Review by Steerpike
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 Okamigames
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
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 tooyou'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 themhiding, 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 weakdying, in factand 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
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 itthe 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
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 genresplatforming, 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
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 companySonyhas
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 copiesthese things
are somewhat irrelevant. Okami is with us, and that's what
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
Developer: Clover Studio
Release Date: September 19, 2006
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