The crown jewel of Capcom’s recently disbanded Clover Studios is undoubtedly Okami. From the very beginning it was shaping up to be Zelda-esque action-adventure game, with a totally unique visual style, mostly inspired by Japanese mythology. The final product is a unique and very entertaining game that can stand up to Nintendo’s behemoth. And that’s saying something.
The first thing you need for a great action-adventure game is a good story and Okami delivers in spades.
It starts off with an epic tale of how Orichi, an eight-headed dragon, horrified Kamiki Village 100 years ago by demanding the sacrifice of a little girl. However, Orichi was defeated and the girl saved by the warrior Nagi and the wolf Shiranui. Now, a century later, when Kamiki is preparing for the festivities to honor the memory of their saviours, an evil force suddenly appears that corrupts the land. The sun god Amaterasu, who has been living in the body of a white wolf, decides to step up and bring Nippon (Japan) back to normal. He is accompanied by Issun, a small bug, who provides him with valuable information during his quest.
The key aspect of the game is the Celestial Brush. When you press R1, the game pauses and the screen is filled with a sepia filter, as if it were a drawing board. With the analogue stick you can then paint symbols, which in turn summon special powers. There are fifteen brush techniques in total.
You can turn night into day and vice versa, repair broken bridges, cut down trees, summon gusts of wind, cause explosions, return withered trees to full bloom, etc. Some techniques can even be upgraded. The Celestial Brush is the key to solving all the puzzles and quests on your journey and it can even be used during combat. It’s also very intuitive to use. The symbols you need to paint are quite easy (for instance: if you want night to fall, you just draw a crescent moon in the sky or if you want to cut down a tree, you just have to draw a straight horizontal line over the tree). The system is also quite forgiving. You don’t need to draw perfect circles; as long it vaguely resembles an egg it’s okay.
Okami is filled with Zelda-style quests. Your main task is to free Nippon from darkness. As soon as you enter a new area, you’ll discover a large dark force field blocks off most of it. To restore the land to its former glory, you’ll have to revive the Guardian Saplings, large trees that posess magical powers.
As soon as you do that, the area will be yours to explore. Doing this earns you Praise. There are countless other ways to gain Praise, such as making cherry blossoms bloom again, feeding animals or doing tasks for villagers. Praise can be used to improve your stats, such as the length of your life gauge, the ammount of ink pots you have (how many times you can paint something before the ink needs refilling) or how many Astral Pouches you have. An astral pouch revives you when you die, but it first needs to be filled with food (which is abundant).
The world in Okami is huge and there are tons of things to do and explore. To travel the land quickly, you can use Mermaid coins. These instantly transport you from one area to another, but they’re also relatively expensive. A log book keeps track of your most important quests, but it’s not perfect. I for one would have preferred it if all of the sidequests and pending tasks were mentioned, but that’s not the case, unfortunately. If you want to complete everything there is to do in this game, it should take you at least 40 hours, the overwhelming majority of them being highly enjoyable.
As you could tell from the screenshots, Okami ahs a unique visual style, which was clearly influenced by Japanese mythology. The world and the characters are cell-shaded and bursting with rich colours. It’s as if you were watching a painting.
The art design is superb; the world is bursting with life (or distinctly barren, if you haven’t driven out evil yet) and the characters all look unique. Their expressions are also noteworthy: an angry person will have smoke coming out of his/her ears, while happy people will have little hearts floating around their heads. The animations are equally fantastic, with Amaterasu being the prime example. His footsteps cause flowers to erupt from the ground and when someone keeps on jabbering, he’ll yawn and lie down.
Most combat occurs after semi-random encounters. You’ll see green scrolls floating over the land and when you attack them, a fight commences. Those fights are usually very easy, too easy even, but the same can be said of the entire game. Okami simply isn’t a challenging game, but that’s the only real flaw the game has.
To defend yourself, you possess Divine Instruments (read: weapons), of which you can have two equipped at the same time. However, a Divine Instrument does different things, depending on whether it is your main or your sub weapon. Most damage can simply be evaded by sidestepping or by jumping, but you can even reflect an enemy’s attacks with your DIs. If you time it right, you’ll evade the blow and smack your opponent uncouscious, leaving him open for a finishing move with your Celestial Brush. New techniques can be learned at the dojo for a fee, and you can upgrade your weapons by using gold dust. The bossfights are highlights in the game. All of the bosses look dangerous and awe-inspiring and they require a unique approach to defeat them. If you can’t find their weak spot, it won’t take long before Issun gives you some hints.
Just like in the Zelda games, the characters don’t speak a known language, but they mumble. That’s okay -seeing how well the dialogue is written-, but hearing actual voices would have been preferable. The game also makes you laugh on several occasions, mostly due to the witty remarks of Issun (his favourite word for Amaterasu being ‘furball’). The instrumental soundtrack obviously sounds distinctively Japanese and is very soothing. During combat, however, it changes to a more threatening theme, which is good.
I know I must have said it a dozen times, but the PlayStation 2 still amazes us this late in its life cycle. Better yet, it actually brings a next-gen game to a current-gen platform. With its fantastic presentation and art style, innovating and captivating gameplay, lavish world and huge scope, Okami is truly a masterpiece. Are games an art form? The question remains, but Okami could very well sway a lot of people to the ‘yes’ side.