c_rakestraw's Okamiden: Chiisaki Taiyo (Nintendo DS) review

A worthy successor to revered classic

If I were to summarize Okamiden in one word, it would be familiar. The reason being because it's heavy with references to and reuses locations from Okami, its predecessor. The entire game-world and its inhabitants are all instantly recognizable (assuming you've played the first game), and its gameplay unaltered. Okamiden therefore creates a very cozy atmosphere for fans in this sequel; one that doesn't alienate newcomers, at that.

With a shift to a new platform and a new protagonist, Okamiden seeks to deliver a sequel that lives up to its revered namesake while making it inviting to newcomers. In this pursuit Okamiden succeeds. The gameplay, the visuals, the music -- everything makes the jump to the DS perfectly. An enchanting story accompanied by endearing characters complete the package nicely. Though it hits a few stumbles along the way, such as a lack of variety in puzzles, Okamiden proves itself as a sequel worthy of its revered namesake.

Okamiden picks up precisely nine months after its predecessor. Nippon (read: Japan) is currently enjoying the peace brought on to it by the efforts of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, star of the last game. At the start of Okamiden, that peace is suddenly disrupted by the appearance of a new foe on the block who wishes to purge Nippon into an age of darkness and anarchy. Like last time, the land becomes engulfed in what are referred to as "cursed zones": vast stretches of dark energy that transform the land into a series of desolate, unpopulated wastelands. In addition, demons have once again starting roaming the land, causing unrest and worry amongst Nippon's inhabitants. So, basically: the world is in a complete mess. Again.

Though it seems like another case for Amaterasu to handle, she's mysteriously taken a background role this time around. In her place is her son Chibiterasu; a young wolf imbued with the same powers as his mother, albeit in a less grandiose fashion. His godly powers come in the form of an ability known as the Celestial Brush, which allows him to alter, manipulate, or restore pieces of the environment, among other uses. It's activated by pressing either the L or R shoulder button, at which point the game pauses as the action is moved to the bottom screen so that you can work your magic. The stylus works especially well for this feature and feels incredibly natural. Drawing up symbols, such as a circle in the sky to bring out the sun, or a straight line to cut rocks, foes, and more, is a swift, effortless task. It's a touch too sensitive to your brush strokes, thus causing some irritation when accuracy is called for. Errors in initiating brush strokes are hardly prevalent, thankfully.

One curious modification to the Celestial Brush is the addition of a time limit on usage and the removal of regenerative ink pots (what gauges how much brush strokes you can use; each skill taking half a pot). Every time you bring up the brush, you're given 30 seconds (15 if your in battle) to paint your desired symbol and go. The game explains this as a simple limitation of Chibiterasu's inexperience with the Brush, though it feels somewhat contrived. Although the presence of the timer or the lack of regenerative ink doesn't make any real impact, the latter can be fixed if you choose to play on the game's easy mode titled "greenhorn mode" at the start of the game.

Because he's still a cub, he isn't exactly ready to take on the world, let alone the task of purging the evils plaguing the land, on his own. Therefore, he needs some help -- namely someone who can accompany him. This is where partners come into play. Along his travels, Chibiterasu meets up with a number of people -- mostly kids -- who, in exchange for helping them, accompany Chibiterasu on his journey, if only for a short while. The aid these partners lend is small, usually sticking to actions like stepping on switches to open conjure new paths and opening otherwise inaccessible treasure boxes. They're a crux element of the puzzle solving, as well -- perhaps too much of a crux element, seeing as nearly all the puzzles involve cooperation with your partner. This wouldn't be a problem, usually, except that the majority of those puzzles are basic "send you partner to press this switch to open doors or summon bridges," which, while serviceable, get tiresome quickly. The Celestial Brush doesn't often come into play during puzzles, either, unfortunately. Or rather, it doesn't see much use apart from using it to guide your partner around.

With dungeons relying on such puzzles so heavily, their design suffers greatly. Exploring their winding, ornate passageways is interesting enough, sure, but without any healthy variety in puzzles they lose much of their luster. That's not to say they're bad, of course -- they're decent, lengthy excursions -- just not particularly well built, puzzle wise. Combat encounters are therefore one of the stronger aspects of dungeon crawling.

Though combat is as simplistic as can be -- running up and mashing away on the Y button will win just about any battle -- there's a certain hook in its simplicity. Foes hardly put up much of a fight, requiring little strategy be employed to vanquish them. The fun isn't in them being formidable foes, though: it's in discerning the fastest methods of dispatch. At the end of each battle, your performance is graded in three different factors: time spent, damage sustained, and partner help. The better the grade, the greater the cash rewards are. In order to defeat foes swiftly, you need to make swell use of your divine instrument's (that is, your weapon) attacks, your brush techniques, and your partner. Simple enough on the surface, yes, but not always so in practice. Enemies have a tendency of attacking from off-screen (the view of battle provided isn't very large, you see), and Chibiterasu's movement speed for his dodge move is hardly optimal. Receiving damage is almost imminent. Your partners' contributions to battle are also minimal, only dealing small bits of damage when their attacks hit, making it difficult to achieve a perfect performance. The immediate solution would be to get more powerful weaponry, but obtaining it, incidentally, also requires performing well enough in battle to produce what are known as "monster leftovers."

