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Platform(s): Nintendo DS
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: Capcom
Release Date: March 15, 2011 (US), March 18, 2011 (EU)


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NDS Review - 'Okamiden'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on March 25, 2011 @ 12:30 a.m. PDT

Okamiden is a picturesque action adventure game for the Nintendo DS. Taking place a few months after the events of Okami, Okamiden follows the adventures of Chibiterasu, a young sun god who is summoned to protect the land.

In the original Okami, the Goddess Amaterasu defeated all the evil in Nippon and returned to the Celestial Plains to rid them of further evil. All seemed at peace in the world for a while, but after a few months, a new white wolf appears in the land of Nippon. This is not the great white wolf Amaterasu, but her young son Chibiterasu. In Okamiden, Chibi shows up just in time for history to repeat itself. Almost as soon as he arrives, a mysterious dark cloud appears above the land and begins cursing everything around him. Now, just as his mother did, Chibi must travel across the land and find the source of this evil before it turns of Nippon into a seething pit of evil and death. Along the way, he'll meet the same folks that Amaterasu did and encounter a number of strange mysteries. While only nine months have passed, the world has changed more than expected, and it's up to Chibi to figure out why.

Okamiden is an amazingly charming game, and in many ways, it feels like a rehash of the original Okami with a more adorable puppy. Despite the limitations of the DS, each character has expressive body language that lends charm to the simplest cut scenes. It's a real treat to watch Chibi happily jump up and put his paws on his partner's shoulder so they can dance around after beating a boss. Everything in the game is absolutely adorable, and even the stoniest heart will melting slightly when confronted with the legion of baby Celestial Animals who bestow new powers upon Chibi.

My only complaint is the same as in the original Okami: The cut scenes advance at a glacial pace. You're forced to sit there while two characters babble at each other in gibberish and the text crawls across the screen. There are some cut scenes that don't do this, and that only makes the ones that do all the more frustrating. If there were more to the cut scenes, it wouldn't be a problem, but most of them are a cute animation or two while the characters repeat things that they already know. The game has a cut scene skip button, but doing so feels pointless on your first time through. If you could speed up the cut scenes even slightly, they'd be a lot more enjoyable.

As you progress, Amaterasu and Chibiterasu gain Celestial Brush techniques. For those who didn't play the original Okami, you can press the DS shoulder buttons to pause time. This causes the top screen to move down to the bottom screen and turn into a sepia-toned parchment. Once this occurs, you use the touch-screen to draw on the parchment and activate special abilities. Drawing a straight horizontal line across an enemy, for example, will slash them. When you finally restart time, a magical blade cuts through the air where you drew, damaging anything in its path. Drawing a bomb creates a bomb where you draw it, allowing you to break open cracked walls or damage enemies.

You gradually get new abilities as the game progresses, including the ability to hookshot to places or people by using vines, and the power to manipulate various elements, such as fire or water. Your only limitation is the number of ink bottles you have. Every time you use your Celestial Brush, you use up some magical ink, which is necessary to activate those abilities. Ink refills drop from smashed objects or defeated enemies, and you can use items to recharge it. If you're not careful, though, you may find yourself dry on ink when you need it most. During boss fights, you'll have to attack the boss during a dangerous moment to make him drop ink. Since most of the boss fights involve liberal usage of ink to damage them, it's important to not use your powers unless absolutely necessary.

For the most part, the abilities you get in Okamiden are repeats of those from the original game. The most noteworthy new ability in Okamiden is the Guidance spell, which plays pretty heavily into the new Partner system. Unlike Amaterasu, Chibi doesn't have a single would-be Celestial Envoy like Issun. Instead, he has a rotating system of available partners who ride on his back and offer special abilities that come into play in the puzzles and dungeons.

Kuni, the son of Susano, can perform special sword attacks, which are helpful in battle and also allow you to split heavy boulders. Nanami the mermaid can control water; this turns her into an always-present water source so that Chibi can extinguish torches even if there are no nearby sources of water. Most of the time, these characters ride around on Chibi's back, and you'll be able to activate their powers when needed.

Sometimes you'll have to split up the two partners. At any time, you can drop the character from Chibi's back by pressing the X button. This is sometimes useful just for holding down a switch while Chibi does something else. Once you get the power of Guidance, you can draw a line from your partner to any place on the field, and he or she will follow that line. This is useful because your partners can go places where Chibi cannot; for instance, Nanami the mermaid can swim through deep water. The only downside is that while not riding Chibi, your partners have a separate life bar and are helpless against enemies. If you don't guide them properly, they can get killed, and it's game over.

For the most part, the Celestial Brush is well implemented. It's a real step up from the Wii and PS2 versions of the original Okami. Being able to simply and quickly draw what you need on-screen feels so much more natural than aiming the Wiimote or using the awkward analog stick on the PlayStation controller. However, there are occasional moments when the game has trouble registering what you want to do. For example, trying to using the Power Slash ability while surrounded by water tends to make the game default to manipulate water instead of the simple slash you're attempting. This problem comes up rarely, but it's annoying when it does, especially if you waste some of your ink pots on a "wrong" move. Fortunately, a few nagging control completes are a small price to pay for such a natural method of using the Celestial Brush.

