With that wolf
That is no more”
Monument to last Japanese wolf
Originally developed by Clover Studio and published by Capcom, Okami was first released on the PS2 in 2006 and then to a more widespread reception on the Nintendo Wii in 2008. Critical praise despite poor sales eventually resulted in Okami returning to the PlayStation, to the PS3 specifically, for an updated high-definition remaster in 2012. I had the pleasure of playing through Okami with the use of the Wii’s motion controls the first time and though I didn’t have the PlayStation Move motion controller (because I’m not a nerd) when I played the Okami HD edition, I still found it an enjoyable game nonetheless. It’s not much of a loss to forgo the motion controls. Still, I would recommend getting a hold of either motion controller to get the full immersion into this watercolor world and its unconventional gameplay.
Okami translates roughly into something in English, I’m sure. Just kidding. It’s a Japanese word which means “great spirit” or “wolf”, so its a kind of wordplay. Okami draws heavily from Japanese mythical history and folklore to craft its story and settings.
Some of its fairy tale moments might fly right over the heads of many North American gamers, to say the least, but the heart and themes of the game remain true and archetypal without coming off as trite or dispensable. This is largely because of Okami’s distinctive presentation.
Taking cel-shaded graphics to the next level, Okami is a living, animated ukiyo-e woodblock print in the style of the Japanese Edo period (1600AD-1860AD) with its hard black-stroke outlines and vivid watercolors. This visual approach drawing from art history has bled into Okami’s gameplay and the use of the Celestial Brush which allows the player to draw lines and shapes on the tv screen in order to trigger certain abilities. More on that later.
Amaterasu, the Japanese female solar deity, in the form of a white wolf is the lead character referenced by the title. Set in folkloric Nippon (Japan), the game opens with the narration of a 100 year-old myth. A pure white wolf named Shiranui and Nagi, a great warrior, fought and defeated the eight-headed dragon Orochi, saving Kamiki Village and Nami, Nagi’s beloved. After their battle, Orochi is sealed away in the Moon Cave. But 100 years later… a descendant of Nagi, Susano, disbelieves the legend and breaks Orochi’s seal. The fearsome monster sends forth a curse that drains the life of every living thing. The guardian wood spirit of Kamiki Village, Sakuya, pleads with Amaterasu who takes the form of the white wolf and, accompanied by the artist Issun, ventures across Nippon to restore the beauty of nature by lifting Orochi’s curse. Amaterasu (affectionately christened Ammy by Issun, much to the pleasure of English players), weakened by the effects of the evil curse, will regain her divine powers with the restoration of the divine brush gods. She will also meet many, many bizarre and wacky characters over the course of her adventures who are also based on Japanese folklore.
And I do mean wacky. As I’ll touch on later under the “uniqueness” grading, there are many elements in Okami which make it feel like a typical Zelda outing, specifically Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess (wolves). It’s strange and fun caricatures are one of those elements. Character design in Okami gives the game its endearing qualities and I can recall many members of its memorable cast from the diminutive loudmouth Issun, dancing Mr. Orange, braggart Susano, Waka and Rao, Mr. and Mrs. Cutter, and the Sparrow Boss of the Sparrow Clan. Almost all of Okami’s cast, even the most obscure NPC, seems to be instilled with life all their own and a unique appearance that visually demonstrates what that character is about: Mr. Orange has an orange on his head. Though which came first, the orange or the head, is a question only his mother’s obstetrician can answer.
Okami’s charm of lovable characters is enough to carry the game on for far longer than I thought it would last. There is much to do in Okami with much of Nippon to explore and many adventures to be had, even long after moments when you’re led to believe the quest is over. It is full of sidequests, extra boss fights and the HD trophy support simply adds another layer of playability to this visually striking game.
Gameplay is the second area where Okami stands out from the crowd of Zelda wannabes. Taking full advantage of the Wii’s motion controls, the game mechanics are built around Amaterasu’s Celestial Brush. This may seem unimpressive in a world of gaming tablet and styluses, but this was originally on the PS2, remember. Players are invited to draw on the tv screen whenever the Brush is activated, either with motion controls or with the PlayStation controller’s joystick. The results of this haphazard artistry allow Ammy to access any number of skills and tricks she gains over the course of her adventures, Issun the traveling artist expositing.
