Heart of China review
Replayability. Not an idea typically associated with adventure games, perhaps, though certainly not for a lack of trying. From Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis to The Last Express, through Blade Runner and most recently in Indigo Prophecy (or Fahrenheit for the Europeans), developers have made a number of attempts to introduce the concept – with multiple paths through the game, multiple puzzles, and multiple endings – though with varying degrees of success. Of course, these ideas come at price: it's all too easy for a game to lose focus, or for the overarching plot to suffer once freedom is given to the player, and the potential for dead-ends and related problems to appear increases dramatically. If a developer gets it right, though, it can produce a game that's very different from the norm.
Heart of China is another replayable game. Like those listed above, it presents the player with choices, where different approaches lead to a changing story with different endings. Unlike the other games, however, this Dynamix-developed, Sierra Online-published title has largely faded from our collective memory. And whether that is because of its clichéd plot or a handful of design issues, or simply because it doesn't have the word 'Quest' in the title, it's a shame. Because, while Heart of China is far from perfect, the innovative nature of its design makes it a game that is still worth playing.
For better or worse, Heart of China is an interactive B-movie, and is content to take a well-trodden narrative path. It's the 1930s, and down-on-his-luck pilot Jake "Lucky" Masters is hired by a rich businessman to rescue his kidnapped daughter Kate, who has been working as a nurse. Enlisting the help of Chi, a ninja (no, really), Lucky flies off on a continent-trotting adventure that is replete with pretty much every cliché going. Sinister henchmen who serve no role other than to be really evil? Check. Enforced detours from what should be a simple rescue mission owing to factors such as a lack of fuel? Check. A shamelessly self-obsessed hero who comes to woo an initially stubborn, irritating heroine?…
Well, possibly. Precisely what ending you get is determined by how successfully you deal with Kate at various points in the narrative. She starts off fiercely hostile to Lucky, but saying the right thing here and doing the right thing there can change her opinion, and could cause romance to blossom. Insult her, though, and things turn decidedly frosty. It's an idea that is, for the most part, well implemented, and it helps to introduce a sense of importance to dialogue choices that tends to be found only in RPGs.
This element of player choice is also extended to the in-game puzzles, with multiple ways of approaching situations. To take an example: early on, Lucky and Chi must infiltrate a guarded fortress in order to get to Kate. You could try to get the two characters in together through the sewers. Or you could have one of them sneak into the fortress and then aid the other in getting in. If you choose the latter option, you might want to scout around first, overhearing conversations that reveal (slightly) more of the plot. Neither method results in a substantially different plot – both, after all, have a common goal – but each offers a slightly different set of challenges.
Regardless of which paths you take, though, and despite the number of clichés that the plot is dripping with, Heart of China still manages to tell a good yarn. The pace rarely lets up as Lucky, Chi and Kate travel between countries, and the interplay between the characters – Lucky the arrogant loud-mouth; Chi the calm and resourceful one; Kate the feisty love interest – is nicely woven into the narrative. The dialogue between them, and with the more minor characters, is fairly well written. While none of it is hugely memorable, and you're unlikely to walk away spouting quotations from the game, characterisation is developed well, and it's easy to care for the characters, even when they've been written to act as an irritant to one or more of the others.
Visually, Heart of China isn't about to win any awards nowadays; its first-person viewpoint showing off some quite fuzzy, low-resolution graphics. It does, however, make good use of photographed actors and items to give the game a realistic feel, while the odd piece of character or background animation helps to breathe some life into the world. It also nails the period setting beautifully. From bustling streets to mouldering jail cells, there is a sense in which the game takes things as far as it can given the limitation of the medium for which it was made (the humble floppy disk). The music is slightly less impressive. It captures the mood of each location well, with the style and instrumentation changing to reflect the cultural sounds of the different countries, but the tracks themselves are a little too short, so that the looping becomes particularly noticeable. The MIDI sounds are acceptable but unspectacular.
While Heart of China offers an impressive amount of freedom to play the game in different ways, this freedom is both a blessing and a curse. It sets the game apart from others, but it also creates many of the problems that are present. The plot branches – pointed out after they are triggered by the rather unsubtle appearance of a black screen with the words “Plot Branch” – may bring the game to an abrupt ending, for instance, with the death of a character. For the most part such endings are fairly well signposted, with the outcome being a fairly logical result of the decision that you made. Some, though, make considerably less sense, and seem to exist so that the developers didn't have to design further narrative paths, so frequent saving is nigh-on essential if you actually want to make it through to the end.
And the words "for the most part" are particularly important there. Sadly, some of the ways in which you can fail make rather little sense, and make you realise how few choices there are that can be made without bringing the game to an end. Fail to acquire your ninja buddy before hopping on a plane near the beginning, and you'll find that Lucky – a hotshot pilot – is incapable of landing safely. The dialogue trees, meanwhile, can seem like they're doing their best to be confusing. Insult (as Lucky is wont to do) a character in one way, and the conversation may move on to something about which you need to speak. Choose one of the other insults, though, and the character to which you're speaking will just get angry and become unhelpful. Usually these dialogue trees aren't too complex, so it's reasonably easy to go back and try the conversation again, but at a couple of points in the game – particularly in one of the last sections of the game – it's extremely easy to get an entirely different result from the one that you're expecting to achieve.
This problem is made all the more noticeable by the reliance on dialogue puzzles as the predominant challenge within the game. There are a handful of inventory puzzles, but many just consist of giving the right object to the right person. The few remaining examples, meanwhile, require you to deal with a slightly quirky interface. You can drag items onto a character portrait in the inventory in order to have them wear or use an item, but this character portrait is only visible after first examining an item, rather than as soon as you open up the inventory. The game also contains an interface option that is easy to overlook: holding down the right mouse button will give you a targeting reticle if you have a gun equipped, or a hand icon if you're using ninja abilities, but this is needed only twice in the entire game, and, since the right mouse button is already being used to examine items, it's entirely possible to miss the option.
Heart of China is also found wanting when it comes to the interactions available in any one scene. There are remarkably few visible hotspots – sometimes there's only a single thing of any importance in any one location – though, rather bizarrely, right-clicking sometimes elicits descriptions of items or people even when there isn't a hotspot present. It's all more than a little confusing.
Action-sensitive adventure gamers might also want to be wary, as Heart of China contains two arcade sequences in which the game changes drastically in style: the first sees you driving a tank down a road in first-person, while the second is a kind of side scrolling platform-game-come-beat-em-up. Neither has aged particularly well. Fortunately, it's possible to skip these action sequences entirely (though not once you've actually started playing them), but this does cause some slight problems with following the narrative, since the plot develops slightly during each sequence. In addition, there are a couple of sections that are subject to turn/time limits; these won't trouble most people, but they could serve to frustrate some players.
Heart of China, then, is certainly not without its flaws. It can be a deeply frustrating game, but when it gets things right, it gets them very right indeed. The story may be clichéd B-movie fare, but it still manages to create a very real sense of excitement. The game may be full of dead-ends, but these do give a sense that your actions and choices really do matter; it's not just a case of finding the correct gameplay trigger in order to move onto the next section. Its problems are obvious, but so is its greatest success: it's a game that really does encourage you to replay it; to try different ways of approaching a situation to see what effects they might have. It certainly isn't a classic, but it does deserve to be recognised for achieving something that few other adventures even attempt, and, despite its problems, managing to be a fun game to play. It may not be perfect, but a journey into the Heart of China still manages to be a memorable one.