Okami

Review by Steerpike
November 2006

PS2, We Hardly Knew Ye

A console's twilight days are bittersweet, because even as the next generation beckons, developers have mastered the art of pushing older technology beyond its limits and turn out some awe-inspiring work. Never has this been more evident than with the PlayStation 2, a technological dinosaur so mind-bogglingly underpowered compared to its successor that it wouldn't be unfair, when juxtaposing the two, to equate its Precambrian workings with hamsters running on wheels. Yet from this Methuselah we have seen God of War, Shadow of the Colossus, Final Fantasy XII and now Okami—games that share almost nothing in common save one unifying trait: that none of them have any right to exist on a platform so ancient it's been outstripped by cellphones.

Clover Studio's Okami, powered by hamsters, will leave you breathless in an assortment of ways. It is so stunning to look at that even if there weren't a good game underneath I'd confidently recommend it. But there is. There's an intoxicating, unforgettable platform adventure that combines the very best of Zelda, Rygar, Castlevania, Dragon Quest and a dozen other golden age classics in a wholly unique and immeasurably wonderful new treasure. Here now at the end of PS2's long life, when all eyes are pointed toward the future, Okami shows us power in the past.

God = Dog

Long ago in feudal Japan, the eight-headed creature Orochi terrorized the village of Kamiki. Every year a maiden was sacrificed to the monster's hideous appetite. Its evil was so potent that it poisoned all of Nippon. When the beautiful Nami was chosen as Orochi's next meal, her lover Nagi swore to defeat it. But his mighty sword couldn't harm the beast, who savaged the warrior with teeth and claws. Just as Nagi was about to succumb to death, a white wolf appeared in the cave. This apparition had been seen in town earlier; villagers called it Shiranui and thought it was a servant of Orochi. But the wolf attacked the monster and held it at bay. Finally, blood from a hundred wounds matting its white fur, Shiranui collapsed, having bought Nagi enough time to recover. Moonlight bathed his sword, imbuing it with the magic needed to sever Orochi's heads. Burying that sword in a rock at the cave entrance to bind any lingering evil inside, Nagi carried the wolf's corpse back to Kamiki.

The villagers erected a shrine to the lupine hero, and for a hundred years all was well. But now the sword has been removed from the stone, and Orochi has risen. Nippon's natural beauty is again tainted by evil, and monsters ravage the landscape. Sakuya, the wood sprite patron of Kamiki Village, uses the last of her dwindling life force to call for help from long-absent gods and so gains the attention of Okami Amaterasu, the sun goddess, the mother of us all. Amaterasu chooses to manifest as a certain white wolf, and your adventure begins.

For all the glurping melodrama of the above, Okami isn't some ponderous Dunsan-Asian romance. It's actually rather goofy. There's pie and fireworks and silly dances and trapezoidal love affairs and booze. An extraordinarily disrespectful little bouncing bug man named Issun serves as Amaterasu's tagalong mascot and advisor, referring to her as "Ammy" or, more often, "furball." Said Furball has the habit of dozing off when a conversation gets too boring. In many ways, the game is a contrast to the oh-so-serious storylines and characters we usually see in plot-driven adventures. Our canine protagonist is unique too—you're a dog, yes, but in most video games you're also an underdog, and that's not exactly the case here.

Amaterasu is a god, and pains are taken to ensure that you never forget it. Flowers spring up wherever those white paws land. Wild animals tumble over each other in an effort to get near. Night and day exist at her whim. She can literally paint and unpaint the foundations of reality, create and destroy with a celestial ink brush. The very stars themselves are drawn down from the heavens by the awesome grace of Amaterasu's divine magic.

And yet for all this power, she is fragile. Deities gain strength through the reverence of mortals, and mortals have abandoned gods ... because gods have apparently abandoned them—hiding, doing nothing while monsters lay waste to the realm. Amaterasu has been gone even longer than many of her divine cohorts. There is precious little worship going on when the game begins. No one is sure how to deal with the sudden appearance of an enormous white wolf that carries the sun on its back. Sakuya believes in you, but Sakuya is desperately weak—dying, in fact—and the creature Orochi's sinister hold over Nippon is dramatically stronger and farther-reaching than the power of a single invalid wood sprite or forgotten sun goddess.