One of the frustrating aspects about Okamiden is that it seems afraid to let players figure out things for themselves. A lot of the puzzles and dungeons tend to be overexplained to an excessive degree. If you need to use a power, you'll almost always have your sidekick tell you exactly which power to use. It's fine in unusual situations but feels repetitive when you're told to repair something after you've repaired things countless times before. There are times when the game seems afraid to hinder players for even a moment. Early on, for example, there's a section where you wander into the Demon's Marketplace and are asked to find passwords to get past a guard. You get hints to the passwords from another demon, who gives you a perfectly reasonable hint and then proceeds to tell you exactly where to go and where to look to find the password. Fortunately, when the game lets you figure out things on your own, it's rather fun. None of the puzzles are particularly brain-twisters, but they're enjoyable, and the dungeons are consistently exciting — when they're not spoon-feeding hints to you.

As in the original Okami, most fights take place in a separate space from the rest of the game. When you run into powerful demons, you're taken to a small arena where you fight them off. Combat is simple, with the Y button for attacks and the A button for dodges. You still have full access to your Celestial Brush powers during combat, and you'll find yourself using them often. Most enemies are vulnerable to some kind of Celestial Brush attack. A flying enemy may need to be knocked down with a Power Slash. A fiery enemy needs to be doused with water. A particularly defensive foe needs to have a bomb dropped behind his back. It's straightforward and reasonably fun, but it gets repetitive quickly. Once you know an enemy's weakness, it's simple to defeat them. The only really annoying foes are those who show up before you know their weakness. They simply take longer to defeat because you can't crush their defenses in a moment, so it makes the fights more tedious. Fortunately, the fights end up being brief interruptions before you get back to the more enjoyable dungeon exploration.

Most boss fights are well designed and involve a combination of partners and Celestial Brush techniques. The first boss, for example, is a giant demon who dives from the water for only a moment, at which point you must use your Celestial Brush to stop time and strike him. All the while, you have to keep him distracted from your partner, who you guide around behind him to recover stolen fruit. It sounds simple, but it's engaging and exciting enough that you don't mind that the basic strategy is so straightforward. You're even ranked on these boss fights, so you're encouraged to play to the best of your ability. The boss fights are among the best parts of the Okamiden experience, and each one is a fun and interesting reward for finishing a dungeon.

Despite being a sequel, Okamiden feels more like a scaled-down remake of the original game. There is new content, but everything feels overly familiar. Whereas Zelda games tend to vary with new worlds or new gimmicks, Okamiden feels pretty much identical to the original Okami. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the original Okami was an extremely fun game, but it makes it less exciting for those who are expecting a full-fledged sequel. This is especially noticeable early on, when Okamiden is almost a direct retread of the opening of the original game. Problems that should have been fixed in the original remain, and there are only a small handful of new features that set the game apart from its predecessor.

Many times, the game feels like something too large squeezed down to fit into the Nintendo DS. The large and open areas of the original Okami are replicated here, but while those areas were large and free to roam in the original, they're small and connected by many invisible doors in Okamiden. Instead of running across the wide open field, you're forced to start and stop as the game loads each new chunk of the map. It's not a terrible problem, but it makes the environments feel cramped and somewhat claustrophobic.

Little effort appears to have been put into designing the game for a portable device. Save points are few and far between, and you can go through an entire dungeon with save points only at the beginning and end of the dungeon. For a console game, this isn't a big issue. For a handheld title, where real life and power concerns can be a problem, it stands out. The ability to save more easily would have been a great boon. Instead, you're forced to run around the areas looking for the closest save spot if you want to take a break from the game. You can close the DS to pause it, but that continues to drain the system's battery. It's not enough of a problem to sour the game, but it provides a good example of how Okamiden feels more like a console title shoved haphazardly into a smaller package instead of a game designed around the DS.

Okamiden's visuals are a bit like the gameplay: a console-sized offering scaled down to fit on a handheld. In this case, it actually works in the game's favor. While the art seems more crude and simplistic when compared to the lovely watercolor artwork of the original Okami, it actually lends to the atmosphere. Everything feels more childish and cartoonish, as if the difference between the two was that an adult "drew" the first game and a child the second. Considering that Okamiden stars the child of Amaterasu, this fits the game quite well. The animations and character designs are vivid and memorable, and the environments, while slightly recycled, are interesting and well designed. The soundtrack is good, although once again, it's mostly a repeat of Okami tracks. I'm still not fond of the made-up gibberish language to replace actual voice acting. It's OK for brief periods of time but is annoying in some of the longer cut scenes. I'd have preferred the option to turn it off in favor of quicker cut scenes.

Okamiden is a scaled-down Okami, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. It doesn't quite work as a full-fledged sequel to the original game, but it makes a fine handheld adaptation. There's enough new content that even die-hard fans who bought Okami for the Wii and PS2 will find plenty to enjoy in Okamiden. It is accessible enough to be a good introduction to the franchise for players who only know Amaterasu from Marvel vs. Capcom. There are some minor annoyances here and there, and a few design concessions to the handheld platform would have done a lot to make it easier to pick up and play. Regardless, Okamiden is a real treat to anyone looking for a Zelda-style adventure on the DS. In many ways, it outdoes the recent offerings from Nintendo itself.

Score: 8.0/10

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