Cosmology of Kyoto is, along with LSD, one of the more bizarre and inventive Japanese games I’ve ever played. It’s not so much a videogame than it is an interactive encyclopedia but it does hit that sweet spot between interaction and information. Admittedly I was going to write about Golden Axe this week but in truth after writing about Streets of Rage and Revenge of Shinobi there’s only so much ways a guy can describe what a side scrolling beat `em up plays like. So without further ado lets get to it.
Cosmology of Kyoto, developed by Softedge inc for Windows in 1995, is smart, charming, funny and shocking. The game lets the player explore the city of Heiankyo (known as Kyoto today) in 10th and 11th century Japan. This is seen as a golden age in Japan and it is known as the Heian period. The game takes place from a first person perspective as the player simple navigates through Kyoto. There is no real goal or purpose of the game. There are no bosses to fight, experience to collect or overall story to be told. Cosmology of Kyoto simply lets you explore its city, interacting with its inhabitants and culture unlocking encyclopedia-like entries as you proceed. The game offers a wealth of information in terms of both images and information.
The game begins where the player must input their name, age and gender. From there the player must make themselves using a very basic character creation page. It’s not terribly in depth as for instance you only have a selection of 6 noses to choose from but you can generally cover most generic appearances. It doesn’t matter too much though as your appearance will only been seen if you look into a mirror or die. Once that’s complete the player is thrown into the game. At first it’s all quite confusing as apart from a prologue it doesn’t exactly tell you what to do. However, once the game is under way it’s up to the player to explore Kyoto and learn about Japanese culture as they go. Ok, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking it sounds like a non-game, a cheesy slideshow of information that you might get bundled along with Kellogs Cornflakes. But thankfully it’s not. Cosmology of Kyoto makes its mark outright with striking visuals that are both detailed and magical, both pleasant and disturbing. The controls are simple as apart from using the keyboard to talk to certain characters all you need to do is use the mouse to navigate through Kyoto. Navigating Kyoto is done by simply clicking over hotspots which can be streets, doors, alleys or even people. When you interact with people the voices are in Japanese with English subtitles. The conversations are often not very lengthy but they relay information to you to not only teach you about Japan but to aid you on your journey for knowledge. For instance, I found four beggars next to a temple. They wouldn’t talk to me unless I gave them money which I did (I found money and clothes off a dead body earlier) and this opened up a discussion about Japanese beggars, their lives and their place in society. After the talk when I opened up the “reference” tab (the in game encyclopedia) it gave me a few entries for related topics. It had an entry about Japanese beggars, an entry about beggars burial proceedings as well as a real Japanese fable in which a beggar was the main character.
So far I found this game extremely interesting but what happened next took the game in a new direction. I was exploring Kyoto when I found a pile of dead bodies. Upon inspecting the bodies a demon emerged from behind them. Demons are quite prevalent characters in Japanese mythology and while the appearance of one in this game didn’t startle me it did disturb me somewhat. The Demon attacked and killed me and I appeared in hell. From inside hell (known as Jigoku in Japanese) I could read up about the different layers that were allocated for suffering. The game is based around the beliefs of Buddhism and this layered hell wasn’t something I was familiar with. Each of the eight layers are divided for people with lower levels of Karma. Karma is also within the game so the more people you talk to and help out your Karma will be higher. This means that when you do die you won’t end up within a lower layer of hell. It’s all very interesting and does add weight to the game when inside hell you see Demons tormenting souls relentlessly. The game also leads to you learning about the higher levels of enlightenment according to Buddhism which images are a welcome diversion from demons, hell and darkness. However, while the point to Cosmology of Kyoto is to learn about all aspects of the Heian period of Japan I did get the feeling that Buddism is a focal point that the developers were aiming for.
Overall Cosmology of Kyoto is a wonderfully intriguing game. You’ll find yourself sucked into the encyclopedia within the game as you seek out new places, people and things. There’s plenty to see and do though and it’s surely the kind of game that would be even better during a second play through. One thing I wasn’t prepared for though was how grim it could be. In one scene I picked up a ball kids were playing with and threw it. The ball by default hit against a nobleman’s cart. A child went to retrieve it but was promptly beheaded by the nobleman’s servant. The scene was a senseless act of violence but what at first might be shocking to some people the scene was merely a way to have me unlock certain encyclopedia entries which in this case were children, noblemen, murder and children’s games. Yes, Cosmology of Kyoto may seem like a glorified encyclopedia but its true excellence exists in the texture of the world. Yes this world may be grim with murder, dead bodies, ghosts and demons but it also has beauty, adventure and knowledge. Ying and Yang.
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