Version tested: DS
There's an element of ritual to the best fairytales, and that goes for video game legends, too. Okamiden starts off as a time-honoured tale of a hero walking the path set out by his ancestor, but in this case, the story is only part of the ceremony.
As with Okami on PS2, Okamiden arrives on a system on its way out, with software sales dwindling and its successor's launch imminent. Like its mother, it seems destined for critical glory but sales ignominy, prompting wolf-like howls of despair from the few who take the opportunity to revisit glorious Nippon.
There's a degree of familiarity, too, to the game's opening stages. A series of substantial scene-setting vignettes try your patience before you get to control Chibiterasu, celestial offspring of the first game's lupine goddess, Amaterasu. And, initially at least, Chibi like any young pup wants to stay close to its mother. As bug guide Issun bounces around jabbering words of advice and you trot through areas likely to bring a warm nostalgic glow to those who loved Okami, you could be forgiven for thinking you were playing a remake rather than a sequel.
It's the hallmark of a game that's perhaps a little too reverential, that attempts to recreate the same experience on a handheld that's hardly suited to a direct translation. The original may have used Zelda as a touchstone, but with one notable exception Okamiden never looks to Phantom Hourglass or Spirit Tracks to see how a handheld action-adventure can be retooled to fit a portable console. Instead, Capcom has attempted to transfer Clover Studios' wonderful world to DS as was. That it hasn't quite succeeded is understandable; that it has tried is admirable.
Naturally, some of the appeal of that sumptuous ink-and-wash art has been lost in the move. Where the brush-strokes once had that authentic sumi-e sweep, here the chunky characters and sketchy backdrops lmore closely resemble a child's clumsy but charming mimickry; bold, blocky outlines with an almost Crayola-like look.
But then the style was always intended to capture the spirit of its subjects as much as their appearance, and as Chibi dances around with his paws on the shoulders of his human partner, the delightful animation fills in any gaps left by the rough-edged visuals. Even so, you can't help but feel that Capcom might have been better off waiting for 3DS.
Okamiden has been shorn of a little of its predecessor's epic sweep. In trying to cram such a rich and vast world into the outmoded circuitry of an ageing handheld, Capcom has naturally had to make sacrifices. The tendril-like pathways that spread out from the huge plains of Shinshu Field are all sectioned off with semi-translucent portals leading to brief pauses as the next area is loaded in. These waits are never long enough to be annoying, but occasionally you'll spend all of five seconds in one place before having to pass through the next barrier. Amaterasu at full tilt could run like a bullet train; her son is more like a bus that's forced to wait at every stop.
At times, the game is stubbornly, almost comically, unprepared to make concessions to portable play. Save mirrors are the only place to record your progress, and you can easily spend the best part of an hour playing without happening across one. The touch screen map feels like a wasted opportunity, refusing you the option to make notes or set waypoints and merely offering the ability to read memos or select items, and occasionally move the restricted camera left or right a bit when in more open environments.
But, after an unremarkable start, Okamiden finds its feet. It helps that the stylus makes for a perfectly natural Celestial Brush; it's easy to go through your entire supply of ink pots during the larger battles simply because it's such fun to use. It can be a little too exacting when it comes to interpreting your scribbles, but once accustomed to its idiosyncrasies, you'll be earning the top rankings in battle on a regular basis.
Okamiden is also right at home in the dungeons. Getting to the bosses isn't too much of a struggle; puzzles are comparatively simple-minded next to the intricacy of the best Zelda riddles, but they're enjoyable to solve nonetheless. That said, all too often Chibi and one of the partners who accompany him whose pathway can be drawn with the stylus, Spirit Tracks-style will simply be asked to stand on two distant switches, and the game is a bit too comfortable leaning on prosaic elemental crutches. A flame-haired hero, a locked door and two unlit torches: it's hardly rocket science. Your stylus will likely remain unchewed.
But the guardians are another matter entirely. Screen-filling monstrosities with inventive methods of dispatch, they draw upon Capcom's long heritage and expertise with bosses to provide often lengthy but always satisfying tests of dexterity and skill. Chibi's two new abilities (the aforementioned path-drawing and a more flexible Vine technique) as well as each partner's individual powers ensure a different tactical approach for each battle, while the range of offensive options power slashes, cherry bombs and good old-fashioned button-mashing allows you to choose the best way of offing each one once they're stunned, or chipping away at that health bar until the weak point reveals itself.
Then, of course, you're treated to one of gaming's most heartwarming graphical flourishes, as the previously barren land is brought back to colourful life in a rush of petals and cherry blossom. As ever, it's the perfect reward for your efforts, and the praise orbs you're showered with granting experience points to make Chibi stronger and his ink supply larger are the moreish icing on the cake.
The script is just as delicious, too. After that hesitant start, Okamiden's story unfolds into a journey every bit as meaningful as the original's, albeit stripped of some of the unnecessary bloat. There's still a substantial 20-plus hours of adventuring here, and that's without stopping to smell the sakura. Dialogue is frequently witty and irreverent, there's plenty of slapstick visual humour, and it's not shy about venturing into darker corners, too. Even if Capcom over-eggs the bittersweet finale a touch, you'd have to have a slab of granite in place of a heart not to be moved.
There's something touching, too, about those awkward first steps. Okamiden's initial tentativeness speaks volumes about a game not quite sure of its future, and in Issun's failure to keep Amaterasu's memory alive, it's hard not to see a metaphor for Capcom's oddly noble attempt to revive the series itself. It might not be quite the game its predecessor was, but you can't help but hope that this charming follow-up sells well enough for its publisher to keep the wolf from the lore.
8 / 10