Can games be art? Anyone who has followed this site will know that I consider the answer to be a resounding and obvious 'yes'. Yet, prominent critics of other mediums still ponder this question. Famed film expert Roger Ebert was one of these naysayers but there was one game that did impress him - Cosmology of Kyoto.
This Japanese adventure came out in the US in 1995 for PC and Macs, two years after being released in its native country. There were limited numbers and next to no advertising, with the only prominent information I can gather from the time of its release being the infamous Roger Ebert write up - the only game the respected movie pundit ever reviewed. That alone has given the game something of a reputation and it will often fetch many hundreds of dollars on the second-hand market if you're lucky enough to actually see one.
The subtitle on the US box claims it to be a 'visual mindscape of old Japan', and that is pretty accurate marketing. You don't play Cosmology of Kyoto, you experience it. Many of the locations are open to you outright, be it the eerily empty streets of the poor side of the city ravaged with disease, poverty and the ghosts of those claimed by them. The richer areas are filled with life and movement. Here you can bet on cockfights or purchase sushi while hiding from the glares of a creepy demon lurking in the shadows. The depressing and sometimes literal dog-eat-dog nature of 10th century life is pretty accurate. There is little to no direction, but as you play you'll discover there is a point.
Don't get too attached to your avatar as he will undoubtedly die.
Before all this urban exploring, you begin the game by choosing your avatar. There's not much choice, but anyone who has spent time tweaking their Miis on their Wiis will know what to expect. At first, this appears to have no impact on the game itself - you'll rarely see this cobbled face again, but later on, you'll appreciate that this is part of the game's greater theme. Once created, you are plonked in the middle of a field just outside the city walls, naked. A dead body is left to rot nearby so his clothes are no longer of use to him. After a short game of the world's eeriest whac-a-mole, the path to the city gates opens up, but they aren't open to you. To enter the city, you'll have to follow a ghostly white fox to a crumbled hole in the wall. Either that or prompt a nearby samurai to defeat the demon holding the gates shut.
These are indicative to the many events you'll witness throughout your play time, including actual incidents from Japan in the 900s, around 200 years since the capital's formation. You'll bump into a number of historical figures, including Buddhist monks Japanese royalty. That meteorite you saw falling from the sky actually happened. Known as the Kazan Stone, it is still a revered artefact of cultural significance. But there's also myth and superstition lurking beneath the surface. Long-necked demons and long-haired ghosts also wander the streets and many will lead to your demise. Don't worry though, death isn't game over. Instead, you'll be transported to one of the Six Realms of Existence, a type of hell depicted in Buddhism. You'll succumb to all kinds of disturbing imagery before you are reincarnated back onto the streets, complete with a new face and identity. Before you carry on, though, be sure to collect your clothes and belongings from the twisted body of your predecessor.
The in-game encyclopedia it commendably extensive (left)
It's easy to get lost in Kyoto so this map is welcome (right)
What torturous spectacles await all depend on your Karma level, which is cryptically depicted in the lower left of the screen. Click and hold on that tiny square and your score will be represented in bars. Similarly, the lower right square will detail the number of coins you have in your possession. The interface is a tad confusing with an over-abundance of empty black space, so a quick read of the manual is best to familiarise yourself with its quirks. Be sure to remember the name you gave at the beginning as this acts as a password of sorts when loading (the shortcuts are Ctrl-S to save and Ctrl-Q to quit in case you forget). One of the most annoying is that the direction you're facing is depicted in Japanese kanji so you'll have to memorise the correct character for the correct point of the compass.
That's not the only thing in Japanese either. All speech is dramatically acted in the native language and subtitled in English in the empty space below. In my opinion, this is to the game's benefit adding to the already rich and uncanny atmosphere.
While these points don't necessarily take away from the overall game, there are nevertheless a number of more damaging bugs and programming missteps. In the beginning, you'll have to wait until the music stops before you can interact with anything, initially making me think the game was broken when I first played it. The emulation has a minor bug to it as well. Whenever text needs to be typed, the bar turns white making the text illegible. Not totally game breaking, and beyond your name entry, it's possible you may not encounter the issue at all as it's that infrequent. Even so, you'll rarely repond with more than a 'yes' or a 'no'. It is something I couldn't resolve adequately no matter what I tried so I thought it was worth mentioning.
You can spend your coin in the many shops (left) or bet on cockfights (right)
Be aware that everything you do will affect your karma.
To accompany the meandering exploration of Japanese history and folklore is an exhaustive encyclopedia. You do have access to all of it from the beginning, but it will always open to the page that is most relevant to what you are witnessing. While not entirely needed to complete the game, it is still a welcome addition for those who are unfamiliar with Buddhist life and legends and makes for a read as fascinating as the game itself.
Cosmology of Kyoto isn't one of those games where you'd want to rush to the end. In fact, if you do follow a concise walkthrough you'll only experience a tiny fraction of what the game has to offer. The brilliance of the game is that you just take in the strange events with its off-kilter artwork and let the melancholy atmosphere wash over you. I disagree with Roger Ebert over a lot of things, but not when it comes to Cosmology of Kyoto. It is an artistic masterpiece.
To download the game, follow the link below. This custom installer exclusive to The Collection Chamber uses DOSBox running Microsoft Windows 3.1 to get the game working on modern systems. Manual, Japanese Manual and Reference Guide included. Tested on Windows 10.
File Size: 319 Mb. Install Size: 694 Mb. Need help? Consult the Collection Chamber FAQ
Cosmology of Kyoto is © SOFTEDGE Inc
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me