Eastern Mind: The Lost Souls of Tong-Nou
A game in which you search for your lost soul on an island that takes the shape of a giant green head, and in which you must die and be reincarnated 9 times in order to succeed, is different to say the least. From the mind of Osama Sato, a Japanese artist and composer of some note, Eastern Mind offers something truly different, but in the end comes up short.
The game worlds are a cacophony of images and music, populated by some of the strangest beings you will encounter anywhere. Take for instance Pang-Xie, a resident of Mon-Chien, the Land of Dreaming, who dines on his own legs, or Moku-Gyou, who believes that the birdlike creature that lives on his head is the only thing saving him from being devoured by ants. Then there is Tong-Nou him/it self, an organic being of an island within which all the creatures dwell, and which you enter through the ears or other cranial openings, or by ripping yourself a new one.
The characters have an original look as well. One internet article described them as somewhere between ornamental jewellery and Mr Potato Head, a description on which I could not improve.
Playing inside a head fits the philosophy of the game. It is after all called Eastern Mind, and you are essentially being invited to examine such a mind, or at least explore some of the tenets of such a mind. Magical creatures will help you or hinder you, the gods might grant you a favour and the 5 elements of alchemy represent the worlds which you must visit. Death and rebirth is necessary to achieve a higher goal, each life bringing you closer to that which you seek. What were Taoist and Buddhist snippets to me may well be more prevalent and profound for someone more versed in such things.
You start as Rin, who has awoken to discover he no longer has a soul. Tong-Nou has devoured it, and Rin will weaken and die if he does not recover it. Acquiring a temporary soul from a friend which will keep him alive for 49 hours, and an amulet and a large green handkerchief from a white snake, Rin embarks for the island of Tong-Nou.
You can decide which orifice you enter first, and whichever it is you will likely encounter Fang-Shin, whose soul purpose it seems is to frenetically leap about saying "fun' fun, fun" and provide clues. Which is good, because for some considerable time after I started I was rather confused about what I was doing. But then I died, which is usually a bad thing but in this instance was a good thing, because I was able to be reincarnated, as a result of which I was given a direct task to accomplish. My first was to recover 4 musical instruments.
I did find a drum, but then died again. I found myself back at the reincarnation "tree", being scolded for failing my mission and having to decide whether I wanted to live that life over again or try a new one. I decided to try the same one, determined to find the other instruments.
Inevitably I died (which in the end is what the game is all about) and decided to try a new life. This time I was looking for the Eyeball of Dreaming, with a special wrench to help me.
Using reincarnation as a way to attack a different aspect of the game not only fits the overall objective, it neatly gets round a phobia of many adventure gamers, namely dying. The chances are good you will die by misadventure (as opposed to choice) more than once, but it is not a full stop to be resolved by a saved game. Instead, it is an opportunity to choose a different path to your lost soul, or push on as the same being for a while longer. Either way, you keep possession of your knowledge and acquired items. This is sympathetic to the concepts and beliefs inherent in the game, and as a consequence it is far more natural than any other "second chance" mechanism within a game.
You can also die in some most interesting ways. I ate myself to death in one place, and sexually stimulated myself to death in another.
By the time I set off looking for the Eyeball, I had started to piece together the rules by which the game worked. I had also acquired a number of items, amongst them The Tong-Nou Illustrated Book, which helped as well.
The lands in which you search are limited, but you might interact with them differently depending on who you are each time you visit. The paths between the lands though are many, and they function in a way that reminded me of Eve and also Alice. They are little labyrinths within a bigger one, and the crossroads and how to use them is worth working out.
Because in the end, you will traipse them over and over, in different reincarnations trying to achieve different things. You will perform some tasks numerous times in order to possibly acquire a different object so as to see what you might trade it for, or how else you might use it. You will click and click and click again, and repetition may well be your downfall.
Eastern Mind is played in 256 colours but is fairly vibrant and it is certainly lively. The creatures dash about almost maniacally, a result methinks of the speed of my processor and the age of the game (1995). The settings are suitably surreal.
The music reminded me of Eve in the way that it seems to be put together. A loud techno-fusion of a wide variety of instruments, it sounds like numerous small bits accompany characters and places, crashing together in whichever way you move through the game. It doesn't have the interactivity of Eve, but in its own way it as stylised a merging of image and sound.
I don't recall ever hearing a voice, all information being imparted through pictures or subtitles. As well as Fang-Shin, there are numerous other clues to what you have to do or find, so long as you pay attention. There are no cursors to show you what to do, other than which directions you can move, although some activity or sound might indicate that you should examine a particular area a bit more thoroughly.
In the end Eastern Mind seemed like it didn't know whether it wanted to be a game or an exploration of multimedia capabilities. Whilst it's a common complaint of many games that they are too short, this was far too long. I got rather tired of wending my way back and forth through the same lands, and I confess I didn't finish, instead just petering out. You can factor that in to my overall impression of the game as you see fit.
Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2002.
All rights reserved.
Dos 6.0 or Windows 3.1 or higher, 486 processor, 25MHz or higher, 8 MB RAM. 2x CD ROM, 640 x 480, 256 colour, Quicktime for Windows 2.02 (on CD)
68030/33 MHz Macintosh or higher, System 7.0 or higher, 8 MB RAM, 2x CD ROM, 256 colour, Quicktime 2.0