Games and anime have been indelibly linked for nearly as long as the two have coexisted in the realm of popular culture. As with games and live-action films, their paths have crossed numerous times. Hundreds of games have been produced based on popular animated series and films, and unfortunately, many popular games have been translated into poor anime series and features. Though Okami is noted for its basis in ancient Japanese art and mythology, I believe the title is more influenced by the modern animated film, another mainstay of Japanese entertainment.
Indeed, Okami dramatically resembles many an animated production, from its abstract, colorful visuals to its massive, dynamic soundtrack. Like a lost Hayao Miyazaki masterwork, Okami is packed with visual flair, including grass that grows in a trail behind your character, and floating flowers in the sky that can be used to grapple to great heights. Set in ancient Nippon, the narrative unravels over 35 hours of well-paced drama, action, and occasional whimsy. Though comparisons to a certain Legendary Nintendo franchise are not without merit, Okami makes enough innovative changes to stand on its own as a modern classic.
I typically hesitate to begin any game discussion with a visual analysis. While graphics are certainly an integral element of any game's makeup, I tend to think that gameplay and/or narrative are more crucial to its success. But you've never seen a game like Okami before. On a basic level, Okami uses cel-shaded polygons to create a three-dimensional animated environment. Rather than give it a cartoon-inspired sheen, Clover Studio opted to seek inspiration from ancient Japanese wood-block paintings, broad brush strokes and all. No attempts are made at realism; the human characters are disproportional, and enemies are displayed in the form of cursed scrolls, floating around the environments.
Okami does take some cues from the Viewtiful Joe series of games, many of which also came from Clover Studio. It also owes a bit to Killer 7, another Capcom title lauded for its quirky presentation. A still image can only tell you so much about the game; to see it in motion is an entirely different experience. It is only then that the comparison to a Miyazaki animated film becomes clear. Nothing is static – trees sway, leaves soar in all directions, and the characters appear jittery, like in the 1990s American animated series Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. The game typically flows at a steady pace, though I did note slowdown in Kamiki Village and in Wep'keer. To top it all off, a parchment-style texture is overlaid on the screen, as if to convey that what you see before you is being painted in real-time.
The qualifier for a "good-looking" game in this industry is often realism; how much something looks like its real-life equivalent often determines the value awarded to the visual presentation. Okami resembles nothing you will come across in your daily travels but cannot be assailed for such a move. To be able to compare Okami to an animated film speaks to the level of attention given to the art design. The majority of the game uses a very simplistic look; thick brush strokes define the borders of everything on-screen, and the environments look to have been painted with watercolors. It is an intentionally rough look that is more inspired by nature than it is lacking in detail. Mountains in the distance and gusts of wind are portrayed with the look of a single, black brushstroke. To convey such grandeur with so little is truly inspiring.
Okami starts by telling a legend and finishes by letting you create your own. One-hundred years prior to the start of the game, the great warrior Nagi and the mystical white wolf Shiranui defeated Orochi, an eight-headed serpent. Shiranui died from her wounds but was immortalized in statue form and revered across the land. As the game begins, Orochi has been revived, and darkness covers all of Japan. Amaterasu, the reincarnation of Shiranui, is summoned from the statue and returns to cleanse the world of evil. Amaterasu is also the sun goddess (which is rooted in actual Japanese mythology), and as such, has a bevy of special abilities. Sadly, these skills have been lost in the translation from goddess to wolf and must be regained over the course of your grand journey.
While brushwork has a great impact on the visual presentation of the title, it has an even greater one on the gameplay. Amaterasu uses her powers via the Celestial Brush, which is utilized by holding down the R1 button and using the right analog stick in conjunction with the square or triangle button. It is very simple and often used ingeniously during the voyage. When you press and hold the R1 button, everything on the screen gains a sepia tone and freezes in place, giving you the opportunity to make some changes with your brush. At first, the brush strokes are simple, as are the results that follow. Is there a collapsed bridge in view? Fill in the missing areas and proceed to the other side. Looking to breathe life into a dead tree? Draw a circle around it and watch it spring to life, complete with a fantastic musical theme.
As you progress through the narrative, Amaterasu will pick up more complicated brushstrokes from various gods and goddesses. Control the wind by drawing a loop; create fire by painting a figure eight – Okami lets you take control of nature and use it to save Japan. Granted, you are limited to the pre-set abilities, but there are enough included to make it a necessary aspect of the game. You will be drawing bombs and walking on walls with ease thanks to the Celestial Brush. It seems likely that a spin-off or port will be headed for the Nintendo DS or Wii – why pass up the opportunity, Capcom?
