Review: Origin of all that is good and mother to us all.
We live in jaded times. Name a game where the concept of ?god' is portrayed favorably (discounting the ever-popular Spiritual Warfare for the NES). Xenosaga? Nope. Valkyrie Profile? Twilight of the Gods anyone? Megami Tensei? C'mon, you're fighting the Christian god more often than not. Oh religion, will gaming culture ever present you as something other than a faith for the deluded or as a source of indescribable power? Granted, these are all Japanese titles. So evening out the odds, here's a distinctly Asian game from Clover Studio, already famous for their Viewtiful Joe series. So what's Okami? Another game muddled in religion and philosophy? A sloppy cel-shaded hack-job for quick profit? Or one of the most captivating rides this side of the PS2? Well, if you've seen it in action, there'll be no surprises in the answer.
I love me some good mythologies, may they be Japanese, Greek, Roman, etc. Okami is full of the aforementioned Japanese myths and religions. You play as Amaterasu, the Shinto sun goddess, in the form of a white wolf. Amaterasu herself is the incarnation of a wolf known as Shiranui who had aided in the defeat of the dread beast Orochi 100 years ago but died due to injuries afterwards. Fast forward a century to the present. Nippon is no longer peaceful and prosperous, especially with a sinister darkness covering the land. Making matters worse, someone has disturbed the resting place of the fallen Orochi, allowing the serpent to awaken. Talk about the end of days. But all is not lost! The statue dedicated to Shiranui is brought to life and Amaterasu enters the stage. Now, with help from the inch-tall wandering artist Issun, she'll right a lot of wrongs, beat down countless demons, and naturally, save Nippon.
If you have any sort of familiarity with myths in general, you're not going to find a mind-blowing plot. But myths aren't about dramatic revelations or insane twists. They're about letting you become engrossed in the very act of storytelling and Okami weaves a very fine tale. The very fact that this is all working with standard conventions yet still gives off the feeling of originality is a testament to the writers. No doubt it's the characters that give Okami such vitality; they certainly can't be accused of being no more than simple NPCs. Some were drawn from myth and history, like Kaguya and Benkei. Then there are all thirteen brush spirits, Tobi the racing scroll, and many others. When the majority of the people in a game have names and a personality, it warms my frigid heart. Issun hitting on the countless girls of Okami? Issun quarreling with Waka? Yeah, the little bouncing guy's great for comic relief. Personally though, I found Amaterasu, or ?Ammy? as Issun calls her, to be one of the most amusing characters of all. Do you ever feel like falling asleep when someone starts going on about exposition? Don't worry, Ammy does too. It's funny, as Ammy is a wolf and can't exactly speak (though Issun does plenty of that for her) yet manages to be so charming. Maybe I'm just a sucker for canines.
Now with the delightful story aside, here's the meat: Okami's gameplay. It's labeled as an action game and rightfully so. But what kind is it exactly? A platformer? Third-person combat? Or maybe it's a mix of both? A mix; that sounds about right. Add in some puzzles, a whole lot of sidequests, and some painting fun, and you've got one hell of a mix.
You'll control Ammy in a third-person view with a fully adjustable camera. You can dash and jump around with no problem, which is a good thing since you're going to be doing it through the entire game. That's your platforming element. Then we've got the battles. There are floating scrolls roaming?practically everywhere. Touching one means entering combat. You're cut off from the surrounding world and trapped in a field until either you or the enemy's dead. Defeating them quick and without problems will net you more yen. Believe it or not, the transition's extremely fluid and battles last less a minute. Any more and chances are you're not exploiting their weaknesses well enough. Just whaling on those nasty demons with the weapons on your back? Sure, whipping them with rosaries might be all good, but you're going to need more than just brute strength for the bigger and the badder. And that's where the Celestial Brush comes in.
By bringing up the canvas, the screen turns into what resembles a painting. Using the analog stick, you'll be able to draw various symbols with corresponding results. Hate the light? Draw a crescent in the sky and bring on the night. Blast demons away by drawing a bomb. Give nature a helping hand and make the flora bloom. As you may have expected, the thirteen Celestial techniques aren't just given to you. You're going to have to find and earn them in order to take down all the evil in Nippon. You'd be surprised to find how well the Celestial Brush works with the analog stick. That's not to say it's flawless: you have to draw symbols the right way or else it won't work, you can only draw one thing at a time so screwing up means starting over, there's a delay in bringing up the canvas sometimes, you can't rotate the camera once you start drawing, and certain symbols don't always respond well (like connecting to lotuses). But these are simply nitpicks and don't detract terribly from the game. Point: although a bit short of perfection, the Celestial Brush is a damn fun ability that really fits in the game.
