Review: Okami (Nintendo Wii)

Okami
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Clover Studios (I don’t care what the internet says)
Publisher: Capcom
Release Date: 04/15/08


Clover Studios, despite only actually developing about five or six games (most of those being Viewtiful Joe products), has become one of those cult game companies that a lot of gamers mourn the passing of, and it’s not too hard to see why: they were essentially taking established game concepts and stuffing them chock-full of style and artistic oddity, which was pretty much guaranteed to endear them to the games-as-art crowd. They didn’t make the most unique games gameplay-wise, but their games were stylistically interesting and different, and had their own interesting design and sense of humor about them that was pretty sweet, and for that they will be missed by a lot of players.

I’ll miss them because I loved God Hand, so to each their own.

But let it never be said that Capcom doesn’t know how to squeeze the money out of something; after Clover’s last two titles flopped on the PS2 (God Hand and Okami) and the studio was dissolved (because all of the talented people left the company, as opposed to the original belief that neither game was a success, though that might have had something to do with things behind the scenes), Capcom has opted to release the more marketable of the two games on the system that it is most likely to generate interest on, thus giving us Okami on the Wii. Far be it from me to suggest that something was perhaps less of a case of genuine desire to see a product succeed and be adopted by the fans and more of a case of making back your investment as quickly as possible, but in the end it doesn’t matter; Okami was one of the best games released on the PS2, ever, so the fact that it gets another chance to make a go of it on the Wii is a-okay by me.

Okami tells a tale of a land that is, for all intents and purposes, Japan, during a period of mystical strife. Long ago, the demon Orochi plagued the land, terrorizing the people and causing no end of problems, until one day, [s]Kyo Kusanagi, Iori Yagami and Chisuru Kagura[/s] the swordsman Nagi and the [s]large-chested ninja[/s] white wolf Shiranui defeated the evil demon and sealed it away. One hundred years later, some boob ends up setting Orochi free (though you do find out who did it later in the game), and the sun goddess Amaterasu, in the guise of a white wolf, opts to take charge of the situation and send Orochi back to whatever pit it crawled out of. The game essentially takes its storyline cues from ancient Japanese mythology, and the end result works like a cross between The Legend of Zelda and a Japanese God of War, only instead of watching as the protagonist threatens everyone’s lives and utterly obliterates them, we instead watch as the various characters prattle on about whatever silly nonsense is going on at the time, only to pan over and see that Amaterasu is fast asleep, having not even listened to what they were saying in the first place.

Amaterasu is the best goddess ever.

The story isn’t really original or unique; the taking of mythology and crafting it into a video game storyline is neat, but has been done before, and several of the elements of the story [i]exposition[/i] will feel familiar to anyone who’s played any of the last, oh, seven Zelda games (like Issun, the yappy annoying tiny… [i]thing[/i] who informs you of points of interest and keeps you on track; all he’s missing is the “HEY LISTEN” sound file). But the actual story itself is pretty neat, well-told, and engaging, the game has a distinct sense of humor that is quite enjoyable by the by, there are plenty of likable characters (Kushi, for instance, though that may be because whenever you approach her she drops what she’s doing to give you a scratch on the head… awww), and the ending is something I don’t think ANYONE could see coming, so overall, it’s pretty damn good.

Visually… well, look, Okami is absolutely breathtakingly beautiful, okay? It’s aged phenomenally well, due in part to the fact that the visuals were pushing the power of the PS2 when the game debuted, but mostly because the game is stylistically AMAZING. The cell-shaded graphics combined with the “Ukiyo-e” watercolor painting style of the visuals is absolutely phenomenal, and I’m sorry, if you can’t appreciate what this game is doing visually you have no artistic soul. There are some mild issues with draw-in and clipping occasionally, mind you, but they’re generally infrequent and not often readily noticeable. The aural style of Okami is also stuffed full of artistry; the music is one part ethnic ambient period music and one part stylized dramatic battle tracks, and it’s quite well done and enjoyable. The “voice acting” is essentially just something akin to “simlish”, and is thus essentially gibberish, but it’s cute and works in context. The sound effects are also quite good overall; monsters sound scary and life-threatening, and the game world is populated with all sorts of ambient effects that make it come to life effectively.

