Version tested: Wii
This shouldn't be happening. To quote from Kristan's review of Okami on the PlayStation 2: "Okami's ideas would have worked far better on the Wii, but that's never going to happen, now, is it?" And yet - marvellously, unbelievably - here we are, a year and a half later, playing Okami again in progressive-scan widescreen on the Wii, wielding the Celestial Brush again with a remote, despite Clover's closure and below-average sales. And Kristan was right - Okami's ideas do work better on the Wii.
The very basics of Okami's design are similar to the Zelda series' - indeed, this is probably the only truly great game outside of that series that has ever managed to pull it off so well. The story, like the visual style and striking music, draws its inspiration from Japanese mythology; playing as a legendary white wolf infused with the spirit of the sun god, Amaterasu, we go about saving the world from a great evil, albeit in a stunningly well-realised and visually entrancing way.
Okami's world is fairly open, and spreads gradually outwards as Amaterasu moves between beautiful outdoor scenes and bigger, puzzle-filled, delightfully inventive dungeons. Getting rid of the evil in a place by defeating dungeon bosses restores life and vitality to areas of the map in a breathtaking tidal wave of colour, foliage and wildlife. After that, the area is free to be explored; secretive corners of the map draw you to them with hidden items, side-quests and colourful, often humorous characters. The wealth of things to do outside the dungeon structure is quite amazing - even apart from the side-quests and exploration, there are wild animals to be fed, trinkets to collect and little residual pockets of darkness to take care of. The more you partake in Okami's world, the more it rewards you, slowly building up Amaterasu's wolfy abilities outside the dungeons as well as rewarding her with new weapons and techniques inside them. It is captivating design, complemented by fluid, gorgeous and unique visuals.
Okami's iconic concept is the Celestial Brush. Press the B button, and the whole world around Amaterasu freezes in time, transformed into a sepia-coloured ink-on-papyrus image that can be daubed with black ink for all sorts of effects. The Celestial Brush techniques start off simply - draw a big circle in the sky for a sun, make withered trees burst into bloom in a shower of blossoms, daub missing stars onto constellations, draw straight lines through things to cut them in half - but they become ever more inventive as the game goes on, and before long you're deftly forming lily pads beneath Amaterasu's feet with a mid-jump flourish of the Wii remote, or creating barriers of trees between her and an enemy. It's just as striking and impressive a visual technique as it is a gameplay mechanic, and it lies at the heart of what makes Okami so memorable; never before have a game's graphical style, music and gameplay been so perfectly integrated with each other.
This whole business is much improved, as everybody knew it would be, by Wii remote controls. The ink-painting process is so much quicker and smoother this way. As before, you'll occasionally make a mistake by not drawing an acceptably straight line or drawing circles too large, but it's much easier now to try again without breaking the flow of the game. It actually improves Okami's pacing significantly - painting with a PS2 pad was a fairly laborious process, meaning that it often wasn't worth the hassle in combat, but now it's possible to switch so quickly between using the brush and ordinary gameplay that taking enemies out with a final slash is more convenient, and looks more stylish. It also feels more intuitive - which, considering that the Wii opens this game up to an audience that might never have seen anything like it before, is definitely a good thing.
The Wii also makes Okami a little prettier, displaying it in proper widescreen in 480p. Were this any other game in the entire world, I'd be struggling to even pretend to care, but because Okami is such a visual game, it really makes a difference. On a large telly, the PS2 version's colours all ran together a bit - on the Wii, things are that bit sharper and more impressive, and it still retains all the charm of the ink-on-paper watercolour style that makes it so striking.
The danger with Okami is that people will be so busy looking at how pretty it is, they'll fail to appreciate just how brilliant it is underneath as well. Okami is an astounding videogame. Its world is living and organic, infused with ideas of mythology and natural beauty and influenced by several areas of the Japanese aesthetic, from sumi-e to architecture to religious and ritual tradition, as well as by other games as diverse as Zelda and Devil May Cry. It might echo Zelda in its structure - though its execution is entirely its own - but Okami also alludes to other Capcom classics in its sense of style; the incredible boss fights and accompanying cut-scenes call Viewtiful Joe and even Devil May Cry to mind.
The Wii controls are not, disappointingly, as well-integrated in combat as they are for the Celestial Brush. Attacks are executed with a sharp flick of the wrist, but must be timed quite precisely in order to perform a combo - waving the remote back and forth just doesn't work, and, though it's good in a way that you can't just flail your way arbitrarily through combat, the attack timing for some of the weapons (the Tsumugari in particular) is a bit finicky, and the game is occasionally picky about recognising your gestures. It works, but it's awkward until you figure out the timing.
Thankfully this is nothing game-breaking. Combat was never the salient element of Okami, and because fights are never particularly difficult, these minor control issues never cause unnecessary death or any genuine frustration. Overall, Okami benefits far more from the Celestial Brush control and considerable visual improvement that the Wii affords it than it suffers from slightly worsened combat. The game may not be the Wii's own, but Okami benefits greatly from the visual and control improvements that Ready at Dawn has made, and hopefully, this re-release will give it a second chance to reach the audience that it deserves. Okami should not be a little-known classic. It is an item of culture, informed by thousands of years of Japanese art and mythology and fashioned into perhaps the most thoroughly beautiful thing that gaming has to offer.
During the eighteen months since Okami's original release, nothing else has turned up that makes us admire it any less - not even Nintendo's own Twilight Princess comes close to the astonishing cohesion of form and content, style and substance, that makes Okami so extraordinary. It's as well-designed as Zelda, as involving as Final Fantasy, and as beautiful as anything you've ever seen; it belongs with the best of the Zelda series at the very apex of its genre.
10 / 10
Okami is due out on Wii in Europe on 13th June.