Practically speaking, your job is to save the realm by driving off the evil taint that's ruining its rural splendor, to tie Orochi's eight necks into knots and thus save Nippon. Thematically, Okami is about restoring human faith in the divine, and Clover's greatest accomplishment is how adroitly it realizes this somber theme in such a silly, sweet-natured game.

Okami is very, very Japanese, to such a degree that the manual takes an almost apologetic tone in warning players that they might not get everything that's going on. It is steeped in Japanese culture and mythology. The characters, plotlines and locations are a who's who of Asian folklore, the eastern equivalent of a Hans Christian Andersen video game. Yet despite the highly Asian sensibility, to me it felt less ... off-puttingly Japanese than, say, Final Fantasy. At last count, Okami had moved about 237,000 units worldwide, 150,000 of which were in Japan. These numbers aren't huge but aren't too bad either, and it'll sell more as its legend grows (and oh, it is, you should hear what some people are saying about it—the Play review closed with "I love you Link, and I always will, but my new best friend is a breed apart").

So ... Pretty ...

Fear of the Uncanny Valley effect in modern "realistic" game engines has led to a strong Dragon's Lair graphical backlash, especially on consoles and generally in the form of cel-shaded or anime-inspired graphics. Dragon Quest VIII, Zelda: Wind Waker, Trace Memory, Xenosaga and others have all gone this way. Even Clover's own Viewtiful Joe games are cel-shaded. The effect is pretty and somewhat unique, but to my eyes it looks a lot better in still screencaps than in actual gameplay.

Okami is not cel-shaded, and its still screencaps cannot in any way do justice to the magnificent splendor of the actual gameplay. The whole thing is done in a style known mostly to Asian art historians and people who overuse Photoshop filters: as a sumi-e painting on a rice paper canvas.

Sumi-e is an acquired taste, but in perfect fluid motion it is an unforgettably delicious visual feast. Seeing the wind as wisping swirls of black ink on a far horizon, seeing rich blue mountains fade into view in dawn sunlight, perceiving for the first time the true meaning of the phrase "riot of color" when Amaterasu restores one of the magical Guardian Sapling trees that protect Nippon's natural beauty. ... Okami is so mouth-watering that I am seriously considering buying a gigantic TV just to fully appreciate it.

The game's traditional-sounding Asian score fits elegantly with the visual triumph. The only sonic mistake Okami commits is the decision to subtitle all the speech against a vaguely Japanese-sounding babbletrack, an effect that worked far better in Shadow of the Colossus than it does here. It gets repetitive and a little grating, which wouldn't have happened if they'd included a few more phonemes. I'm fine with the subtitling in general (English voice actors would have been a disaster), but hearing "ooglooboogloobooglooboo" over and over while you read dialogue gets irritating. Plus the type is small, and as I mentioned, so is my TV.

You Got Chocolate in My Peanut Butter

Your quest to save Nippon is characterized by a series of elegantly interconnected adventures and stories dealing not only with Orochi's curse but a variety of other troubles that only Amaterasu and Issun can possibly solve. There's a nasty sea monster, the mother of all snowstorms, a haunted forest and many other subplots great and small, usually requiring some combination of good reflexes and clever problem-solving to sort out.

Okami has elements of many genres—platforming, adventure, RPG and action all apply. But there's more to it than that. There's something so ... joyous about it, in Amaterasu's happy barks, in her running, her jumping, her digging of holes. I found myself ignoring the game for stretches, just doing these things. I don't know if it's the way the controls handle, or the graphics, or what, but it's there. Okami is the video game version of Professor Dumbledore, managing somehow to be both gleeful and august.

The Celestial Brush system is getting much attention in the press; it's a unique mechanism for affecting the game world that fits right in with the whole you-play-an-omnipotent-goddess thing. Hold R1 and the world becomes your canvas, to be literally painted with a giant ink brush. You'll master more than a dozen brush powers: fix or destroy objects, summon dawn, slice enemies and so forth. Most puzzles involve the Celestial Brush to some degree or another. Amaterasu has forgotten many of the techniques (and Issun's only along to steal them), so one of your objectives throughout is to relearn. Thankfully, Okami is very forgiving of poor calligraphy (hey, it's hard to draw a circle with a thumbstick), so as long as you generally paint the shape you're trying to, it lets you go.

