“Pacing: The Clone’s Horror”
Every article or review you’ve ever read about Okami most likely mentioned Okami’s amazing art style and Celestial Brush, a play mechanic which allows players to draw symbols on the screen to alter the game world in some way. Need a gust of wind? Draw a loop. Need it to be day or night so a character will appear where you want him to appear? Draw a sun or moon in the sky. Great stuff. But you already know about that, so I’m not going to talk about it here. Playing Okami for the second time, I was struck with how it both is and is not a Zelda clone, and how so many aspects of the game should have broken it before it even got started.
Okami is THE game on everyone’s “Best Games No One Played” list. I don’t know whether most people still haven’t played it now that it has appeared on the PS2, Wii, and most recently PS3. But if Okami truly is still largely unplayed by the gaming masses, I only have one question: How? Because it’s too Japanese? Because it’s a “Zelda clone”? While I agree it’s undeniable that Okami’s gameplay structure owes basically everything to Zelda, I still feel that calling Okami a “Zelda clone” sells Okami very, very short. The word “clone” in the context of game design implies inferiority or unoriginality.
The hallmarks of a Zelda game are: huge, varied open game world with plenty of chances to explore off the beaten path; clever environmental puzzles; simple but entertaining combat; fetch quests of varying length and quality; steady collection of unique weapons and tools that are both fun to use and necessary to progress to the end of the story. I’m sure a hardcore Zelda fan could name more, but that seems like pretty thorough list to me. And within that framework, there are certainly Zelda clones out there. Beyond Good and Evil, Nier, and Darksiders spring to mind, and each of those does indeed share the “clone’s” fate, falling short in some fundamental way of the template Zelda created. Let’s have a look:
Beyond Good and Evil – This game was, in my opinion, absolutely wrecked by its mandatory stealth sections. They weren’t fun or intuitive and they broke the game’s pacing. After all these years I remember BGE less for its touching story and brilliant game world, and more for laser alarms and pacing guards. Maybe that’s just me.
Nier – Although this game had one of the deepest stories and best soundtracks of this console generation, it relied much too heavily on same-y fetch quests that brought the game to a crawl. (I should point out that I loved Nier, warts and all.)
Darksiders – The worst of the lot, stealing from Zelda AND God of War and failing to do either genre much justice. The last dungeon in Darksiders is so absurdly padded to make the game artificially longer that, when I finally finished it and was “awarded” with one more game-world-spanning fetch quest, I gently set down my controller and asked my computer monitor, “Are you f***ing kidding me?” When I finished that game the game clock showed around 15 hours of play, but I could have sworn it was actually 40.
It seems like the biggest stumbling block for Zelda clones is pacing. In these otherwise good and interesting games, some poorly executed aspect of gameplay comes along and frigs up the whole works. Then again, pacing problems may just be built into the Zelda architecture. How about the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time? That’s where I almost threw in the towel. Or the fetch quest at the end of Windwaker that actually did grind the game to a halt for me (I do plan to finish it someday. Lord knows why I persevered with Darksiders, which in my opinion was a much worse game than Windwaker).
How does Okami fare in the pacing department? On paper, Okami looks like an absolute disaster. The first 20 minutes of the game are an unskippable (on PS2 and PS3) cutscene that lays out the story of a powerful warrior and a white wolf who came together to defeat an 8-headed serpent demon called Orochi. The whole cutscene is drawn with a Japanese calligraphy brush in real time on a scroll that slowly unrolls across the screen. For 20 minutes. What a terrible idea, right?
Still, the cutscene sets up Orochi as a truly fearsome bad guy and gives some backstory as to why NPCs react the way they do to the only playable character, Okami Amaterasu, another white wolf with striking similarities to the heroic wolf who died fighting Orochi.
**MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW**
Ten to twelve hours into the game you defeat Orochi in a grand and lengthy battle, having met scores of memorable characters in multiple gorgeous locations, each more stunning than the last. The game is over! A dozen hours is a goodish length for a modern game and all of those hours were supremely entertaining. Handshakes all around.
Except it’s not over at all. After the battle with Orochi, the game introduces new villains, new characters, and throws open the world map you thought you’d already explored. This SHOULD break the story in Okami, dooming it to the same pacing problems of other Zelda clones and Zelda games themselves. How can any game reestablish the same intensity of story and drive to explore that brought you to a long prophesied final boss battle?
Okami does it the way any good story does it: by raising the stakes. In the first 10-12 hours, you are working essentially working to save a single village. By the end of the game, you are working to save the entire world of Nippon (which is just a slightly altered map of Japan), all life in it, and the very realm of the gods themselves. Once again, on paper this scenario is nothing new for any RPG, but Okami personalizes its story by telling it through unique, likeable characters whom you really do want to help.
Lastly, Okami employs a silent protagonist. This has worked before, of course, with Half-Life being my favorite example. But it shouldn’t work here. Since Okami Amaterasu can’t speak for herself, you basically learn ALL of the backstory from chatty NPCs who speak in bizarre “Hrmble hrmble hrmble” noises while their dialogue appears on the screen for you to read. There is a LOT of reading in Okami. However, the writing is so good—and the quality of the localization so high—that the emotion and frequent humor come through without the need for voice actors.
Plus the silent protagonist isn’t silent at all for two reasons. First, Okami herself is very expressive, often wagging her tail, scratching herself or falling asleep when NPCs dive into especially lengthy bits of backstory. (You also have the option to head-butt, bite, pee or poop on, and dig up the gardens of characters who annoy.) Second, Okami Amaterasu has an insect-sized familiar named Issun, who is labeled from beginning as a “Wondering Artist.” Issun is a cowardly, womanizing scoundrel who is obnoxious at first but becomes a wonderful companion by the end of the game. It is truly shocking and sad when he and Okami are suddenly forced to part ways before the final dungeon.
So does Okami, a 40+ hour game that seemed like it was supposed to end after 12, never stumble? Sure it does. Every game that has a heart stumbles somewhere. Okami was directed by Hideki Kamiya (of Devil May Cry, Viewtiful Joe, and Bayonetta fame, among others), meaning that you are going to see the same bosses over and over again. The first battle with Orochi is a sprawling thing with many different tiers and styles of combat…and so is the second battle with Orochi. And the third. At the very least, each time you face bosses a second or third time, your new abilities and weapons make the battles feel a LITTLE different than the last time. They go by more quickly for sure.
There are also a few times the game flatly refuses to tell you what to do next or where to go. Nippon is absolutely huge, and most of the time your next destination(s) is/are marked on the world map. However, sometimes you just have no clue. Often this is because there is an NPC somewhere you have to talk to three times before they’ll tell you how to move the story forward. Like I said before, it’s fun to talk to the NPCs, so this isn’t as much of a chore as it sounds like. But it does harm the pacing (gasp!) of the game.
And lastly, the battle against the final boss is so ridiculously drawn out and frustrating that it leaves a slightly bitter taste on the whole experience. It’s nothing so enraging as Darksiders’s final hours, but an irritating cap on a long and marvelous experience.
And that’s it for problems. Niggles, really. Nitpicks. Okami was in my top five games of the last console generation, and now that I’ve played it again on PS3 and earned that Plantinum Trophy, it is still in the top five games of THIS generation too (Okami really is a new experience on PS3). It is a Zelda clone that defies the nature of cloning and becomes something larger, grander, and, to me, unquestioningly better than the games that inspired it.