As an example, drawing a straight line across the screen will create a cutting effect that can sever trees, bushes, bamboo and enemies in half. More Brush skills are gained upon finding different brush gods and restoring their constellations. Other abilities range from doodling a circle in the sky to call up the rising sun, or conversely drawing a crescent which will do the same for the moon. A looping line blows the wind, a circle on the water draws up a lily pad platform, and (my personal fav) a circle with a line sticking out of the top (like an upside-down “Q”) manifests an explosive. It’s creative and well integrated into the rest of the gameplay. Rather than a plain old hookshot, bow and arrow, or master sword knock off, Okami takes an innovative step further to make scribbling with the Celestial Brush one of the best stand-out features of any action adventure from the era.
The battle sequences are fast paced and unsettling. My wife even called them frightening. Amaterasu can execute a flurry of quick attacks and blows based on which primary and secondary weapons she has equipped. The Divine Instrument classes (the Reflector, the Rosary, and the Glaive) are ceremonial objects which serve as Ammy’s armaments. The Reflector is a kind of flaming mirror. It’s a balanced weapon that can be seen mounted upon Amaterasu’s back in most of the promotional art. Fierce as a primary weapon, it serves as a shield if used as a secondary one. Next, the Rosary is a ring of beads that orbits around Ammy’s neck. It’s a long-range weapon that functions much like a whip, damaging enemies multiple times each time it lashes out. As a secondary weapon, it swiftly fires the equivalent of bullets in ancient Nippon. The third weapon, the Glaive, draws upon raw power but is slower than the others. It uses a variety of attacks that can be charged for extra catastrophic damage.
Fighting any number of Okami’s huge bestiary of monsters, demons, spirits and yokai keeps the battles a mixed bag of encounters which require varying strategies and quick witted thinking on your feet. But Okami introduces another feature to keep its fights interesting. Each enemy in the game can be defeated using a special attack, usually a Celestial Brush technique, which varies depending upon what the enemy is, resulting in a “Flower Finish” that earns the player a demon fang item. Collecting enough demon fangs allows Ammy to purchase rare treasures from traders across Nippon. Therefore, you’ll need to learn the final trick finishing moves for each enemy in order to collect as many fangs as possible. It’s a system that makes the battles more interesting and less mere exercises in button mashing.
The boss fights take all the good things from Okami’s battle system and library of foes and compounds them exponentially. The fight with the Spider Queen is especially memorable. Using the Vine Celestial Brush, Amaterasu attaches hooks on the spider’s thorax to nearby flowers, pulling the monstrosity’s body open and revealing its weak spots. The bosses are fun and engaging, involving the use of a variety of different abilities and skills rather than just devolving into typical hack-and-slash gameplay, like most action-adventures are guilty of.
Another of Okami’s best qualities is its length. I was surprised at how long the game’s storyline is. (spoiler: highlight to reveal) After defeating Orochi, Okami embarks upon a practically separate adventure pursuing the nine-tailed fox, and then after that there’s still fighting Yami on the Ark of Yamato, the final boss. Multiple story arcs will present themselves and Okami’s gameplay will keep you cozy all the way with more Celestial Brush techniques, more weapons, more weapon combos, and more enemies to fight in even more mythological adaptations. And after that, there’s still New Game plus.
Okami is full of endearing gameplay, characters and a breadth of narrative that never cease to surprise, delight and entertain, enriched in high definition. It’s a somewhat obscure game with its late release on the PS2 and then on the Wii, I’ve found that a few people have heard of it and even fewer have actually played it. I understand. It seems gimmicky, what with its reliance upon motion controls. But you can nix those and play it without. What you’re left with is a solid action-adventure in the vein of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask with a sprawling new fantasy world to explore. Good luck, you won’t find a game with a setting and presentation as strangely enchanting as Okami’s.
The 8-Bit Review
Simultaneously majestic and quirky, at once both violent and charming, Okami is full of funny cartoon characters while at the same time as being populated by elements of awe and solemn sacredness. Pulled from the pages (scrolls?) of Japanese art and folk history, its eye-popping visuals are immediately recognizable. Multiple texture overlays from grainy to smooth can be adjusted according to the player’s preference. What works best here is that the gameplay and visuals work together in tandem. The heavy black inks become a part of how Amaterasu navigates through ancient Nippon. This watercolor world triumphs seamless function and it’s easily a game that was born to boast better graphics. Interspersing faux scroll art to masquerade Okami’s inventive characters as real historical interpretations of Japanese folklore is just icing on the HD cake.
