Okami

[3 December 2006]

By Mike Sage

Many have called Okami the PS2’s action-adventure answer to the Nintendo-exclusive Zelda series. With an epic world to explore, inventive puzzle-oriented dungeons to crack and a heroically muted avatar under your control, on paper, this Clover Studios entry almost sounds like a carbon-copy facsimile of Link’s adventures, even worthy of lawsuit. As it turns out, Okami couldn’t be more strikingly original.

For starters, the world is rendered with a breathtaking painterly brushstroke; and I don’t mean that metaphorically. From the fading black-and-blue outlined backdrops to the almost vibrating, cel-shaded characters and swirls of ink around you simulating fierce winds, this game is a work of art, with one of the most inventive graphical motifs ever seen in videogames. The world is literally a moving painting and from the fluttering grass to the chirping birds and animated townspeople, everything feels absolutely alive. Couple this with your ability to permanently affect your surroundings with the ingenious Celestial Brush, and the world is all the more dynamic.

Okami tells the story of the goddess Amaterasu, a semi-weakened spirit who has returned to the poisoned world of Nippon to cleanse it of its evil blanket. After the wicked 8-headed dragon demon Orochi was resurrected (after the prerequisite years of eternal slumber and world peace), his dark influence has spread, engulfing all of Nippon in a cloud of darkness. Amaterasu has teamed up with a helpful, though crude and womanizing, fairy creature named Issun, who provides the colorful commentary, mythical background info and comic relief for most of the story. He also seems to want to help Amaterasu discover a set of magical painting techniques and then exploit them for his own use. 

It becomes very clear that Okami is steeped in the Ancient traditions of Japanese myths and art. Characters and monster designs have distinctive Asian appearances, from the kimonos and solemn white face-paints to the villainous monkey-demons playing 3-stringed lutes, while the overall design of the game itself is presented with Japanese symbols and calligraphy. The visuals are perfectly matched by the musical score and sound effects, which emphasize soothing flute tunes and hollow percussion sounds to make the experience all the more authentic, unique and immersing. Be warned though, the game doesn’t feature any voice acting, but the entire cast does speak a sort of unintelligible mumbling instead, which tends to grow particularly annoying.

Where in Zelda you collect various items like bombs and hook-shots to explore the world and bypass its obstacles, Okami introduces the Celestial Brush. You can fill in broken bridges or windmills using the “rejuvenation” stroke, chop down trees and adversaries with the horizontal “power slice” and create “cherry bombs” by drawing circles with lines through the tops. The techniques can be used to change the world, helping you explore places you’ve never been before (like by drawing lily-pads to cross previously inaccessible bodies of water) or restore greenery to desolate wastelands (by helping withered trees blossom). If you mess up the brush-stroke, the game rarely penalizes you, besides the loss of some of the ink from your Celestial Brush Gauge (i.e. your mana points). Surprisingly, the system isn’t just inventive, it’s also intuitive and fun. Your strokes don’t have to be necessarily perfect (usually ovals will work for the circle-based techniques), so you won’t be plunging into lava pits because your water lily wasn’t round enough. Frustration is kept to a minimum.

You can also use your abundance of brush strokes in the heat of battle, which initiates either when Amaterasu runs into a floating Demon Scroll while exploring, or as part of the story (generally the grandiose boss fights at the end of the dungeons). In the former, you end up surrounded by a barrier, preventing escape unless you repeatedly attack one of the cracks. In these fights, you can hack and slash with your main weapons (Divine Instruments), which include swords carried in the wolf’s mouth and whip-like ranged attacks, and perform special moves like ranged bullets with your equipped sub-weapon. The Celestial Brush can be used to bombard the enemy with sprouting trees, ink bullets or deadly finishing moves based on your collected techniques.

Regular fights are tragically easy and provide little more than money and non-essential treasures you can find elsewhere (no experience points here), rendering them altogether pointless. The boss fights are far more fun, if not particularly challenging, requiring the use of various brush techniques in order to win. You’ll have to use the hookshot-like “Greensprout-Vine” to instantly flip to the vulnerable side of a giant spider, for example, or use the “Waterspout” to connect a holy liquid to a nearby 8-headed demon. Unfortunately, outside figuring out and exploiting these baddies’ weaknesses (and, just like Zelda, using the techniques you’ve probably found most recently), the skirmishes are not too challenging.

If you explore and cleanse the world to a reasonable degree, you’ll always have an abundance of “praise orbs” (absorbed upon completing good deeds, like feeding animals and rescuing possessed townsfolk), which are used to extend the maximum potential of your Health and Celestial Brush Gauge. If that isn’t enough, you’ll always have such an excessive amount of money, that having stocks of powerful curing items—which can be used after pausing the game and accessing the main menu—is likely. This doesn’t require power-gaming or farming of any sort, rather just the fruits of traditional exploring. Perhaps Clover should’ve adapted the more conservative item caps of its Zelda inspiration (though even that series has suffered similar problems).

Nevertheless, despite the lack of challenge (particularly in the first half), the gameplay and story are so refreshing, you’ll never find any of it in the least bit tedious. You can generally avoid the generic encounters (unless a side quest demands otherwise) and there’s nothing forcing you to use those item reserves. And the real challenge comes in the form of the dungeons themselves. While the earlier exploits are ridiculously simple (generally the first places you use each new technique tend to be this way), the dark tombs, haunted forests, ancient caves, and wicked temples get deeper as you progress through Okami, requiring more resourceful use of your painting skills. One such dungeon, for example, requires you navigate a flaming ball through a narrow passageway using the Galestorm (wind) technique, because Amaterasu can’t touch it herself. At the end of the passage, you use the brush to connect the flames of the ball to empty torch sconces to open a sealed door. 

The game sports a lengthy quest that should have you exploring the nooks and crannies of Nippon’s spectacular vistas for well over forty hours. While none of it is exceptionally useful (aside from the presence of nearly ten enhanced secret brush techniques), there is also much to collect for completists to keep busy for quite a few more. From seeking out and feeding the world’s entire population of wildlife to winning the rewards of cleansing every last cursed inch of the landscape, Amaterasu has a lot of do-gooding to accomplish outside the main quests.       

PS2-exclusive adventurers who miss the days of exploring Hyrule can finally rejoice now that Capcom and Clover Studios have awarded them a true action-adventure title in the spirit of Zelda. While the game isn’t very difficult, and the repetitive mumbling masquerading as voice acting may test your patience, the rest of this game is a fascinating pleasure: unique, addictive and stunning.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/okami/