Beauty and the beast.
I knew today was going to be a busy day, but that didn’t stop me from playing Okami until five in the morning. After all, life is too short not to spend a good chunk of it as a celestial wolf, healing sick trees, feeding furry forest friends, and painting enemies to pieces with a lethal tail brush. It may sound like a hippy’s dream come true, but it’s also a gamer’s. Huge pectoral muscles not included.
A graduate of the Zelda School for Adventurers, Okami is a masterpiece of video game design with visuals you’d like to frame and put on your wall, a brisk story that saves its best ideas for last, gameplay so good it makes you feel guilty, an epic, forty hour campaign, and a matching forty dollar price tag. At a dollar an hour, the only downside to this day dream is waking up.
[image1]And even then the brilliant conclusion of its upbeat tale will leave you feeling refreshed rather than grumpy. Centered around a legend in which a Goddess called Amaterasu
(that’s you) descends to Earth as a wolf and saves a village from a dragon, Okami
takes a more realistic, mature approach to fantasy than you might expect from a game starring a wolf with a trash-can lid on its back. The pace is steady and quick, the dialog is smart and funny, and the game raises serious issues, yet handles them lightly. From start to finish and all forty hours in between, Okami
’s is a long, beautiful tale.
The game itself is as straight as an arrow, though it takes place in an open world. There are always several places you could
go, but most are blocked or inaccessible until you gain the requisite power, just like Zelda
. Each area contains a handful of side quests that can be completed at any time, as well as at least one major dungeon and a big, bad boss. As soon as you defeat the monster and gain a new power, you’re free to return to previous zones and find hidden loot with your handy new skills, or progress to the next chapter of the story.
Usually, that path is as intuitive as turning a page thanks to the quest log, map, and easy teleportation scheme. The log records all of your important dialogs, so you’re never at a loss for what to do next. The map occasionally highlights the locations of your objectives, and you gain two different teleportation abilities later in the game that effectively bookmark every important area in the world for quick, easy long-distance travel.
With features like these, the developers clearly didn’t want you to spend any time backtracking or aimlessly searching for your next objective. In most games you can expect to be waylaid or inconvenienced either by retracing your steps out of a dungeon or repeating a sequence due to a nasty fall, but in Okami there is always either a smart exit or a safety net to catch you. In spite of the help, you never feel like the game is holding your hand. Rather, it gives you a hand with tasks it assumes, correctly, you’d rather skip.
[image2]Although Okami has a very easy flow, it’s still a challenging game. Nowhere is this more evident than in the combat system. Monsters rove around as large, smoky scrolls and if you hit one, a barrier the size of a boxing ring appears around you and your foes. The controls are simple, with buttons for jumping, attacking and dodging, and most fights can be won with simple one-button combinations.
Though every fight is easy to survive, the challenge lies in beating your enemies soundly, and thus obtaining rewards. Win a fight with speed and grace, and you gain two different kinds of currency that can be spent on weapons, power ups and training.
Your paintbrush tail is the key to these quick kills. You can learn up to thirteen “Brush Techniques” which alter the canvas of reality. To paint, you simply freeze time with one button and draw a simple symbol on the screen with the analog stick. In a fight, you might draw a gust of wind to blow out an enemy torch then paint in some additional slashes while you pound them with your normal weapon for a devastating combo. All enemies have secret weaknesses and figuring out how to exploit these with your powers is fun and rewarding, even if you never die.
The brush techniques are also at the center of the game’s puzzles and platforming sequences. The puzzles, in particular, are awesome. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but anytime you’re trying to figure out how to use a creature’s own gastric juices against it, you know you’re playing a special game. That’s also apparent when you leap off a cliff, draw a lily-pad on the surface of the water just before you land, and then summon a gust of wind that blows you and your green raft across the water, all with a paintbrush. Amazing new gameplay experiences don’t require crazy new controllers, just crazy talented game designers, and Okami‘s development studio, Clover, has an entire loony-bin’s worth.
[image3]The platforming sequences are the roughest spots in the game due to a frisky camera and Amaterasu’s tendency to slide after landings, but they’re still really, really good. The environments are well designed and the engine could power a rocket ship. Whether you’re in an up-close brawl with a stone golem, dodging the eight legs of a giant spider boss, or wending your way up through the clockwork of a diabolical tower, Okami never stutters while maintaining the highest graphical standard of any game we’ve seen on the PS2 and giving you sharp, action-game controls for forty hours.
The price is text-based dialog, funky combat arenas, and lots of loading, hardly a Faustian bargain. And the payoff, if you’ve ever seen a screenshot
, is both obvious and unbelievable. I say that because most development studios could probably sacrifice their employees’ children on an altar to Satan and still be miles away from the visual fantasia that flows, blooms and glows in each and every frame of Okami
The whole game looks like a moving watercolor with music to match. The tracks, admittedly, range from mediocre to great, but the visuals are always turned up to eleven. In every background, building and animation, from the gusts of wind swirling through the night sky, to the Japanese maple leaves that burst from Amaterasu every time she charges, Okami is pure eye candy. It’s like playing a good acid trip…so I’ve been told.
And talk about bang for your buck. Okami
’s single player campaign is one of the most ambitious we’ve ever seen, and with its score of collectible items, trees to save and animals to feed as well as characters you like and a story you’ll want to revisit, this is a game you could easily wind up playing twice or thrice. Whatever you do this holiday season, with its new systems
, Guitar Heroes
and Gears of War
, make sure Okami
is a game you play at least once.