Ahhh Okami…poster child of the inventive, ambitious ‘underdog-that-never-gets-the-commercial-recognition-it-deserves’ school of game design. Originally developed for the PS2 by Capcom’s now famously defunct (but brilliant) ‘Clover Studio,’ Okami was one of the gems of the PS2’s vast library, right up there with Metal Gear Solid 3, Killzone, the Team ICO games, and God of War. Okami is often the subject of articles that focus on critically aclaimed games that ended up flopping when it came to sales. In fact Okami couldn’t be a better representative of this phenomenon; it released to near universal acclaim with a meta score of 90 on metacritic and yet it only managed to shift a combined total (Wii and PS2 versions) of under 600,00 units worldwide. Of course those who played the game don’t give a shit about all that, we know that it was a damn fine game and worthy of more than a hand full of revisits and what with the recent announcement of a HD remake coming to the PS3, what better time than to review this classic?
Okami is the story of a Japanese Shinto goddess named Amaterasu (goddess of the sun I believe) who comes to the Earth in the form of a white wolf. The story goes that 100 years ago, she came in the form of another wolf called Shiranui in order to save the tiny village of Kamiki from the 8-headed dragon demon Orochi. Each year, this village celebrates the defeat of Orochi with a festival, only on this year; the hundred year anniversary, Orochi has returned and you, Amaterasu must defeat him again. I probably lost you there already with all that mythology but for me that was part of the whole charm. It’s all wrapped up in a whole heap of Shinto mythology with gods here, and ancient traditions there but the game has a wonderful sense of humour that makes the mythology very accessible. It keeps you smiling at the way it pokes fun at itself but still satisfyingly mystified at the same time. The story unfolds largely through dialogue with NPCs and end-of-segment cutscenes, an approach which these days tends to get a bad press amongst gaming journalists. With games being an interactive medium, it sort of goes against the grain to tell a story through purely un-interactive means. I’d broadly agree with this premise and I do think that when games are at their best in terms of narrative, they do tell a story through means which non-interactive mediums could not (ala Half Life 2 or more recently, indie sleeper hit ‘Dear Esther’). However, when it’s done exceptionally well I have no problem whatsoever with the cutscene approach and it goes almost unnoticed. Red Dead Redemption is a prime example of this (I’ll talk about that one another time) and Okami certainly sucked me in with its story telling.
On the gameplay front we have to differentiate between different versions of the game. Whilst the original PS2 version and the 2008 Wii remake play almost exactly the same for around 80% of the time, there is a key mechanic which next to the Wii version, renders the PS2 version almost unplayable which we’ll come on to in a moment. Okami plays very much like a Zelda game, something which some of you will probably have heard before. One of 3 overworlds, set out much in the same way as Hyrule field houses various different areas each with some crisis or event that happens which needs dealing with in order to get past a certain barrier, or obtain some specific magic item, or in one particular case, unite the 7 canine warriors…gotta love the Japanese. Some of these areas even have their own dungeons, again taking inspiration from the Zelda series. However, it’s worth noting that the way Okami presents itself; the feel of the environments, the trappings, even the way in which events unfold, rarely make it seem like it’s ripping off Zelda. The developers could have taken the easy route and poked fun at itself for this much like in Darksiders but no, they stuck to their guns and the game feels very individual as a result.
The combat, it’s worth noting, feels nothing like a Zelda game. When you encounter and enemy, an energy barrier surrounds you, fencing off the battle ground around you. You then have to fight it out to progress, much like the random encounter turn-based battles found in many JRPGs…except without taking turns…you know, the down side. You can use one of three different weapon types throughout the game including a mirror, a sword the floats on your back, or my personal favourite; the rosary beads which act like an all mighty whip. These weapons feel especially visceral on the battle field and give the combat a definite feel of weight. Come to think of it, almost every bit of the game controls differently to Zelda games, I mean it should do right, you’re a wolf for god sake. Controls are very well thought out on the whole, jumping has a satisfying ‘boing’ to it, movement is nice and fluid. About the only thing which is worth complaining about is the dodge mechanic in the Wii version. A simple but effective move in the PS2 version, the Wii remake developers Readyatdawn decided to map this move to the nunchuck’s shake ability. Fair enough you might think, however, you can dodge forward, backwards, left and right and you do this manually by shaking in the corresponding direction. The nunchuck’s accelerometer simply isn’t precise enough to allow for this kind of movement.
The good news is though that this faux pax is about the only thing that is worse in the Wii version. The mechanic I mentioned earlier is of course the ability to use the celestial brush, a magic brush which allows Amaterasu to literally paint on to the screen. This allows for a plethora of different gamplay scenarios including helping out in combat by slicing opponents, blasting through walls by drawing a bomb, and changing day into night by drawing a moon in the sky. I know it sounds like a gimmick, trust me it’s not. The Wii remote enhances this ability immensely, making it very quick and easy to draw. This is especially useful during frantic combat. It becomes so natural in fact that going back to the PS2 version is almost not an option. Try using the analogue sticks to draw a cresent moon after being able to almost literally paint it on with the Wii remote and you’ll want to throw the controller out the window. Look up some comparison videos on Youtube if you want a better idea.
As I’ve already hinted at, presentation in Okami almost needs nothing said about it at all. However, that’s not going to stop me gushing about it so here goes. The whole game is intended to looks like a watercolour or Japanese wood cut, it truly is one of the shining examples of cel shading, the equal of the Wind Waker, though the two are difficult to compare in visual terms. The various screenshots in this review should give you some idea of how gorgeous the visuals are but to really appreciate it, you need to see it in motion. There’s so many little details that make the game a joy to behold. Many of the game’s areas start out mired in darkness and it’s your job to restore life to the region. You do this by making the Sakuya trees blossom all over the place, culminating with the big one at the end of the area. Making these trees blossom, even the little ones is a treat for the eyes but the rush of flowers that floods the land when you restore the big one…that is something special (it’s also worth noting that a lot of games have done the ‘restore life to an area’ thing to death. Okami was one of the first to do it).
The audio is also top notch, in terms of sound effects, voice over, and score. The in game speech is something you’ll either love or hate. It takes the Zelda/Banjo Kazooie approach of letting text do the talking but having the character in question speak over the text in incoherent babble (read, the same three sounds repeated ad hominen). I personally love this approach when it’s done well and it certainly didn’t take away from the game’s charm in my opinion but I could understand if people were put off by it. What I wouldn’t understand dislike for is the score. One of my all time favourite soundtracks to a game, it’s one of those that you almost don’t notice during play as it suits the game so perfectly. It’s very much a score as opposed to a collection of themes, I can’t imagine many people hunt down specific songs from the game to listen to on Youtube or their iPods but when you’re playing, it sucks you in beautifully. Full of beautiful melodies on Shakuhachi flute, Shamisen, and Taiko drums that set each scene and make you forget that you’re not in medievil Japan and are in fact sitting in a bedroom in South West England (in my case anyway).
Okami is one of those rare games that reaches the pinnacle of its genre. I’d certainly put it forward as a strong candidate for showing why games can be art. However, most of the other games I put forward for this are often very different in how they feel or play and therefore aren’t necessarily representative of games as a whole. Okami is much more in the vein of a traditional video game, but it has so much heart that it can’t help but make you feel something, is that not at least part of the criteria for what makes art?