Okami - Reader Review  

Almost Divine
by Kris Schnee

40 hours


Rating definitions 

   "Okami," a Playstation 2 game from Clover Studio, would make an excellent remake someday. Until then we'll have to content ourselves with a game that's only very good.

   Okami is stepped in Japanese folklore, even including a glossary of legends and Japanese _kanji_ in the manual. The story involves the tale of the warrior Susano's battle against the eight-headed beast Orochi, and adds a bit of Shinto religion: you play as the sun goddess Amaterasu. More accurately, you play Amaterasu as a divine wolf. When Orochi wrecks the world, Amaterasu must undo a global curse, fight the monster, and then hunt its escaping spirit and the monsters it brings across the land of Nippon.

   Being both god and beast, "Ammy" is a strange hero: able to use weapons and magic, but mute and frequently mistaken for an ordinary dog. (It's interesting to note which characters can see Amaterasu's true form.) Unfortunately, the writers' way of telling the story is Issun, a tiny buglike companion who does the talking and is literally on Ammy's back for most of the game, giving orders. If you've played "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time," you'll remember the intrusive fairy sidekick Navi. ("Hey, listen!") Issun is worse, frequently interrupting the game to tell you what to do, to the point of saying when Ammy should give a victory howl. The best way to describe their relationship is unprintable. Although Issun provides comic relief, he may scrape your nerves raw. If so, a couple of other characters will too. The game requires you to repeatedly help a person with no redeeming virtues, who takes credit for your work; another is cryptic for no reason; and various extras behave in ways that are just plain stupid for the sake of giving you hints or setting up mini-games. There are also a few of those fake choices of the form of asking "Wilt thou pledge to slay the dragon (Yes/No)?" and then repeating it until you give in. The actual story is compelling, but the way it's told has some flaws.

   It would be nice if Ammy could put in more than a bark on her own behalf, maybe to make a reasonable suggestion once in a while. As usual, most people you encounter exist to wander around, provide a few lines of random advice, or give you errands to run. The best you can do is tackle them and smash their pottery. Their lack of initiative and interaction just isn't an area where "Okami"'s designers decided to improve on the industry standard.

   The annoying aspects of the story are the worst that can be said about "Okami." Visually the game is so impressive that it's worth stopping to pose and admire the scenery once in a while. The in-game art builds on the idea of cel shading to portray everything like a hand-painted Japanese scroll. This art is especially interesting because the game was originally going to use a realistic style. When seeing a new enemy or some story sequences, you're treated to actual paintings (or at least convincing Photoshop work) that look even more like centuries-old Japanese woodblock prints. Amaterasu is such a source of life that flowers spring up as she runs and cherry blossoms fall when she whacks a foe. The sky looks like paper, weapons animate on Ammy's back, and evil barriers crackle with _kanji_ for death and misfortune. The interface is minimalist to let you appreciate all this detail.

   Similarly, Clover Studio created memorable, appropriate audio. The sound effects don't stand out as special, but the music does, with day/night variants of some songs and some nice work with flutes and Japanese instruments. A few tracks that stand out are those of snowy Wep'Keer Village, Waka's theme, and the underused "Giant Monster In Wait."

   So what do you actually do other than gape at the pretty colors? "Okami" plays very much like the "Legend of Zelda" series and other action RPGs, in that you move in real-time to explore various towns and "dungeon" areas to advance the story. "Okami" is unusually good at working the gameplay into the plot, by avoiding any "collect the eight magic widgets" quest and having a legitimate reason why you need to visit each area. One early dungeon stands out as a weird, silly, creatively-designed place to explore. There are two systems of teleportation to reduce backtracking, and although Ammy seems a little slow, running in the same direction for a while or kicking off with a dodge move gets you moving at a decent speed.

   The sheer size of the game's areas and the number of little tasks to do -- mysterious things you won't know how to interact with till later; animals to feed; things to dig up -- will keep you occupied for a long time if you're willing to run around seeing everything. There's some slight annoyance in the fact that the game pauses to tell you about every item you find, including minor consumable items. You really don't need to be reminded of what a "Holy Bone S" does after the tenth time.

