Okami - Not Zelda, but close enough

Okami is a work of art. Those of you who have read my “reviews,” if such visceral unorganized things can really be called that, have probably noticed that I am always praising games, and that I rarely have anything bad to say. The reason is simple: I only write about games that I love, games that were such phenomenal experiences that I have to sit down immediately after finishing them and try to convey and preserve the feelings they evoked by writing about them. I tend to be pretty melodramatic about it, too.

Okami is just such a case. I have not been affected by a game like this in roughly a year – perhaps more, I cannot recall exactly... these things tend to fade in memory, unless you do something to keep them alive. Like start a fansite, and rant and rave about them for years on end.

To put it simply, if you like Zelda, then you should like Okami. Okami borrows very, very heavily from some of the best in the Zelda series. It has similar gameplay, a similar feel, a similar sense of humor, and a similar quality. There were many moments in Okami where I felt like I was playing a Zelda game – or rather, what a Zelda game could be if Nintendo decided to allow itself to experiment with the franchise and give us radically new twists on the same core elements. When it comes to the Zelda series, I am and always have been a strict traditionalist – I am open to new things in the series, but only those that fit my very narrow and limited view of what is Zelda. No game outside of the Zelda series had ever felt quite like them, or approached them in any category. They were in a genre unto themselves, in my mind. More then that – they were the Holy Grail of the gaming world, on a level above all else, the thing other games aspired to be but could never even begin to touch. I still believe that, to an extent, but there is now one vital change: here at last is a game that is not of the Zelda series that approaches the greatness of games like Ocarina of Time, Link’s Awakening, and even A Link to the Past.

But even more amazing to me, Okami managed to take the feel of a Zelda game and give it its own twist. It does not leave the bad taste of a copycat. I would label it a tribute or maybe another game in that elite Zelda genre. But enough about Zelda. Okami may have been inspired by the series, but it is not of it, and it is fully capable of standing on its own.

The first thing that anyone notices when seeing or playing Okami is the graphics, so it is these I will cover first. To put it simply, Okami’s graphical style is unique, beautiful, and I will never tire of it. It is based off of classical Japanese art, and heavily laden with stylized kanji characters and images from Japanese legend. And it is all rendered in beautifully done, vibrant celshading - which puts even The Wind Waker, the biggest name in celshaded games, to shame. To give an example of the ancient Japanese feel of the game and the graphics, let’s look at a bomb. The bomb itself is different right from the start, because instead of being a black sphere, it resembles a firework or firecracker in coloring and feel. When it explodes, there is smoke, but it is joined by bright pieces of cloth fluttering in the explosion, and, if you look closely, there are little kanji characters that blend in with the smoke. The same sort of touch can be seen everywhere in the game – the world may look relatively stable taken as whole, but if you look closely, kanji symbols can be found almost anywhere. Whether it is in the walls, smoke, sky, fire, the graphics of the game are constantly in motion, and filled with Japanese symbols.

Truly, the game has to be seen in motion to be appreciated. A common problem with celshaded games is that they rarely look very good in still screenshots, and that is especially apparent here. Everything is in motion; grass swaying in the breeze, clouds moving in the sky, and it is this movement that gives the game a large part of its beauty. This is especially apparent in your own main character. Wherever you walk, you trail bits of life behind you. If you’re walking on fertile ground, grass shoots up in your wake. On water, lily pads. If you jump in midair, there is a little burst of brightly colored leaves as the wolf shoots forward. If you run for extended periods of time, you start to gain speed, as you do so, the effects of your footfalls grow more impressive. At first, you just have grass sprouting from under your feet. As you gain speed, you start leaving behind a trail of flowers. By the time you’ve reached full speed, you are leaving behind this huge wake of brightly colored flowers, leaves, and grass… and the sensation of speed is amazing. The graphical effects, coupled with the nice subtle sound effects that accompany it, make running fun in of itself. Even now, forty hours into the game, I can still get immense enjoyment from going out into the landscapes of the game and just running around the hills and fields, without any specific goal in mind. And that is a precious thing; any game that creates a world you can enjoy being in even when you’re not working towards any goal is a game to be treasured.

