For the sequel to a game that sold poorly enough to get a Capcom studio shut down, there was a hell of a lot of interest in Okamiden at the Tokyo Game Show recently. Show-goers had to brave a 50-minute queue to earn three minutes in its company. The Ready at Dawn Wii remake of Okami is just about to be released over in Japan after almost a year and a half's delay, so Capcom is presumably hoping the sequel can ride the renewed wave of interest that it will unleash. The game is, after all, far better-suited to the Wii and DS than it ever was to the PS2, as everybody with an index finger has been pointing out since 2006.
On the surface, Okamiden is everything that you'd expect of the sequel to a two-time10/10: gorgeous, playful, inventive, extremely well-made. It turns out that Okami's sumi-e brush-on-canvas style downsizes beautifully. Characters are lively daubs of colour outlined in thick black, and their animation is fluid and energetic. The teensy little version of Amaterasu - Chibiterasu, as he's called - is unbelievably cute, yet somehow retains some of the grown wolf's nobility. Having a puppy as a protagonist is absolutely inspired - Capcom has multiplied female interest in the game by about a thousand in one fell swoop, there.
Little Chibiterasu has a lot of Amaterasu's abilities - the Celestial Brush, most pertinently - but little of her power. He can't go it alone. In place of Issun, who was your inch-tall constant companion and source of affectionate quips in the first game, you team up with partners who ride on the little wolf's back. In our demo, this is Kuninushi, a diminutive warrior who serves as Chibiterasu's voice, hint-dispenser and occasional helping hand - having a mouthy companion to do all the talking is a good way of getting around the problem of a mute main character. Wolf pup and pal aren't completely inseparable though - you can press X to have them jump off Chibiterasu's back, leaving him free to go roaming or squeeze through a narrow passageway.
Many of the game's puzzles are based around splitting up to perform comfortingly familiar tasks with levers and pressure plates. Sometimes the camera moves to a fixed point, which telegraphs where you must use the Celestial Brush. Pressing R freezes the game and transforms the scene on the top screen into a waiting, still-life canvas for your DS stylus. Early in the game, all the powers are familiar: circling dead trees to make them bloom, filling in broken bridges, completing constellations, drawing a sun in the sky to illuminate darkness. However, you can also direct your partner by drawing a route for them, instructing them towards a switch or item with which only they can interact. Susano can wander over rickety bridges to retrieve a trinket, for instance, when Chibiterasu is too scared.
The Celestial Brush powers are introduced by familiar faces. The mouse with the obscenely giant sword who grants the slash power makes a return, as does the first game's drunkard-turned-legendary-warrior, Susano - you have to draw the outline of a flower on a branch sprouting from his wooden sword to open a door. This hints at how Okamiden's puzzles might eventually differentiate themselves - you can get away with demanding more complex drawing from a player when they have a stylus in hand than when they're wrestling with a DualShock or waving a Wiimote.
The environments, too, are extremely familiar at this stage. The first portion of Okamiden is set in a beautiful mountain town, with trees, houses and red-painted bridges that could be straight out of Kamiki Village. The technical limitations of the DS are barely evident. Okamiden seems capable of presenting environments almost as open and sprawling as its predecessor's, though the village is divided up into three or four sections separated by sparkly portals and a few seconds of loading.
All this familiarity is comforting, until you realise that the first big puzzle of the game is actually exactly the same as Okami's first puzzle - drawing a sun in the sky of a stone carving, then doing the same to make a tree grow in a shaft of sunlight in an enclosed cave - at which point it becomes a little worrying. Wonderful as Okami was, we'd rather have a new game based around the same concepts than play the whole thing again. Things do move in a different direction after the first puzzle, as the emphasis shifts more towards using your partner in puzzles and combat. Hopefully the game has another few new ideas up its sleeve as it progresses further.
Combat was always Okami's weakness, and that looks to be the case here, too - it's still one-button combos augmented by slashing with the Celestial Brush. Rather than wandering freely around the dungeons and landscape, enemies seem to turn up at predetermined points, making it feel distressingly like random battles. Bosses, though, will hopefully be as creative as ever - disappointingly, the demo ends just before I'm allowed to take on the giant frog with an eyepatch at the end of the first dungeon.
It's clear even from spending 10 minutes with a 25 per cent complete Okamiden that it's extremely solid already. There are no problems with fiddly controls or awkward structuring. Everything feels natural and organic, an effect emphasised by the still-unbelievable consistency and authenticity of the hand-painted style. Really, it's the looks that make you fall in love with Okamiden - not just the staggering beauty of the in-game graphics, but the lovely cut-scenes too, showing little puppy Amaterasu pawing tentatively at Kuninushi after a long fall, or a troupe of dancing penguins that turn up to introduce a new Celestial Brush power.
At the moment, on first impressions, Okamiden reads like a loving tribute to Okami rather than an attempt to further the concept. New design lead Kuniomi Matsushita's reverence for Clover's work is evident in his fidelity to the original game's iconic look and dungeon-driven structure. But it's not a soulless facsimile; there's already enough life and character in the adorable new protagonist and the world he inhabits to make Okamiden seductive in its own right.