A glorious marriage of art, gameplay, and innovation
It doesn't take very long to see that Okami is unlike any game that you have ever played. The game oozes eccentricity and surrealism from the moment that you begin watching the opening cutscene. Soon thereafter, you find yourself exploring a bright and colorful cel-shaded world and restoring beautiful vegetation to the countryside by using a celestial paintbrush. It is only a few minutes into the game that you realize that you are in for a very special experience, and that feeling never goes away for the whole game. Very few games combine such gorgeous style, unique gameplay mechanics, great music, memorable characters, and a richly detailed world like Okami. Unforgettable from beginning to end, Okami is a glorious marriage of art, innovation, and gameplay.
The premise of Okami is that you are a god, incarnated as a wolf. Your main goal is to rescue the world from a resurrected evil power while using your godly abilities to restore life and beauty to the land. It is a decidedly different take on the usual story of saving the world from a great evil. In it, the people don't actually recognize you as their savior or the being who is going around killing demons and getting trees to bloom. Instead, they attribute your triumphs to their own abilities, miracles, or help from the gods. This process earns praise as a god, which you can spend to level up some basic attributes.
Your heavenly powers usually take the form of a paintbrush, which you can use to slash enemies, shoot ink "bullets", make bombs, or will things into existence by drawing simple shapes on the screen. It is a wonderful mechanic, both innovative and fun to use. With a simple circle around a dead tree, you can get it to bloom again. By drawing a circle in the air, you can make the sun shine and bring light to an area of darkness. There is a great payoff that comes with each successful use of the brush – an explosion of color and vegetation that propagates like a wave. The developers for this game clearly understand the simple concept of "carrot-and-stick", since almost every task has some reward, even if it limited to a brief display of beautiful visuals.
Speaking of visuals, Okami has beautiful scenery in spades. It cleverly disguises the Wii's outdated technology with a bright and vibrant cel-shaded look. The look could not be further from the brown and gray gritty realism that dominates the looks of most games today. It is a perfect match for the paintbrush mechanics, which give you the sensation that you are colorizing a black and white graphic novel. It is as if aren't just controlling a character in the story, but telling a fairy tale with your brush as well. It is a 3D game, but the shapes in the game look like they are drawn on paper, similar to the characters in a Paper Mario game. Characters lack detail in their faces, but more than make up for it with their personalities and over-the-top emoting. Despite the almost nonexistent detail on people's faces, you can easily tell NPC's apart, since none of them are clones. Enemies are equally impressive, especially the gigantic sprawling bosses.
If you have played a 3D Zelda game like "The Twilight Princess", then you should be familiar with Okami's basic structure. There is a large game world that you gradually open up by completing quests and advancing the story. Areas alternate between towns where you can pick up quests and shop, dangerous countryside, and dungeons. Your arsenal of weapons and special abilities gradually grows throughout the game, and a hint character tags along to guide you. Okami is occasionally referred to as a "Zelda clone", but that description is inaccurate. It is similar in its basic gameplay in the same way that Call of Duty is similar to Half-Life, but it is a big mistake to dismiss Okami as a "clone" of any other game. It is different from and better than its brethren (especially Zelda) in a lot of ways.
Combat, in particular, is one of the things that Okami does particularly well. It is a refreshing departure from the button-mashing that plagues so many action-RPGs nowadays. The paintbrush mechanic is a great tool for dispatching enemies, and it never feels tacked on or forced. If you wish, you can bash enemies with a standard attack, but this won't do much beyond the easy enemies that you meet at the beginning. The tougher enemies require some tricks, like using the brush to deflect their attacks back at them or stunning them so that their weaknesses are exposed. Combat usually involves three or four enemies, which come in a nice variety.
Okami is a clever game, so clever that even its lack of spoken dialog manages to be charming. Like Zelda and Mario, the game's conversations scroll by in text while their characters move their lips and wave their arms a little bit. In contrast to those games though, the characters in Okami speak in a weird gibberish that sounds a lot like Simlish played backwards. Instead of coming across as a badly outdated game convention, it sounds like the characters are speaking a primitive language and the text on screen is merely a translation. Each major character speaks in a different voice, which gives them some personality on top of their excessive gesturing and dancing. Excellent music rounds out the game's flawless presentation.
It is not enough to say that Okami is merely unique. It succeeds because it appears to have been well play-tested, and it is just plain fun. Some of the annoyances that often tarnish ambitious games don't appear in this game. The implementation of the paintbrush is a great example of this strong design. Okami is not the first game to use this mechanic. The game Arx Fatalis tried it a long time ago for casting spells, but failed miserably at it. Your spells would constantly fail because the game was finicky about shapes, and monsters could pummel you to death while you tried to draw them. Okami, on the other hand, is good at recognizing the simple lines and circles that you draw, and it pauses the game while you do it. Other than a few minor instances, you rarely find yourself trying to redraw the same thing over and over again. You will put your brush to great use in combat to slash enemies in half or place bombs next to them. Okami wasn't originally designed for the Wii, but it ironically uses the Wii motion controls better than most Wii games.
Good dungeon design is another of Okami's strengths. It has a lot less of the backtracking that plagued a lot of the dungeons in "Twilight Princess". It also has a few save points within each dungeon and fewer obtuse puzzles. The pacing is great. Never does one area or challenge wear out its welcome, and neither does the game, although experienced gamers might find it to be a little bit too easy. The little hint character that accompanies you can be slightly annoying at times, and he occasionally spoils puzzles by giving you the answer right away. Other than those minor gripes, Okami has almost no weak spots for the forty hours that it takes to finish.
If you have not yet tried out Okami, don't make the mistake of overlooking this game. It's an artistic masterpiece, and underneath the surface is some excellent gameplay that you won't find anywhere else. Despite having come out a few years ago on the PS2, this game might just be the best on the Wii. Rarely does a game come along that is so much different from its peers and so polished at the same time. If the style appeals to you, or you are just looking for an excuse to dust off your Wii, then you should check out this game.