Okami Reader Review
When you are creating a new game and the most directly comparable alternative is a critically and commercially worshipped franchise like The Legend of Zelda, you know you have to come up with the goods. No half-hearted efforts will be tolerated here; if the game is anything less than stellar you'd best steel yourself for a critical - and probably commercial - mauling.
Thankfully then, that with Okami the sadly departed Clover Studio have produced a game which in my humble opinion betters the legendary Nintendo franchise and stands tall as one of the very best games Capcom have ever released in their illustrious history. Almost every aspect of this game presents beauty, charm, character and innovation rarely seen in these cynical, franchise-driven times.
You play the role of Amaterasu, or Ammy, the lupine incarnation of the Sun God who appears to free the village of Kamiki from the scourge of the terrible, multi-headed demon Orochi. The plot is loosely based on a Japanese legend, and whilst it helps if you are familiar with the nation's culture and history, it really is not essential. Along the way you'll meet dozens of colourful characters, including the lazy and rather useless 'hero' Susano, the cryptic, semi-bilingual Waka and your opinionated, slightly sleazy and ever-optimistic buglike companion Issun.
If ever there was an game telling us there's still unexplored graphical capabilities in the humble PS2, Okami is it. The amount of artistry and beauty on screen at any one time really is quite staggering - the graphics are nice and chunky, and everything is bordered by a thick black line which refuses to remain static and gives everything a profound calligraphy feel (which, you will notice, is a strong theme running through the game). Every area and vista is brimming with colour, character and a gorgeous, vibrant and arresting style, which is quite literally constantly on the move. I generally pride myself on not putting too much weight in a game's graphics, but when you have a title that looks as striking, unique and downright pretty as Okami, it's hard not to be a little overwhelmed.
Without a doubt the game's single most innovative addition is the Celestial Brush. Basically, when you hold down R1 the scene descends into a colourless canvas and you can use the newly emerged Brush to draw lines, circles - a whole host of shapes, patterns and objects which denote powers and abilities you obtain. This makes up a huge part of the game's combat, puzzling and even platforming. These Celestial Powers are obtained intermittantly, and this drives a lot of the core gameplay - Ammy must wholly restore her fifteen powers before she can fully conquer the dark forces that plague the land of Nippon. On the whole the powers are fairly standard, with the likes of slowing down time, a slash attack and a whirlwind, but their implementation is generally excellent, some are inspired - particularly the effects when you combine different powers, and you receive new abilities periodically which helps maintain a keen level of interest in what you will find around the next corner.
The world of Nippon is suitably vast, and you can expect to spend upwards of thirty hours before you see the epic story through to its conclusion. Ammy bounds along very quickly and you later obtain a couple of ways to warp around the land, so despite the sizeable overworld travelling around it is speedy and generally not a problem. Nippon is laid out in something of a concentric 'hub' style - you will find a couple of large exterior overworld areas, such as the early-on Shinshu Field, and from here you can access other locations such as villages, dungeons and other field regions. Rather than the circular feel Zelda's world of Hyrule tends to adopt though, Nippon is laid out over a longer, thinner area, generally running alongside the vast coastline with a couple of stops up icy mountains, passing through cities, towns and villages and through forestlands. There is an abundance of side-quests, which range from catching criminals to regenerating dead plants to defeating notourious enemies, and you could easily add a good third extra to your playtime if you want to throughly get the most out of what Okami has to offer.
The game has an excellently-judged balance between combat, exploration, plot progression and platforming. Combat is real-time, fairly enjoyable and can be quite varied, particularly when you factor in all the alternate weapons you can use (a combination of two at any one time), and start buying new combat and defensive moves a bit later in. Enemies are represented by floating Demon Scroll icons which launch themselves at you if you get too close. When this happens you are taken into the demon realm and enclosed in a circular arena where you must defeat the enemies - or escape, if you wish (coward). Ammy has a host of abilities at her disposal and different enemies require varying tactics to defeat them, which helps prevent fights from feeling too repetitive. The platforming elements are generally well done, but tend to appear in the dungeons only. At times I felt things were a little frustrating due to a lack of jumping precision available with the camera, but this was literally something that occurs once every eight or ten hours, so it's by no means a game-breaker.