You play as Amaterasu, the god of the sun, reincarnated in the body of a majestic white wolf. Being a god, the gender and exact nature of this main character are left rather vague. And I must say, I love the design of this character. Being a wolf, it cannot talk, but it’s extremely expressive nonetheless, with growls, howls, moans, barks, panting, every other dog expression on the planet, and its movement. The motion that the developers gave this wolf is amazing; there are little touches, changes, and exaggerations that make it’s movements look very lithe, agile, and powerful, more so then you would expect, all the while retaining the look and feel of a wolf.

We all know and respect the reasoning behind a silent hero, but these days the industry expects dialogue from its games. The developers fulfilled this by giving Amaterasu a miniature companion in the form of Issun, a little fairy sort of guy that hangs around and is responsible for a lot of the dialogue with NPCs. At first I thought he was just going to fulfill the same role that Navi played in Ocarina of Time, but I was very wrong. He plays a role in almost every situation that your character finds itself in. So much so that I would say he’s almost as important as the wolf itself. He’s integrated so much with everything that happens story wise that I’d say it would be a completely different story and game without him.

The story is another thing that impressed me. Aside from the intro of the game, which was painfully and unnecessarily long and drawn out, it is integrated with the adventure style gameplay very nicely. It is definitely present and important, but you won’t find yourself buried beneath walls of text or big cutscenes or anything of the sort. And it doesn’t take itself too seriously, either. It’s filled with humor, and little quirks and touches that give it a nice feel. The story is conveyed through atmosphere and actions as much as dialogue or cutscenes, and the game definitely benefits from that approach. Make no mistake; there is definitely a story here, complete with surprises and lots of characters, but it doesn’t try to bludgeon its way into a prominent role. Rather, it flows so nicely with the gameplay and atmosphere that it’s hard to separate it and examine it as a standalone part.

Actually, the same is true for everything in this game. It is put together so nicely that I actually have a very hard time singling out specific pieces of it to talk about. The ancient Japanese influence? It is integral to the story, style, atmosphere, and music. The atmosphere is a vital part of the story and the style. The gameplay? It has a huge effect on the way the developers handled the story, and a lot of the atmosphere is evoked by things done while playing. This is definitely a case where the game really has to be taken as a whole, if you truly want to grasp it. It has to be played, which I think is at the core of things.

Which brings me to gameplay. I have been mentioning it throughout all this, touching on it oh-so-briefly and then shying away to some other subject. But it definitely deserves some attention.

At its core, it is, as I said earlier, very similar to the Zelda games. You have dungeons, you have overworld areas to explore, you gain new abilities that open up new pathways and new venues of exploration. You have towns filled with NPCs, many of whom have little problems you can fix or tasks you can do, the occasional shop, story events, and everything else under the sun.

The most important and interesting part of Okami’s gameplay is the brush system. Basically, the main character, Amaterasu, possesses a “celestial brush” (which, if you look closely, resembles the wolf’s tail, heh), and most of your special moves and spells are done by drawing them with the brush. When you hold down one of the shoulder buttons, the whole game pauses, the brush appears, and you are free to draw to your heart’s content. Let’s say you want to repair a bridge using your divine powers. You’d use the brush to fill in the missing pieces of the broken bridge, and voila, it’s fixed. Want to turn night to day? Draw a circle in the sky, and the sun will rise. A straight line is a basic slash. A little loop-de-loop will give you a gust of wind. You can make trees bloom, conjure lily pads, start fires, channel water, and a host of other things using the brush. These brush techniques are to Okami as dungeon items are to Zelda. They are how you solve all your puzzles, open your pathways, get where you want to go, flip your switches. And it is very nice. Instead of having to go to a selection screen every time you want to use a new item, you just have one button to press, and suddenly you have your celestial brush – and all of your abilities – at your fingertips. It’s a very natural method of using your abilities, and one that works out fabulously. There are plenty of different abilities to choose from, and all of them can be applied in different ways. One might worry that the brush strokes for the different abilities would be easy to forget, but rest assured. They are all very simple and intuitive, and, although the game gives you a subscreen to look-up the brush strokes you have learned, I never had to use it.