Those who have played the PS2 release of Okami may or may not be pleased to know that the Wii release has received a complete overhaul of its controls to take advantage of the novelties of the console. Movement is controlled with the nunchuck stick, and attacking and dodging are done by swiping the Wii-mote and nunchuck around, respectively. Using items, interacting with NPC’s, jumping, opening the map and such are all handled with the various buttons on the two units, and the Celestial Brush is enabled by holding down B (the trigger on the Wii-Mote). The various controls are laid out in a useable and functional fashion and generally work well by design, though the PS2 controls felt (oddly enough) more natural. Most of the game comes down to doing what you would do in any game of this sort: running about, undertaking various quests, smiting various monsters, acquiring new powers, and so on until you finally take on and defeat the various bosses and save the world as required. Anyone who’s played any of these sorts of games will be able to figure out what Okami is doing quickly enough, and adjust accordingly.

The Celestial Brush requires a bit of explanation, though. Y’know how each of these sorts of games has some sort of an odd mechanic to it, like how Ocarina of Time had Link play his Ocarina, or how Wind Waker had Link using a conductor’s thingie, or how in Beyond Good and Evil you, um, took pictures? Right, well, in Okami you have the Celestial Brush; basically, Amaterasu has the ability to use a paintbrush to manipulate the world around her in varying ways, including summoning the sun, rejuvenating plants, making bombs and trees and other neat stuff that is useful for solving puzzles and in battle. To do this, you hold down the B trigger on the Wii-mote, which brings up a sepia-toned version of the world as a sort of “painting canvas”, and a brush. You move the brush around by waving the Wii-mote, then when it’s in the desired location, you press A to start painting. When you release B, whatever you have done with the brush translates its effects to the game world, assuming you’ve done it correctly.

Mastering the Celestial Brush in addition to the attack and dodge swings of the Wii-mote and nunchuck is crucial, as you’ll be using all of this in combat. Combat kind-of sort-of works like random encounters in an RPG (more like the PS1 remakes of Lunar or Persona 3); with the exception of boss encounters and the various planted encounters in dungeons, you often see foes as green spirits floating around on the overworld, and by running into them, you engage them in battle. Enemies come in various different types, many of which look like demonic monkeys, and by using your Celestial Brush powers and your weapons, you can lay the holy smackdown upon them. Amaterasu starts with one weapon, but can equip a primary and secondary weapon to attack with, and nearly every weapon you acquire can be used as either one; primary weapons are generally just used as melee weapons, but secondary weapons offer a variety of effects, depending on the weapon. There are also a whole bunch of items you can use in battle, as you’d expect, that can heal back lost life or Ink Pots (the measure of how much ink Amaterasu has; think of them like magic bars… and yes, they do also regenerate on their own) and smite enemies in various ways, as well as items that are more useful outside of battle (like Seeds, which you can feed to wildlife animals to increase their faith in your godly powers… yes, really).

Killing enemies nets you various power-ups and yen (money, duh, which you can use at item vendors to purchase various and sundry knick-knacks like healing items and the aforementioned Seeds), which is generally beneficial, but the real good stuff comes from doing general good in the world, IE doing quests and such. Now, as noted, Amaterasu is a goddess, and as such, she generally requires faith to become powerful; as the world is essentially boned from the moment you start playing, no one is too interested in believing at that point, so you’re pretty weak. Now, part of the way that you can increase Amaterasu’s power is to accomplish various large tasks, which open up constellations to complete which, in turn, teach Amaterasu new brush powers, but the other part simply involves fixing the world and doing generally good things for people. The former is simple enough; when you begin, the world is covered in darkness that you have to clear up; if you touch this darkness, you lose life, as one would expect, so it’s often covering up areas you want or need to access. To do this, you bring life back to various trees connected to Sakuya, the wood sprite who summons you to save the world; by rejuvenating these trees, you then in turn fix the locations these trees are in and expand Sakuya’s protection further into the world. As such, reviving the greenery in the world and bringing life and harmony back to all things equals good, which is simple enough to understand. Doing good for the people is a little more of a “common person’s hero” sort of thing; generally, someone will have a problem and it’ll be up to you to fix it, whether it be digging up a weird turnip, fixing a waterwheel, fishing without a line, or whatever. In either case, fixing the world and doing good deeds rewards you with faith as more and more people and animals and such come around to believing again, which can in turn be invested in increased life meters, Ink Pots, yen capacity and a larger Astral Pouch (a food container that will bring you back from defeat if you run out of health).

Now, the thing is, if you’ve played more than a few of these sorts of games, this should all be easy enough to understand and get into, and if you haven’t, the game is generally pretty agreeable about explaining everything to you as the case merits. The various mechanics and designs are generally reminiscent of other games in the genre, but the presentation of these mechanics here is quite unique, and the visual style is outstandingly different from any other game of its type. The only game that approaches mimicking the sort of elements Okami has within it is Twilight Princess, and as Okami came out first, well, the issue of who is copying who is perhaps a bit more awkward than need be. Regardless, it’s safe to say that while this IS a re-release, it’s a re-release of a game most people haven’t played, and as such, it’s still one of the most conceptually original games on the market even now.