My only worry about the brush (prior to playing the game) was in regards to its accuracy – would all of my strokes be picked up without error? Thankfully, I rarely had any issues with the brushwork. My bomb and rejuvenation drawings would sometimes be ignored, but that often had more to do with my brushwork and the sensitive analog stick. Placement can sometimes be iffy, but this can usually be solved by changing your perspective. The only time I had a recurring issue was when facing a boss that shot out small swords that I had to deflect; it was often tough to slash the intended sword. Still, 15 minutes of grief in a 35-hour game is not a very big deal.
The standard gameplay has a bit more in common with some of the popular action/adventure titles of the last several years. As Amaterasu, you roam the land in search of your missing powers, while also cleaning up evil and helping others along the way. Amaterasu has a couple of basic abilities that can be activated with the face buttons, such as the ability to tackle, jump, and dig holes. One of my chief concerns coming into the game was if playing as a wolf would be particularly interesting. Would she have a notable personality? While the wolf (thankfully) doesn't talk, she does have a tiny traveling companion. Issun, a miniature artist, rides on Amaterasu's back and conducts all of the conversations in the game.
The amount of reading in Okami rivals that of many major RPGs, as there are many in-game story sequences and even more opportunities for conversation. While I would have liked a bit less chit-chat, the narrative is equal parts drama and mythology, with an appropriate helping of whimsical humor to boot. Issun is a bit of a skirt-chaser, despite the fact that the women he lusts after are significantly larger than he is. At an impressively long 30-plus hours in length, Okami has enough content and variety (including a couple of mini-games) to keep your interest until the excellent final boss and its accompanying story sequences.
Instead of gaining experience points, Amaterasu can accumulate praise, which can be earned through both required and optional tasks. Praise can be earned for reviving dead plants and trees, clearing an area of enemies, and helping out NPCs scattered around the world. The built-up praise can then be spent to gain additional health, increase your ink reserves, expand the size of your wallet, or purchase another Astral Pouch, which can bring you back to life if you die. Gaining and spending the optional praise will make your experience much easier, though the game is rarely challenging as it is. An immense amount of yen (money) is also awarded during the game and can be spent on learning new skills or purchasing power-ups or new weapons.
Considering the versatility the Celestial Brush brings to Okami, the actual battle system feels surprisingly uncomplicated. When a battle begins, a circular portion of the map is closed off by a dark mist emblazoned with Japanese kanji characters. Within the space will emerge your enemies, and then it is time for a bit of old-fashioned hacking and slashing. With many enemies, the brush is only used to deliver slashes, though a landing a slash for the final hit may grant you a special bonus item. One particularly interesting foe has a flower bud growing within its being, which you can expose by drawing a circle on it at the right time. Other enemies can be dispelled by connecting a fire source to their bodies, if such a source is available within the battle space. Thankfully, the major bosses require a bit more strategy, as well as greater use of your brushwork.
With over 200 audio tracks, the soundtrack in Okami is immense, varied, and incredibly well done. Composed by Masami Ueda, Hiroshi Yamaguchi, Rei Kondoh and Akari Groves, the tracks convey the sound of ancient Japan, using traditional instruments like the koto, lute, and taiko drum. Many of the evocative pieces cannot help but remind one of the epic soundscapes composed by the great Joe Hisaishi for many a Studio Ghibli film. Okami sadly lacks voiceovers, instead utilizing the odd gibberish now synonymous with the adult voices in the Charlie Brown cartoons of old. While the random mumbling changes in tone from character to character, it still lacks the flavor that a talented voiceover cast can add to a game.
Upon completing Okami, you may feel like you have just taken in a classic Miyazaki film. The visual/aural presentation and sprawling narrative combine to present the game as an extended vision of an anime epic – equal parts The Legend of the Dog Warriors: The Hakkenden and Princess Mononoke, with a dash of Ranma ½ for kicks. The innovative visual style and use of the Celestial Brush make Okami a gaming experience unlike any other. Though the PlayStation 2 has given us a slew of fantastic releases in the last six years, Okami easily earns its spot in the upper echelon of those titles. You may not find a better game this year.
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