Readers from the earliest days of this blog might recall a rare rant post on how the Wii’s motion controls sucked & clearly weren’t intended for calligraphy writing. The game in question was the Wii version of Okami. Thanks to the HD re-release on current consoles, including an upcoming release on the Switch, I purchased an entirely new copy in the hopes that using a regular controller would make the game easier. And shock of shocks, it actually did, thus continuing to prove motion controls are little more than a gimmick to entice new gamers. Not only did I breeze through levels that had previously given me trouble, but I was able to complete the game.
In Okami, you take the role of Amaterasu, the Japanese sun goddess, incarnated as a wolf. Your job is to vanquish the darkness that has taken control of the land of Nippon with the help of your Celestial Brush, allowing you to literally draw on the canvas of the world. Initially your task focus’ on slaying the eight-headed dragon Orochi, who was mysteriously released from his prison & demanding human sacrifices. But later you uncover that Orochi was the just a pawn to something much darker.
Okami’s game style is very much inspired by The Legend of Zelda games, where you travel through various locations & dungeons earning new ways to advance. But whereas Link picks up new weapons & items, Amaterasu unlocks new brush techniques. The Celestial Brush is your primary tool in the game, allowing you to pause the world to draw various designs, resulting in different effects. For example, you can slash foes by making a short, straight line across them, or you can creating a massive fireball by drawing an infinity sign. As you travel, you’ll bring light & life to the dying world, earning Praise by creating miracles & leveling up your Godhood.
Narrative: Despite being heavily rooted in Shintoism, foreknowledge isn’t required to understand & enjoy Okami. The game does a good job at building its world, so even if you don’t know a thing about Japan it won’t matter. It essentially functions as any other fantasy realm.
I’ve heard many claim that the game feels twice as long as it needs to be, & while I do understand where they’re coming from, I felt that the actual ending of the game is much more satisfying. You defeat Orochi about half way through the game, only to learn there’s something bigger on the horizon. Some people might find that frustrating, as up until that point there’s been no indication that there was something more, but the further you progress, the more you realize there are answers to questions you didn’t realize were there. The closest thing I can compare it to is in the first Mass Effect game when you spend most of the game chasing after Saren, only to realize that he wasn’t the most dangerous threat. Only Okami finishes its story in a single game. In the end, all the characters have a proper conclusion. And the ending nicely concludes the overarching themes of vanquishing darkness & restoring humanity’s faith in the gods, which was ultimately what lead to the problems in the first place.
All the characters are nicely quirky & memorable, & I felt the plot, for all its bouncing around, paced itself very nicely. It felt like things unfolded at a nice pace. And while Amaterasu is a classic silent protagonist (being a dog & all), I have to give Clover Studios credit for managing to give her a personality despite literally not being able to speak.
Overall, while a bit it may seem needlessly long to some, I felt the story was very engaging, characters were interesting, & the conclusion was satisfying.
Mechanics: The biggest unique selling point of Okami is the Celestial Brush. Back when I played the game on the Wii, I found the controls a bit frustrating given that the brushstrokes need to be fairly accurate to accomplish what you want. And while I did still experience some issues with the game registering my strokes, I am happy to report that it worked a million times better using the traditional PS4 controller than the Wii-mote. On paper you’d think the Wii would be better, but using a regular joystick worked sufficiently well. The process is actually simpler than it sounds, as bringing up the canvas pauses anything going on in the world to give you time to find the right angle. It’s a lot of fun to see basic shapes create massive changes in the world or damage enemies.
Combat as a whole is pretty fun & fast-paced, & best of all sometimes avoidable. Some encounters you can’t escape, typically when they’re introducing a new type, but in most of the overworld encounters are indicated by “demon carpets” floating around the level that you can just avoid if you’re not in the mood. You can also attack with weapons, as your ink isn’t unlimited, & while there are only three styles of weapons, you’ll find yourself using all of them depending on the encounter. That leads to another aspect I enjoyed, which was the boss fights. I liked that they all played out differently, with specific strategies revolving around the brush strokes you have at the time. Just learned how to create wind? Here’s a flaming skeleton cow that you can only hit once you’ve put the fire out. Just learned how to harness lightning? Here’s a boss who will obligingly hold a metal sword in their mouth while storm clouds dot the sky.
However, I did have two main gripes about the combat. One is that, for a lot of the bosses later in the game, fighting them is a waiting game. You end up just dodging their attacks until they do the one thing that leaves them vulnerable. I know this is how a lot of bosses work in these Zelda-style games, & usually this only applies for the first stage of the boss fight, but it’s still a little frustrating. Secondly, the combat only really works when you’re facing a few enemies at a time. Generally this isn’t a problem because most fights are one-on-one or up to three. But the demon gates… oh the bane of my Okami existence. The Demon Gate Trials are an option side mission where you must defeat several ways of ramped-up enemies in a succession of fights. It gets very chaotic very quickly, especially in the later levels when most enemies have only specific weaknesses. Or, y’know, they pit you against multiple ramped-up versions of a boss. Granted, these fights are entirely optional, but you have to complete them to earn stray beads to get an item for New Game+ that’s essentially turning on God Mode. I guess I would say it’s less a problem with the combat itself, & more just hating the trials. They get ridiculously hard, & you can’t leave the arena to get more supplies or you’ll have to start from the beginning again.
Other than that, I enjoyed most of what the game had to offer. I liked how you level up your Godhood by earning Praise by helping out people & creating miracles. The side missions are varied enough, though I disliked the races & digging champ minigames, though with some strategy (& eliminating the Wii-mote) they were tolerable, optional, & not numerous enough to be more than a momentary annoyance.
Overall, while later enemies can be a bit cheap & tedious, & Demon Gates are suitably demonic, I found Okami’s gameplay to be a refreshing take on an old formula.
Aesthetics: I really, really love the style of this game. The art direction in phenomenal. The art style is a unique mix of woodcut, watercolor & cell-shading. It looks like a moving ink painting, which fits the themes of the game perfectly. Personally, I’d rather use a game like Okami to showcase what HD should be rather than something more realistic. It’s an absolute treat to watch the world turn vibrant with each bit of progress you make, truly making you feel like your restoring beauty into the world.
The music is also very nice, fitting the Japanese themes. I liked that all of the main characters you interact with have their own themes, which all fit their personalities perfectly. And while I can’t speak to any voiceacting, as everyone speaks in meaningless noises, the animations do a good job of showcasing what the character is tying to emote.
Replay Value: Moderate. It’s entirely possible to see everything there is to see in Okami in a single run, but it’s definitely the sort of game that can be enjoyed multiple times. Once you beat the game the first time, you unlock New Game+ which brings over all your experience & most of your items. There’s also the challenge of finding all the stray beads to earn the String of Beads, which when equipped grants invulnerability, unlimited ink & 10x damage, meaning I’m going to have a lot of fun stomping enemies the next time around.
Overall Score: 4
Final Word: Although there are a few annoyances later in the game that prevent it from being perfect, Okami is a tragically underrated game that shines as an example of being uniquely beautiful & compelling. Hopefully with all the HD re-releases, adventure game fans will give this one a shot, though preferrably without motion controls.
Title: Okami HD
Console: PS2, PS3, PS4, Wii, Switch, PC, XBox One
Developer: Clover Studios
Release Date: April 20, 2006