As you restore Guardian Saplings, defeat enemies, feed wildlife and generally do your furry best to beat back the monster incursion and improve humanity's faith in the gods, you gain faith points you can spend to improve Amaterasu's capabilities. Individual capabilities can be adjusted to suit the player's overall style. It's a limited system: you can't buy one Brush technique and forego another, for example, but this is not really a stat-based game so that's okay.

Okami is dialogue-heavy and spends a good portion of its time in expository mode; if you have a problem with reading backstory or conversing with characters, it's not for you. There is plenty of action as well. Combat can be sought out or avoided, and aside from a handful of required encounters you can choose to dodge most foes if you desire. These enemies are portrayed in the game world as "monster scrolls"—evil-looking green carpets that patrol the landscape and hone in on Amaterasu as she runs. Combat itself occurs in a separate gamespace, a sort of monsterdome, where you employ your celestial brush and a variety of upgradeable weapons to teach these demons who their daddy is.

One of the complaints we're hearing about Okami is that it's an extremely easy game, particularly the combat. Even a non-console guy like me encountered very little difficulty. As I get older, though, I care more that my games are fun and less that they're hard, so the fact that Okami's combat and action are pretty simple don't really bother me. Plus, with 30 to 50 hours worth of play, not to mention several replay and find-more-secret opportunities, you really do get your money's worth from this product.

The game can drag a bit when you're facing some puzzle or challenge that you can't quite figure out. In many cases, you must turn to Issun or one of the other characters for help, but Okami is not always sufficiently forthcoming about that. It can be hard to see the icon indicating that a character "still has more to say," as it were, so you may spend some time just sort of wandering trying to figure out what you're supposed to do. Fortunately, none of the challenges are particularly hair-tearing, though many do require a lot of thought and sometimes a good deal of running around. It's the worst thing I can say about a game that's otherwise a tour de force.

I Got Your Four Leaves Right Here

By now the news is all over the wire (and FFC forums): publisher Capcom shut down Clover Studio a few weeks ago. Some more eager folks have speculated that "Capcom closed Clover" is a fancy way of saying "Clover wanted to go independent;" while that would be nice, the fact is that's not the way the video games industry (or any industry) works.

Capcom owned Clover, lock, stock and barrel, and in fact started the studio using Capcom employees. Clover's mandate was pretty simple: make games like Okami. Strange, unique, innovative, challenging, artistic, creative, unusual games that pushed the boundaries of what we've seen in the medium. Clover delivered big time, and not just with Okami either: Viewtiful Joe and God Hand both revitalized their respective genres. But, like it or not, the studio posted a loss of four hundred million yen, and Capcom is above all other things a business that's in the business of staying in business. The decision, sad as it was, had to be made.

In a way I applaud Capcom, not for shutting Clover down but for starting it up in the first place. Only one other company—Sony—has a studio like that, a studio whose job is to create proof that games can transcend what they are right now, more or less regardless of the financials. The vast majority of video game executives at the publisher level don't play games and don't care about them. So it's really great to see big, wealthy companies willing to essentially burn their profits in the interest of improving the human condition. It could be equated with the Emperor Augustus commissioning Virgil to write the Aeneid, or the Church paying Michelangelo to paint its ceiling.

Okami is something really special. It blends jubilant gameplay, potent theme and rich artistry in an utterly seamless package. It has received universal acclaim from the gaming press, and hopefully it heralds a new era of platforming, a new set of heady days the likes of which we've not seen since Sonic 2. That its studio is gone, that it hasn't sold a bazillion copies—these things are somewhat irrelevant. Okami is with us, and that's what matters.

Above all else, it has a sweet temperament and gentle demeanor that makes it almost impossible to dislike. There aren't many games out there that have made me just feel happy, and this is one of them. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Clover Studio
Publisher: Capcom
Release Date: September 19, 2006

Available for: PlayStation 2

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