But what about how it looks? Okami's not a game that looks like any other and in fact, could almost be described as childlike. I recall someone looked at Waka while I was playing and asked, ?Is that a girl?? ?No,? I said. ?That's a guy.? ?How can you tell? He doesn't have a face.? And alas, Waka, along with most of the human cast, aren't exactly the most detailed people around. Now, if you've seen a screenshot of Okami, you'd have realized that none of this really matters. Why? It means you've seen one of the most visually arresting games of this generation. Forget Final Fantasy, Half-Life, Elder Scrolls, or any other game with ?cutting-edge graphics'. That's not to say said games look awful; it's just that they'll become dated in time. A sad truth when aiming for realism. So how did Okami bypass that? By having the visual style match the story, that's how. Some have described it as a painting come to life. To me, it goes beyond ?coming to life'; it is life. It's an entire world of color and magic and I can say without hyperbole that Okami is likely the most beautiful game I've seen as of this date. Sorry ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, watching Ammy tear across the snow with flowers sprouting behind her or nature cleansing the land is endlessly fascinating. Now it's not all perfect, what with the draw distances on certain things and occasional oddities in the graphics, but marking it down for those issues would be extremely petty of me. It's humorous really, once you find out that there was a possibility of Okami not looking the way it did. Very early videos showed a much more realistic Ammy running around a much more realistic countryside. Does it look astounding? No. Does present-day-Okami look astounding? Yes. Hurray for technical restraints! If not for you, this game would likely have become visually dated in a matter of years. I'm not encouraging all games to turn into Japanese paintings here, but perhaps if they were able to create their own distinctive visual styles?unfortunately with our desire for photorealistic graphics, such visual innovation seems few and far in-between.
What we will note, however, is the sound. Clover Studio made the interesting decision to have some sort of gibberish as voices instead of?well, actual voices. It's not even a made up language like the ones found in Panzer Dragoon or ICO. It's just gibberish. My verdict? Gibberish wins. It was noticeable at first but it grew on me so much, I honestly couldn't imagine any of Okami's inhabitants speaking in any other tongue. A fanciful world needs a fanciful language, no? And a beautiful game needs beautiful music. No disappointments in that area, what with the three composers Masami Ueda, Hiroshi Yamaguchi, and Rei Kondou crafting a grand soundtrack. The OST itself is five discs and 218 tracks; doesn't that just say ?epic'? The ending song, ?Reset? sung by Ayaka Hirahara, rocked my world, but perhaps that was mainly because it was accompanied by the very classy credits.
I know I've just spent paragraph after paragraph lavishing praise on Okami. In a way, it hurt me inside. I take comfort in the fact that I have high standards and when a game actually manages to impress me to this degree?it's rather outrageous. The only reason why this isn't getting a perfect ten is because of the little flaws here and there. I mean, the game's just so appealing, I can practically recommend it to anyone. It's not brutally difficult a la Ikaruga, it's not overwhelming like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and it's not obscure like The Last Blade. For the kids? Nothing like some toilet humor. No, really. You'll be able to gain the abilities ?Golden Fury? and ?Brown Rage?. Ohoho, guess what they do. Sicko. And for the adults? There are, in the words of Issun, ?busty babes? all around. But even better is the whole world of Nippon to adventure in. You could just rush through the main game, which clocks at about over 30 hours, but why do that and miss out on the sublime scenery? Gain more faith to power up via bringing back the blossoms to trees, clearing away demon gates, and searching out clovers. Try to feed every single animal out there or fish every single fish. Hunt down demons on hit lists. Help people! If there's one thing that satisfies me, it's a god-game where you breathe new life in a struggling world and with Okami's Celestial Brush, it's got that aspect in spades. A nice touch at the end is the inclusion of a bunch of unlockables, some of which that are unlocked through your performance throughout the game. Defeat X-number of demons, collect X-number of Demon Fangs, and so on. A lot of cool stuff there, like all the character art and various video clips. Okami's a pretty big game, so if exploration's your thing, you'll probably get quite a bit of mileage out of this.