Okami: A Swan Song Most Worthy of Clover's Name
Created in a time when venerable developer Clover Studio was on its last legs, Okami is a game which naturally burdens itself with a number of expectations. Not only does it come after a line of well-loved Viewtiful Joe installments from the same developer, but an uncanny resemblance to other recent action-adventure games also raises the stakes for the quality which is to be expected from this game. Thankfully, though, Okami not only meets these standards, but often far exceeds them. The game may not be overly innovative, but thanks its method of following and executing genre trademarks extremely well, Okami turns out to be Clover Studio's most solid title to date. Additionally, its highly stylized visuals, beautiful soundtrack, and incredibly well-written localization show that it not only stands well against similar games, it's among the best in recent years. Make no mistake: Okami may superficially appear to be like many other games. But at its core is a very, very different beast.
Okami is one of the few games to hit western shores which is utterly steeped in Japanese mythology. Few moments ever pass throughout the entire game that remind one that it is indeed of Asian origin. While this would normally be an impediment for the average gamer who isn't versed in such tales, Okami does a superb job at making sure everyone is on the same page throughout the entire story. Characters and plot sequences always receive their due explanation, allowing the unenlightened to catch up very easily. On top of that, the mythology is introduced only in bite-sized pieces. This enables players to become familiar with what they know over time so they can then move onto other facets of the mythology more easily and, by the end, feel utterly immersed in the world which Okami has created.
The technique is introduced from the get-go. The beginning of the game starts off basic enough. 100 years prior to the game's beginning, Amaterasu, the Japanese sun god, as a wolf, defeated an eight-headed snake named Orochi (with some help) in order to free Kamiki Village from the task of annually sacrificing a maiden. Consequentially, though, Amaterasu died in the process and a memorial was set up in her place inside the village. However, when a bloke inadvertently lets Orochi loose again, Amaterasu is subsequently reincarnated to once again do the work she performed a century ago.
There is, however, a major difference between the old wolf and the new one: The latter lacks special powers she had when fighting Orochi. These powers form the fundamental foundation for what helps to define Okami's gameplay. Instead of being typical godly powers a la superheroes and the like, these powers are activated through the use of a brush. When used correctly, this brush can perform a variety of things that no mortal could ever dream of doing, at least easily. Amaterasu, though, has lost virtually all of these powers and must search for them again in addition to her Orochi-related duties.
The game is kind, though, and relents the first few powers early on. Things such as restoring broken or lost things and slashing are soon accessible in the beginning of the game. Over time, Amaterasu acquires other abilities to use in tandem with her brush, such as lightning strikes, wind gusts, and cherry bombs, among others. Each power is well-used and has its own applications both during times of exploration and combat, as they get used in very clever ways throughout each portion. Activating these powers is extremely easy, requiring only the tap of a button to bring up a canvas and then proceeding to draw the desired symbol. Using the brush takes up ink and only a limited amount of it can be used for each drawing. However, it does regenerate quickly enough and usually runs out only when the powers are used liberally in a given situation.
The brush isn't the only tool at Amaterasu's disposal, though. Several different types of weapons, ranging from blades to chains to shields (yes, shields) are available. Each weapon in the game can either be equipped as the main weapon or as the sub-weapon, which has implications on the weapon's abilities in battle and vary greatly depending on how they're assigned. Because the amount of ink the game grants players is limited, even after upgrades, one will be relying heavily on these weapons during combat. The combat itself is what one would expect from a modern action-adventure game, consisting of running up to enemies, hitting them, blocking their reply, and repeating the process. Brush usage notwithstanding, the mechanics of Okami's combat will be very familiar to anyone who has played similar games. With the brush, though, an extra spice is added and, oftentimes, using the brush is a requirement when fighting against certain enemies, as they are weak to certain powers. These weaknesses can often be found just by using some logic after looking at their designs and it adds a very rare element of puzzles outside of the exploration aspect of such games. There are other nuances to the combat, such as item collection, but much of it optional and not experiencing them doesn't detract from playing the game. Fighting is usually a rather easy affair in the game, though. (It's very possible for one to not even die once throughout the entire game.) But, as a consolation to those who may want to avoid possible tediousness, one can get out of many battles, although this has consequences of its own.