The mumbling language that all the voice actors speak in the game is just plain adorable. But it is Okami’s soundtrack that is as impressive as its visuals and as broad as the scope of its adventures. Featuring several tracks that highlight more traditional Japanese music with the sounds of the shamisen, the koto, the taiko and the shakuhachi flute. Unequivocally Japanese sounds give the game its sense of culture, not merely in its identity, but in its richness. However, this OST isn’t merely a lesson in the oriental musical landscape. It also includes instruments from Western society (strings and such) put into less orthodox arrangements. Many tracks have playfully reorganized these traditional instruments into upbeat, almost hip-hop like rhythms and alternative rock riffs without ever feeling disrespectful. It’s an exciting take on classic sounds of the rising sun which underscore the paradoxical mood of a game that is both cutesy and shocking, lovable and horrifying. The theme below is for a fireworks designing pyro-technician character. I just love the way firecrackers form the basis of its percussion.
I’ve already applauded Okami’s gameplay till my palms were sore. The Celestial Brush is seamlessly integrated into the action, even though it stops everything when you use its techniques. Everything works together here. It’s just well balanced. Also I should mention that learning the Brush techniques over the course of the game encourages you to return to environments you’ve previously visited to unlock secret areas with your newfound abilities (Zelda-esque, but if it ain’t broke…).
The final boss seems to come out of nowhere, being hardly mentioned until the end of the game. Given the dramatic change in story arcs, you would expect that this kind of episodic narrative would break down given this game’s play time. But the opposite is true. I was overjoyed to discover that the game went on and on and on, with new challenges to face (spoiler: highlight to reveal) after defeating Orochi. Somehow, the game never feels like it truly drags. Every new chapter is a new experience with wonderful new characters and settings. Even though some of these will come out of left field, totally unannounced and unexpected, you’ll be delighted and realize this is exactly how it should feel in a game based on disjointed folktales and legends. It’s plot points may be unrelated but they are never disjointed.
Once you reach the highest tiers of upgrades, Amaterasu becomes practically unstoppable. Plus, despite its wealth of content, there isn’t really anything, no bosses nor sidequests, that really present any kind of challenge to give another layer of depth to the game. Endgame content is pretty limited aside from treasure hunting. The bulk of the game is a comfortable walk in the park. Though the battles become more technical as you progress and continue to accumulate more skills and abilities, it never reaches a true climax of difficulty. In fact, the ending seems almost abrupt for it. It would have been nice to see some secret bosses added to the HD revision.
I played through the Wii version twice and when I picked up the HD PS3 digital download, there wasn’t enough to carry me through a third playthrough, high def or not. There were a few times I had to muscle myself through its scenes and bosses, as enjoyable as they are. Okami may someday be something I’ll return to again but I suppose I’ve burned myself out on it. Being story driven, and without a large amount of sidequests or secrets, there isn’t much reason to return to the legendary world of ancient Nippon.
Despite its angle on Japanese mythology, the only reason this is not a ten is because Okami will inevitably remind you of a Zelda game. Its dungeons feel exceptionally Zelda-esque what with having to find door keys, maps and boss rooms, Issun (think Navi), avoiding triggering traps, fighting monsters with specialized weaknesses, and utilizing your newest ability in a layout that heavily emphasizes it. I would never call it a rip off. It’s far too different in many other areas even though it incorporates classic Zelda motifs. Okami has earned its place right alongside the hero of time’s franchise.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
This is one of the games I most often find myself recommending. Again, not too many people have played it. But if you liked games like Ocarina of Time, you’ll probably enjoy the heck out of Okami. The HD re-release is the definitive version, so get it while its hot. Okami is one of the longer action-adventures but my first playthrough was exceptionally riveting. Visually and musically, even gameplay-wise, it is unparalleled. Easily one of the top titles on the Wii, and certainly one of the best digital downloads you can find. And finally, this game made me fascinated with mythology again, which I used to read as a kid, so on a personal level that was a huge bonus. It’s unabashedly Japanese, yet appealing without being alienating, as if its tales and themes are truly timeless like folklore is supposed to be. Sayonara, ja mata ne!
Aggregated Score: 8.1
Did you enjoy this post? Consider becoming a Warrior of Light and join us in restoring integrity and quality to entertainment journalism. We specialize in long-form, analytical reviews and we aim to expand into a podcast and webzine with paid contributors! See our Patreon page for more info!
Categories: Game Review