Tao is an infamous game in Japan, and came out in 1989. While I can’t read the commentary about it that well, many people say it’s attempting to force a political view on the player (which seems to fit the ending,) and that it’s a kusoge. The developer was Pax Softnica who worked on a wide range of stuff including Mother, Wrecking Crew, and Ice Hockey. The publisher was VAP (NTV). VAP, thanks to ties with Nihon Television, did a lot of anime tie in games, and from what I can tell, didn’t seem to publish great games.
The translation is by snark, and came out recently. Judging by the short line lengths and occasional vauge wording, I assume that the game isn’t easy to translate. However, being able to read the game in English makes it a lot easier to discuss.
Gameplay wise, Tao has a bunch of poorly hinted fetch quests. Your starting mission is to check out an archeological dig, check out a shrine, talk to one guy there twice, leave town, carry a woman to the shrine, and then talk to people at the shrine again. Battles are basically button mashing, and you can upgrade your stats using another button mashing game. Battles are random, and can vary between rare and common.
Graphically, and musically, the game feels early. Areas may be large, but may have only one concrete spot to trigger a conversation (so, 4 blocks of train station, but only one talks to the ticket guy.) Occasionally, someone talks about a key, but you can’t use the take button or the see button to get the key. Instead, you use the talk button to get them to tell you they’re giving you the key. The “ominous area” music is quite effective, but some of the tracks are pretty shrill and unpleasant, especially if you’re stuck in an area.
As for the plot, the game suffers from racism. A location called Khalibad seems to be some kind of East Asian nation, and has racist art for the natives. There’s also a depiction of an “odd chinaman.” While this sort of racism is common in many early RPGs, it still exists and should be noted. The game is set in a post apocalyptic future, with some odd elements. Train tracks, for example, connect towns. However, you use a dinosaur to travel down the tracks.
There’s also some fairly dark elements to the game. Your first town was hit by a meteor. Moscov (Moscow?) had a lightning storm, and a state of an evil god outside of town. Khalibad fears development destroying their natural beauty, and the animals have fled. On the edge of town, a hunter has a massive pile of money, given to him due to some plot. In Crosstown (which one person calls “Salem, Mass”), there’s a nun that gives you the key to the Moscov cathedral. Inside, a child cries in fear, and a ghost cries out for help.
With a hint guide, Tao’s not impossible to play. I think the dated elements do make the game suffer (such as the racism, or the obtuse ways to advance the plot.) However, for every “No, that’s horrible, game,” there’s riding a dinosaur down the train tracks. I am curious where the game goes at the end, but it’s definitely not a great game.