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.Continued on the next page...