Combat is… Not really something I can categorize very well, heh. Basically, when you’re running around dungeons or outside or whatever, they have these little markers floating around. They’re big, pretty obvious, surrounded by colored flames and evil smoke, the whole nine yards. If you touch one, you enter combat. It does not take you to a new screen, it simply encloses a small part of the overworld in a big circle. It’s actually done pretty nicely. It doesn’t jar you and harm the immersive qualities of the game by taking you to a wholly separate arena or screen just to fight, but it still limits the playing field to a manageable area. A few seconds into this, whatever enemies you’re fighting will appear in puffs of smoke (and kanji, of course), and then you lay into each other. The combat itself it nothing special… Until you figure the celestial brush into the equation, and then things get fresh and interesting. Let’s say you have an enemy that breathes fire at you. Instead of resorting to dodging around or getting toasted to a crisp, you’d summon a sudden gust of wind and blow the flames away. Or maybe you’re fighting an ice-based and a fire-based enemy. You could channel the flames from the fire based one to melt the ice, then blow the fires out and lay into them both with your physical attacks. An enemy with a flower bud on it’s back? Make the flower bloom and see what happens. There are things you can do with the brush to every enemy in the game, and it makes for very interesting combat.

Normally I’d lump bosses in with all the rest of the battles, but the bosses in this game deserve a special mention, because they are exceptionally well done. Every developer in the industry should stop and examine these, because they are how bosses should be. You always know when you’re fighting a boss, because they are huge, impressive, and often require imaginative use of the brush to defeat. Some of them are truly epic, in their own Okami fashion. And the atmospheres in some of these fights are amazing. In most games, when a boss uses its attacks at you, you dodge, right? That’s the basic strategy. In this game, when a boss uses an attack you can counter it with a gust of wind, or your own ice and fire, or by slowing down time, or reflecting it back at the boss… It really gives the boss fights a cool new feel. Instead of being at a disadvantage and dodging constantly, running in at the right moment to get a few hits in, you are actually pitting your divine powers against their attacks in a toe-to-toe battle against these big imposing monsters. When you’re interacting with NPCs, you’re a nice, cute, friendly wolf, but when you’re fighting this bosses, you get to see the wolf unveiled as the god it is. I exaggerate a little bit, here; you still have to dodge and take advantage of specific weak moments. But that subtle difference in the way the fights work really made a big difference to me. And even when you ARE dodging, you look awesome doing it, as you run around with a blooming trail of flowers in your wake, or little bursts of autumn leaves as you jump.

The game is not difficult. I was stuck exactly twice, and not for long either time. And I only died twice. But I don’t mind, really. It is not a game that I would enjoy as much if I was dying a lot; it’s not meant to be interrupted by game over screens and having to reload. Besides, even when I was breezing through everything – and having the time of my life in the process – I still managed to pack in just under 40 hours of play time. And that without doing all the side quests.

There is one final aspect of this game I would like to touch on. I have not mentioned it much, but I feel it is as important to this game’s overall presentation as all the rest: The music. The game’s music is, unsurprisingly, filled with touches of old Japanese music and flair, not to mention instruments. But it definitely possesses its own unique style. You won’t mistake it for music from the latest kung fu movie, or Jade Empire. I have saved it for last because nothing I can say could possibly do it justice; I don’t have the words to describe it adequately. Suffice to say, it is amazing. I’m listening to it right now, and have been almost exclusively since I got the game on its release day a couple weeks back. A large part of the atmosphere I keep mentioning is due to the music. The four composers who worked on this game are now on my watch list, because they did amazing work here, and the music complements the rest of the game extremely well. And there is so MUCH of it. The OST spans five discs, and 218 different tracks. Some of those are small little things, almost sound effects, and others are variations of similar themes, but that still leaves a very large collection of music. I divide music into three categories: stuff I don’t really need to hear again, stuff I want to hear again someday, and stuff that is good enough to make my iPod. Tracks have to really impress me to make that last group… and Okami has 18 tracks that have earned their place on my iPod. More then any other single game. Ever. Even beating out the mighty Chrono Cross and Xenogears.

I could go on forever, I think... but I’ve probably already lost the attention of most of you, so I may as well wrap this up. If you have a Playstation 2, and an even remote appreciation of adventure games, cool art styles, or great music, then you owe it to yourself to at least try this game out. If nothing else, you’ll have fun running around watching flowers bloom behind you. And really, what more do you need?


Link_08 says:

cool, i acutally read all this but only because this game sounds interesting.

star_breaker says:

This game sounds really interesting, but I'm from the UK and I don't know if it has been released over here yet... must find out...