   Instead of gaining power at a fixed rate by mindlessly slaughtering enemies, you can customize Amaterasu by boosting your choice of stats. To do this you must collect Praise, experience points that come not from fighting and killing but from restoring nature and winning others' love and respect. In practice "restoring nature" frequently means killing demons, but this experience system is still refreshing and customizable.

   One strange minor point: among the special moves Amaterasu can learn at the dojos are the techniques "Golden Fury" and "Brown Rage," used to "insult foes." These are totally optional, and you _are_ playing as an animal, but they're still in bad taste.

   The battle system is unusual, but it's not clear whether that's good. Instead of seeing enemies wandering around and fighting them right there, combat usually comes from encountering hovering Demon Scrolls or entering a Demon Gate. A scary round wall appears like an arena, trapping Ammy for the duration of combat. Because of that space limit and the fact that most of the few terrain features can't be interacted with in battle, fighting consists mostly of the standard "whack them till they die" strategy. These battles feel more like encountering a random battle in a game like "Final Fantasy" than like seeing the monsters walking around. Three weapon types to choose from add some complexity.

   That combat style might seem a little bland but for the Celestial Brush system, which is used frequently in and out of combat. (It was probably inspired by the Japanese legend of the calligrapher Kobodashai, not to mention the "Zelda" series' ocarina and wind baton.) Hold the R1 button and the world becomes a tilted scroll with a brush, where you can paint symbols to change reality. Scribble a circle on water to create a lily pad, then a spiral to push it with wind; or slash a line through foes to hit them at a weak moment. Getting new brush techniques is a major part of the plot and the way to reach new areas. The flaw in this system is that it only works when the game's designers want it to. There's at least one point in the story where Ammy has the power to slow time and knock foes from the air, but you're forced to stand there and let someone wrong you because the plot requires it. In a few places it seems like the brush techniques really should work, but just don't, whether because of plot or because the designers didn't think of that. Occasionally this problem can be frustrating. The worst case: Issun tells Ammy to get past two guards using brush techniques, yet these ordinary humans are able to block her path even when blinded with ink or blasted off the screen, and invisible walls prevent leaping the (indestructible) fence. The only option is to use the specific technique the designers have hidden nearby. Making up for these quibbles are a few neat surprises with the brush system, late in the game.

   There are loading delays when entering a new area, but even here there's a bit of hidden gameplay: you can time button presses carefully or mash X fifty times to get a minor item. If there must be load times, this is a neat way of dealing with them.

   "Okami" is a bit on the easy side. For those willing to dig up clovers and wait for the "feeding an animal" screen over and over, it's possible to max out most of Ammy's statistics even without finding all the secrets. Money is plentiful, there's little or no limit on carrying items, and Astral Pouches ("Zelda"'s bottled fairies) will revive Ammy to prevent death. It's not too hard to win the game with huge amounts of unused Praise, and no use of Astral Pouches or any combat items but small and medium healing items.

   Getting through it all will take around forty hours at a leisurely pace, a nice length. After that, a New Game Plus feature lets you start over with most of your stuff. A good performance nets you a few "presents" like concept art, a jukebox, and alternate graphics for Ammy including a version drawn in realistic style.

   "Okami" plays very much like a "Zelda" game, and the most recent game of that series even turns the hero into a wolf, so it's hard not to compare the two. "Okami" stands out not for totally original ideas but for its great use of folklore, art and music to evoke an exotic fantasy land. If there were more ways to interact with the game world and its people, some plot tweaks to make certain characters not deserve throttling, included areas that the concept art says were cut, and a bit more challenge, "Okami" would be just about perfect. The fact that Capcom shut down Clover Studio after it made such a game bodes ill for the chances of that and for the sanity of game makers in general. As it is, "Okami" is still definitely worth playing, and it's one you'll remember years from now.

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