The exploration part of the game is also reminiscent of other action-adventure games. Okami provides a very large world to delve into and even the beginning areas where players are confined to are vast and rich with secrets. Over time, other areas are unlocked, each one being more unique than the last. Before the conclusion is reached, Okami shows locations as different as a quaint village and an underwater city, as well as many other imaginative places in-between. The game also has its share of dungeons. However, unlike games such as The Legend of Zelda, dungeon crawling is only a relatively occasional affair, showing up just often enough to show that it's there without being overdone. Even amidst such scant showings, though, the dungeons are just as excellently designed as all of the other areas in the game. Each one has its own very distinct theme which often defy the stereotypes commonly seen in other games. The puzzles, even with their low difficulty, are very creative and fit in well with its respective environment. Not one looks unnatural in its setting, allowing the dungeons to be distinct while still feeling a part of Okami's world.
While the combat and exploration aspects of it may be derivative of games which have come before it, few games implement both so well. The mechanics driving each are so solid that the idea of fixing what isn't broken is something which actually works to Okami's advantage. It doesn't toy with the action-adventure formula of today, but instead uses it as a very steady foundation and it does an excellent job at doing so. This is one of the few games which doesn't need innovation to be truly enjoyable, since the familiarity is so finely executed that it raises the standard for which other games in the future should follow should they choose a similar path. Okami is that enjoyable; it makes one forget that it doesn't innovate the gameplay in its own genre.
This is not to say that Okami doesn't pioneer areas in gaming other than gameplay. Visually, the game is one of the most artistically striking games this past generation. It embraces its Japanese background in every conceivable manner. This is most easily seen in the game's employment of cel-shading, which evokes a style commonly seen in old Japanese paintings. Each model and texture is outlined in a thick black, with colorful palettes to boot. Absolutely everything receives its due artistic treatment, allowing the reality to immerse anyone in its mythological setting with ease. Okami also happens to be one of the PS2's most beautiful games to date. In fact, it's almost even too hot to handle for the system. The graphics push the system almost near breaking point and, in one area, this is clearly seen in a very slight frame rate drop. But beyond that, the system handles the game like a charm, granting an easy ticket to a world of eye candy.
The sounds and music of the game are also done with an equal caliber. The former does its best to make sure everything sounds the way it should, while imposing its own flair at the same time. Dialog, while text based, has each character vocalizing their lines in a unique jargon, much like Animal Crossing's animalese. But unlike Nintendo's game, Okami uses this speech to help make each character unique without ever saying an actual word. One can even pick up imitations of things such as French accents through this use of quasi-speech. As for the latter, Okami's music uses a full orchestra and utterly everything is done in this manner. Even tiny ditties garner such quality. The lengthier musical pieces are where the high quality really shines above all, though. Theme songs, background music, and the like all have excellent compositions on par with even the best in other entertainment industries. Many of the major pieces are also used sparingly, too, preventing the music from ever growing repetitive. But, like Okami's graphics, what its music really does best at is embracing its Japanese background. Japan-centric instruments are often key players in the game's music and are used to their full potential. It works just as hard as all of the other fundamental pieces of the game to establish this myth-centric world and it most certainly succeeds in that objective.
Okami also has mastery over something much less emphasized in most games: localization. Few games that receive a translation today get one which goes above and beyond doing the straightforward. This is arguably what is most memorable about Okami. Every line of text, every speech, and every description has a level of polish which shows that time, effort, and love went into making the game accessible and appealing to non-Japanese audiences. Besides simply making the mythology understandable to the uninitiated, the localization defines one's experiences with Okami's denizens. Every single character, from the major to the very modest (including unnamed ones), receives their own word style and feel very developed. In particular, Issun, a character who tags along with Amaterasu on her quest for much of the game, is one who shows how beneficial a thorough localization can be for players. His speech overflows with his bubbling, vivacious personality that never fails to entertain throughout the 30-plus-hour-long journey. Touches like giving life to the characters is why Okami's localization is something which ought to be lauded as much as its more external characteristics such as graphics and sound. It's just that excellent.
Okami is an wonderful swan song for Clover. It takes everything which an action-adventure game should be and executes it beautifully. Combine that with almost near-perfect quality in graphics, sounds, music, and localization and you have a game which needs to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Don't be bogged down by its mythological background or its lack of substantial innovation. For every minor issue which Okami has, it more than makes up for the flaw elsewhere in spades. This a game which truly does have something for everyone to enjoy. Simply put, Okami shows how far gaming can go not only artistically, but also in terms of fun. If you have a PS2 and even the slightest inkling to experience something very unfamiliar in seeming familiar territory, then Okami is most certainly going to be your cup of tea, and a superb one at that.