I think the sound and score are generally excellent, but there's no doubt this category will be a real Marmite for some people (that is love it or hate it, to the uninitiated). The most forthright aspect is the voices - or, more precisely, the lack of voices. This is certainly a factor that has and will put people off the game, because the 'voiceovers' are really streams of gibberish played at various pitches in accordance with the character's size and gender. It sounds as though voiceovers were recorded and are played backwards in accompaniment to the absent lip-synching. To be honest, yes, the voices will annoy at first, but after a short while you will learn to ignore them, much like King Trode's whining voice in the similarly excellent Dragon Quest: Journey of the Cursed King. The score is very good throughout - if I'm not mistaken it appears to be largely string, woodwind and drum instruments for the most part. It sounds very authentically Japanese - insofar as far as my rather limited experience goes - and fits the scenarios competently. This is another aspect that even if you don't have any interest in Japanese culture, it fits so well and sounds so appropriate to the visuals that you'll still enjoy the music.
The characters, enemies and particularly bosses are also definitely worthy of a tip of the hat. It's indicative of the excellent design and superb implementation of the Celestial Brush that you will have to spend time to discover most foes' weak point then attack them with the godlike weapon. Furthermore, bosses are formidable and will require lots of to-ing and fro-ing before you can learn attack patterns, survey the environment (which sometimes contains the key to defeating the bosses) and expose their weaknesses. In terms of your allies and neutral characters you encounter, the cast is pretty diverse and, well, pretty mental. You have to wonder what the folks over at Clover were smoking when they conceived characters like the Dojo Master (complete with a bizarre spinning head) and Mr. Orange, an elderly kung-fu fighting horticulturalist. Nevertheless, almost all of the cast are entertaining, well-designed and humourous, and there is plenty of talking to be done and text to scroll through.
As much as I love this title, I'm not about to suggest it is a game without problems, though. For the first few hours, it's likely you will struggle with using the Brush. Even drawing simple shapes like circles will seem finicky and awkward at first, but at least there is no time limit on drawings (except in a very few specific circumstances) and you can go back into the Brush mode as often as you like, provided you still have the ink to do so (ink also recharges a little when depleted). That said, in theory the forthcoming Wii version could and should prove more intuitive in this respect, provided Ready At Dawn manage a worthy port. Here's hoping this wonderful little game can get a second lease of life. Moving on, a more significant problem is that there is almost no limit of the number of support items you can carry, and consequently the game is just too easy. At any one time you can carry literally hundreds of healing and support items, all of which can be used instantly by dipping into the menu screen. Additionally to that, you get an 'Astral Pouch' where you can collect and store food which will restore all your energy upon death, as well as a 'God level' where you are protected by a shield which regenerates as you damage enemies. Put simply, when you stack all this up the game seems too damn keen to keep Ammy alive, and you may well be one of many to see the game through to its conclusion without dying once. Another aspect which is pretty minor on the face of things, but which I guarantee you will pick up on, is that there are times when you must read through a long conversation but you cannot increase the v-e-r-y s-l-o-w text speed. It's unbearably frustrating when you have to watch a ten or fifteen minute cutscene and if only you could hurry the text along you know it would pass twice as fast. It really wouldn't lose anything in the story and is a very minor request on the gamers' behalf.
But, when it comes down to it Okami is a fantastic game that has good solid gameplay, backed up by some superb innovation, amazing graphical style and absolutely tons of character and charm. Due to the candid and somewhat unique style and content, clearly some people will take an instant dislike to it, but for the rest of us this is one of the last great games the PS2 will produce.
Okami is one of those rare titles which easily transcends its flaws and shortcomings because the good parts are so damn bountiful and inspired. If you want to experience one of the very finest action-adventures on the PlayStation 2, you will do yourself a favour and pick up this wonderful game.
R.I.P. Clover, you could not have had a more magnificent legacy.