China: The Forbidden City is one of a series of mild, beautiful, and educational games by Cryo, including games set in Egypt and Versailles. This is a strange little game that I liked very much. It does a remarkable, almost eerie job, of recreating The Forbidden City in Peking as it existed in the 18th Century AD. As you play the job you get a real sense of the city’s vastness, its complexity, and its unity of design.
This unity, in fact, adds a great challenge in simple navigation. By that I mean that all of the buildings look very similar, and so you have to be very careful to figure out where you need to go. Thankfully, the game offers several effective resources to help in this regard, from detailed maps to "jump to" features to building indices.
Additionally, the game gives you a vivid sense of the way the royal court worked, politically, socially and ritualistically. The conversations are full of the rich formality of Chinese court speech of the period, and its authentic feel adds greatly to the immersive quality of this game.
In this first-person point and click game, you play a newly-promoted royal investigator who’s assigned by the emperor himself to solve the mysterious death of a highly-ranking eunuch. The emperor gives you until sundown to solve the mystery – no pressure!
The storyline is actually quite intriguing, involving forgery, theft, blackmail and treason. The game is extremely linear, as your character follows a ribbon of clues left in various parts of the City.
The game includes an entertaining series of puzzles, many of which are solved by using an in-game encyclopedia. In this sense the game is quite similar to another game about China, Qin. This sort of fact-finding to solve game puzzles infuriates some players, but I don’t mind it at all. This encyclopedia also allows you to learn more about characters and buildings that you come across. Again, I know that some players have no interest in being educated while playing a game. I don’t feel that way at all, especially if the subject matter is as compelling as this.
Visually, the game is a combination of slide-show navigation but with 360 degree 3D panning. The graphics are coolly elegant for the time. The characters are rendered in 3D and here is an area Cryo really shines. The faces in China are not perfect, in that their movements are stiff and not quite naturalistic. However, they actually look like real faces on real people. They don’t look like puppets, and they don’t look like polygon figures.
Adding to the authentic feeling these good faces give the game is that the creators of China have even used contemporary portraits of these historical characters when designing the faces. That kind of attention to detail is quite impressive. Another aspect of the game that will irritate some players, but not me, is the fact that in the puzzles are easy and the game is fairly short.
Overall, playing this game is a calm, languid, elegant, Asian pleasure. China casts a lovely spell that I was happy to fall under.