I'll probably sound like a small-minded xenophobic cretinous impatient simplistic boorish halfwit for saying this [promising start -Ed], but hearing that a game is based upon "Japanese mythology" tends to put me off these days. Normally what follows such a revelation is the equally startling revelation that swords, demons and wronged children and/or warlords are involved, with a lead character whose latent folklore-y-ness is key to progression, and pause menus drawn on scrolls.
Okami, however, redresses my much-disclaimed internal imbalance, because while it does have swords, they are being wielded by mice who are gods, and while there are demons, they are enormous spiders who turn around and splatter you with webbing, and while the lead character does have latent folklore-y-ness which is key to progression, she is a wolf who is slices up rocks with a paintbrush, and instead of menus drawn on scrolls the whole game looks like it's been hand-painted by cave-dwelling Buddhists.
(Rob tells me that it's not folklore incidentally; it's religion. So: small-minded xenophobic cretinous impatient simplistic boorish halfwit who does no research.)
Moving away from my failings as both a human being and a journalist, let's talk about Okami. E3 may be a frenzy of hyperbole at the best of times, but I'm going to say this anyway: it is the most beautiful PlayStation 2 game I've seen since ICO. Think cel-shading and swirly cloud effects, Zelda: Wind Waker style, with a liveliness to the lines that makes it look like it's being sketched as you play, and a kind of ethereal air infused through a deliberately washed out look and colours that blend and sparkle into each other - all given a further boost by a vital texture filter that imbues it with a wonderful painted canvas aesthetic.
Taking on the role of Amaterasu from the third-person (with, intelligently, a choice of over-the-shoulder and far out views), you're charged with returning life and colour to a world robbed of it by a nasty demon called Orochi. Aided by a little nymph-y thing called Issun who bobs up and down on your head, you learn the art of the "celestial brush", a paintbrush that becomes central to combat, puzzles and indeed recolouring the world. In one section you're faced with a river blocked by a kind of heavenly dust, and you part the way by holding R1 to bring up the brush and using the analogue stick to paint a path for yourself.
It gets better. Rocks that block the way can be sliced in half by bringing up the brush and slicing across them - the top half then tumbling off like a magazine sliding off a slanted surface. Wooden stake barriers are the same. And the brush's use in battle is even more interesting. When enemies spring up the whole area is fenced off by swirling clouds - a sight in itself - and your enemies close in. Amaterasu can tackle them with square, landing several quick hits, and take them out that way if you please, but it's more fun when they're dizzied a little and Issun quickly circles them in red. Hit and hold R1 in this split second and draw a line reasonably accurately across them in one gesture of the analogue stick and when you let go of R1 they'll be torn asunder too, top half severed and sent flying.
There's enough magic about Okami from this increasingly wary gamer's perspective to bring forth giddy laughter, and in the brief demo session allowed by Capcom's fearsome eye-daggering chaperones (who were actually very nice people who brought me a sandwich and would probably have made me a cup of tea if I'd asked), I barely scratched the surface. There are 13 gods of brush, as my note-taking dubbed them, whose powers can be added to your repertoire, and the story is strong, the voice acting Animal Crossing gibberish-esque (urge to froth even more approvingly now strong), and the range of tasks seemingly quite varied.
And, to return to the thing that hooked me in in the first place, it looks extraordinary. One of Amaterasu's brush strokes sees her circling withered trees, which then flourish and blossom in front of you. My little heart jumped. Then, having finished a task that involved redrawing a sword on a decrepit statue of a god, slicing down a peach in the main hub area saw an entire village community bloom in front of me. I'm about as capable of articulating visual excellence as I am tidying the lounge through a hangover, but the screenshots alone must be able to convey to some extent the distinctiveness and stylishness of what Clover Studio has managed here.
Okami is due out in PAL territories in 2006, and could be majestic. If I didn't have so much respect for it artistically, and it wasn't so hideously inappropriate, I might end on a joke about it being the dog's danglies. Oops. Quick, think of something else. Er. Like wandering through a charcoal Andy Warhol listening to Princess Mononoke dialogue on headphones. As a dog who is a god. Oh well - you can tell I like it.