Sadly, it’s not one of the more challenging games out, which hasn’t changed from the PS2 version. Death is rare, and will only be seen during the occasional boss battle; many players will never even come close to their demise at all. Far be it from me to suggest the game should have been Devil May Cry 3 hard, but a selection of difficulty modes would have helped the challenge and the replayability immensely; as it is, this is a game you can blast through in about twelve to fifteen hours, and the only thing to bring you back (aside from the game itself) is finding all of the hidden items/clovers/weapons/etc you might have missed the first time around. Younger or less skilled gamers will find Okami to be reasonable, but anyone who’s beaten Ocarina of Time will blow through this without breaking a sweat (again, with the possible exception of a few of the boss battles), which is kind of a shame if you’re looking for a bit of a rough go.

Now, on the subject of things that are less subjectively wrong with the product, the new Wii-specific controls? Not very good. Flailing the Wii-mote to attack, even when one gets the appropriate timing down, is silly and would have been more enjoyable as simple button-presses because it doesn’t actually MEAN anything in context. This is not so bad. What IS kind of bad is that the Celestial Brush is also controlled by moving around the Wii-mote to paint the various things, and that is kind of hard to work with unless you have a steady hand, and if you have hands that shake worse than Michael J Fox’s, well, painting is something of an exercise in frustration. The game seems to understand that in some cases (drawing circles that could only be called such a thing in the most charitable sense of the word often still enables the effect intended) but not in others (Slashing is hard when you can’t draw a straight line), so it bears mentioning that this WILL be a problem for some people, especially since it WASN’T nearly as much of an issue with the PS2 release.

And speaking of: there’s really no additional content whatsoever in this version of Okami over the PS2 version, and while that probably won’t be an issue for most people (the game only moved about 300K in copies, so it’s unlikely you’ve played it), if you either did play or own it previously, you really don’t need to play this version because IT’S THE SAME THING. On the upside, it’s a Zelda-esque game on a system known for them…but on the downside, while the PS2 version of Okami did the “run around as a wolf” and “encroaching poisonous darkness” stuff before Twilight Princess, well, now that it’s over a year later and we’re playing Okami on the Wii, chances are good that you’ve seen that stuff before and may feel a slight bit of deja-vu in concept. On the other, it HAS been a year and change, so maybe you’ll have been anticipating a new one of these sorts of games, so your mileage may vary.

Of course, if you hate Zelda games this isn’t going to do anything for you unless you hate them because you’re playing as what amounts to an Elven Robin Hood, in which case you might be in luck here. But then, if you hate Zelda games, why you’d buy a Nintendo system in the first place is a bit confusing as well, but whatever.

All told, Okami is essentially a game that is primarily focused on taking a functional concept for a game and injecting a ton of style and fresh gameplay elements into it, and for the most part it works out stupendously. The story is well told, the characters are lively and vibrant, the world comes to life through its visual and aural presentation, and the experience is a whole lot of fun. If you’ve played it before you’re not going to get anything new out of a second go, it’s a little easy a lot of the time, and the Wii controls can take some adjusting to before they work as you’d expect, but Okami is still one of the very best games in its genre, only now on a system where the genre is not only comfortable, but indeed welcomed and respected. If you have never played Okami before, you really should; for all of its flaws and for the familiar ground it covers, it still has its own sense of style and presentation that makes it a once in a generation experience that is truly beautiful.

The Scores:
Story: GREAT
Graphics: UNPARALLELED
Sound: UNPARALLELED
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: GREAT
Addictiveness: GREAT
Appeal: GREAT
Miscellaneous: GREAT

Final Score: GREAT.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Okami is an artistic masterpiece, a deftly presented piece of work that takes an old dog (so to say) in the standard action-adventure mold and teaches it some new tricks. The core gameplay is familiar, the gimmick of the Celestial Brush is different enough to be quite interesting, and if you’re at all a fan of the genre, you should buy Okami and give it the love it deserves. The Wii controls are a little kooky at times (which should be old hat to anyone who has played almost any Wii game released) and PS2 Okami owners don’t have any reason to get this release of it, but anyone who hasn’t played it and likes the genre would do themselves a disservice NOT to play Okami, for it is among the best games the ganre has ever seen.

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