger decisions you make along the way.  Do you wait an extra day to recruit the local Ninja to join you on your trip or depart immediately?  When you make a choice which changes the course of the game it’s signified by a flashing “junction point” and these are numerous, reflecting that the game has a surprisingly high replay value if you’re keen to explore the many ways to approach and complete it.

Puzzles are mostly reliant on dialogue for clues with a handful of inventory puzzles, such as combining a rope and a hook to scale a war lords wall, or simply giving the right object to the right person.  Scouring a scene for hot spots to progress is certainly less frequent than many Sierra games before it, but it does happen on occasion.  Minor frustrations also appear in the shape of time pressure situations before you’re captured by guards for example, but with many save slots available you should be prepared to tackle most challenges in the game and continue to progress while enjoying the story-line.

Bribing the locals

As if the story wasn’t action packed enough additional challenges come in the form of two arcade style scenes which can be skipped entirely or attempted and failed without penalty.  The first is a 3D tank mini game in which you’re pursued by enemy tanks while navigating the narrow country roads and local cattle.  It borrows directly from Damon Slye’s 3D engine as seen in A10 Tank Killer a year prior.  It’s an interesting distraction but entirely irrelevant to your success in the game owing to its optional nature.  The second such action sequence is a side scrolling fight atop a steaming locomotive reminiscent of both North vs South and Sid Mier’s Pirates in its execution.

A fun mini game or just Dynamix showing off it’s 3D credentials?

Heart of China draws to one of several conclusions depending on your approach, and while it’s not the longest adventure game by far it does offer longevity in its replay value.  It also manages to present the story in a sometimes unexpectedly humorous style despite the serious and stylistic surface, the charm of which soon grows on you as do the key characters you control.  Dynamix followed Heart of China up with their third and final adventure game “The Adventures of Willy Beamish” before concentrating on 3D flight sims such as Red Baron and Aces of the Pacific.

The attention to detail extends to the box contents including a travel guide which further invests the player in the story and characters, as well as a subtle embossed cover featuring yet more  beautiful hand painted art.  Eighty percent scores and higher were awarded on release by the gaming press, but this game deserves to stand shoulder to shoulder with the great adventure games of the time, and provided it’s played on a smaller monitor so as not to stretch the digitized art, it holds up extremely well today.  A candidate certainly for a modern remake if those original artworks are still accessible.

And so for a brief moment in 1991 the interactive movie was realised but it wasn’t the capacity of the CD ROM which unlocked it, it was good old fashioned storytelling, traditional art, and perhaps the limitations of the floppy disk which gave these elements such focus to culminate in a rip roaring adventure.

See more of my review and gameplay footage

Author: RetroManCave
Nostalgianaught, collector and tinkerer of all technologies that passed by too quickly and deserve a second look. When I'm not writing for VITNR you can find me on YouTube or twitter as RetroManCave.

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