Okamiden provides three forms of weaponry: a reflector, which is a mirror that you can lash at foes with; a rosary, a string of beads that acts as a whip; and a glaive, a large sword whose attacks can be charged for extra efficiency. You only get one of each type, with the means of strengthening them being taking them to a blacksmith to upgrade. The means of payment for such upgrades are the aforementioned leftovers. Upon defeating an enemy in battle, there's a small window of opportunity where, if you execute the correct brush technique (say, conjuring up a gust of wind), will yield remnants of some sort of the demons you've felled. Bones, hides, livers -- all of them are obtained by performing what's known as floral finishers on foes. Opportunities for performing such finishers are always heralded by a death cry from your adversary as they collapse onto the ground, giving you enough time to draw up the necessary technique. Figuring out which technique to use on which foe is an exercise in trial-and-error, since foes seldom make it clear which technique needs to be used on them to draw out trinkets. It invigorates combat nicely, however, keeping it engaging throughout.

What your partners contribute most with their presence is in the story department. Your many companions are all likable well-developed characters who meld with the existing cast nicely. They're own stories prove entertaining and enlightening as they flesh out their back-stories through strong character development. Your first companion, for instance, a young swordsman named Kuni, begins as a timid sort who tries to make himself appear as some valiant hero like his father. Over time, he overcomes his timid nature and matures into a strong individual as he finds himself thrust into a number of dangerous situations while accompanying Chibiterasu. It's well-told, heartwarming stuff. Scenes tend to lean on the verbose side due to the slow speed at which text advances and the sheer volume of words participants have to exchange. Exposition sometimes feels like it drags on as a result. Lighthearted dialogue and humor keep it from being a bore to read, however.

Chibiterasu's journey takes him all across Nippon. Many of the locales you visit are taken straight from Okamiden's predecessor, which makes navigation a snap if you've been previously acquainted with them. Some slight alterations give them a feeling of freshness, but the lay of the land remains largely unchanged (except in a few cases where areas were downsized considerably). Old haunts like the small, tranquil, cherry blossom-laden settlement of Kamiki Village and its quirky community still manage to delight, while new additions like the constantly evolving Yakushi Village (which you help populate, actually) entertain with their new groups of inhabitants to commune with. Everything's been significantly downsized to better accommodate the lesser graphical capabilities of the DS, which cuts down on the element of exploration and discovery previously present. They still retain their beauty, though.

As has always been the case with this series, the art style remains one of the game's key hooks. The entire game is rendered in a style reminiscent of a Japanese water-color painting. The effect gives everyone and everything a very cartoon-ish look; buildings and characters have thick black outlines around them; characters are given exaggerated designs; and on top of all that the animations are amazingly fluid. It's a beautiful aesthetic that's well represented on the DS.

In terms of actual gameplay, Okamiden is very Zelda-like. Exploration and talking up the towns folk makeup a good portion of the action, with the rest of the game taking on some light puzzle solving, combating demons, and undergoing side-quests. Exploration is easily one of the high points for the many discoveries lying in wait around Nippon. Rewards are usually healing items or small trinkets that can be sold for cash. The fun comes not in retrieving your rewards, however, but in discovering them. Not because it's difficult, mind you, but because revealing new paths is constantly gratifying and encourages further excavations. Towns folk also provide some enjoyable banter and occasional tidbits of insight into the story, making it worthwhile to chat with them.

Side-quests also present some entertainment. Though lacking in variety (the majority are fetch-quests, unfortunately), side-quests in Okamiden serve as a decent distraction. Taking on retrieval requests is what you do side-quest wise, primarily. Most of them involve vanquishing monsters, while others simply ask you to search treasure boxes in the vicinity for the requested belongings. They don't hold much staying power, though. By the fifth time you've found someone's lost belongings, you'll be longing for something other to do than searching around for items and people to populate the aforesaid village under-construction (the only on-going side-quest in the game). They certainly aren't poor by any standard; just not varied enough.

Aurally speaking, Okamiden places plenty of importance on achieving an authentic-ness in its setting, with myriad tracks of music composed using traditional Japanese instruments. A good number of them are either lifted directly from its predecessor or are simply slightly tweaked variations, but they all sound just as good on the DS as they did in its predecessor.

Ultimately, Okamiden is a swell title, both as a sequel and on its own merits. It treads on very familiar territory, which will undoubtedly provide warm feelings of comfort for those well acquainted with its predecessor, but doesn't rely heavily enough on it to alienate newcomers. The beauty of art style is still enchanting as ever, and it's story is engrossing and its characters endearing. Okamiden likely won't be fondly reminisced about like its predecessor, if only because it doesn't have that same initial impact as its predecessor did, but it's efforts will still at least be recognized for its excellence.

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