Every console has certain games that tempt you to purchase it just to play them. During most console generations, I’ve had a console from more than one of the Big Three. In the N64 era my mother’s boyfriend (who later became my stepfather) had a Playstation 1. After I’d had a Wii for awhile we picked up a Playstation 3 as well. And it was only a few months after my wife and I purchased a PS4 that a shiny Nintendo Switch joined alongside it. You’ll notice a crucial era missing, though, one in which some of the most celebrated games of all time were released on a console that I didn’t own: the Playstation 2.
While I played many excellent Nintendo titles such as Wind Waker, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, Metroid Prime, and Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, my buddies at school were telling me about the games I was missing on Sony’s console. I heard the names whispered with awe, these amazing titles which promised a whole new level of gaming delight. Games like Kingdom Hearts, Shadow of the Colossus, and a game about a white wolf called Okami. I mean, the game is called Okami, the wolf is actually called – okay, I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’ve always heard about how Okami is an amazing game. An artful demonstration of what video games had the potential to be, a game that masters the Zelda formula as well as Zelda itself. I was always passingly intrigued by the game, but never truly knew anything of its actual content. Whereas the stories or characters of other titles became integrated into pop culture and I learned about the events of other games I didn’t play during that time, Okami always remained a tantalizing mystery – I knew all about the hype but nothing of the substance of the game. So when Okami HD was announced for the Nintendo Switch, I knew I had to finally play this legend for myself.
So let’s talk about Okami. This game takes place in mythological Japan (the inhabitants refer to their country as Nippon) one hundred years after a great evil was defeated by a white wolf and a brave swordsman. Naturally, the evil dragon Orochi couldn’t just stay defeated – some foolish man had to go and draw the mighty sword keeping the prison locked tight. This released darkness on the world and once again the wolf had to save mankind. But this wolf is no ordinary non-domesticated canine. She is Amaterasu, goddess of the sun and mother of all Nippon. She herself took responsibility for defeating Orochi one hundred years ago, and now she must do so again to save the land from darkness.
Immediately Okami struck me as a beautiful game. I’d heard of the graphical quality, of course, but actually seeing it in action – I feel like I’m playing a painting. That Green Dude wrote an article a little ways back about games with realistic graphics versus those with a more artistic style; Okami will now be my go-to example of why I prefer the latter. I feel like even without the HD touch-ups this game would have aged well – playing it on a Playstation 2 it would still look gorgeous. Often I just stop to marvel at the landscape, and I’ve taken tons of screenshots of stuff that I simply thought looked cool – a practice I don’t typically engage in when playing video games.
Okami sits in a great place graphically not only because it looks so gorgeous, but because it’s just abstract enough to create opportunities for quirky characters that wouldn’t make sense in a more photorealistic setting. For example, the master of the dojo is an old man known as the Onigiri Samurai. When you first meet him, he seems to be doddering and weak, his bald head and long mustache along with his walking cane all signs of his advanced age. However, once you pay him to teach you some fighting moves, his whole head turns upside down and his once feeble mustache is now a set of the angriest eyebrows you’ve ever seen. He flips over his cane to form a sword and BAM, whole new side to the character. This is the sort of thing that could never happen in a game with a more realistic style, and that’s just one of many. Does your breakdancing mayor have an orange on his head? Because I wish mine did!
Speaking of quirky characters, I love the sense of humor that this game brings along with the mythic story. Sure, you’re the most powerful goddess in the world struggling against a force of terrible evil and trying to restore humanity’s faith, but people are weird and that doesn’t stop being true simply because the adventure is serious business. In fact, the humor of this game works because there’s a sincerity to the thoroughly ridiculous characters that you meet throughout your journey. When a princess priestess sends you on a quest to summon the most powerful dog-warriors in the kingdom, there’s nothing weird about it. After all, your own traveling companion is some kind of shrunken bug-headed artist with a bit of a leering problem.
The genuinely odd characters are a big part of the game’s appeal. It makes every encounter with an NPC an exciting part of your journey. When one of your first quests is digging up turnips while running away from an angry mother to prove to her son that you’re cooler than his dog, you know you’re in for something special. In another game, they might be willing to go weird with the one-off NPCs but will make sure that the recurring characters are “safer.” Not so with Okami – one of the more frequent characters on the screen is Susano, the descendant of the legendary swordsman who is a major oaf that relies completely on your power to accomplish anything.
Then there’s Waka, the mysterious Tao Master who regularly attacks you while spewing vague prophecies and broken French. This guy feels like he is straight out of an anime. Long flowing hair that flaps like wings? Check. Katana with a completely out-of-context English name like, I don’t know, Pillow Talk? Check. Magic flute that’s also a laser sword? Check. Every time Waka shows his face I’m not sure whether I should be skeptical or just shake my head at his ridiculous antics.
The story and characters in Okami are only part of its early-game charm. I immediately fell in love with the gorgeous music. I have a fascination – albeit a largely unexplored one – with tunes in the style of traditional Japenese music. It’s the instrumentation; I don’t even know what most of them are called, but the instruments used in Okami’s soundtrack have a very distinct sound that’s instantly recognizable. Like the story and characters the music runs the gamut from epic and impactful to playfully silly. I particularly enjoyed the song which played while Mr. Orange danced before the time came for the Konohana Shuffle to be performed.
Art, characters, and music are all important pieces of a video game, but they could also make a great film. So what about the first ten hours of Okami’s gameplay has me convinced that this title lives up to the hype surrounding it? Okami is a game which I feel is easy to pick up but could potentially be hard to master – the more you play and unlock features, the suite of abilities and potential combos available to you become more complex. To really dig into that, let’s talk a bit about the core game mechanics of Okami.
Okami is an adventure game. In the overworld, you have the ability to run around, jump, tackle into things, and use the various functions of your Celestial Paintbrush. Amaterasu has a regenerating supply of ink which she can use with her brush to accomplish all kinds of feats both in and out of combat. Whether using the brush to attack enemies, restore life to the landscape, or navigate to otherwise unreachable areas, each type of stroke has multiple possibilities for the clever user. In this way, the various paintbrush abilities are similar to the dungeon items in The Legend of Zelda.
When you encounter an enemy, you enter a contained battlefield and your tackle ability changes to attacks of different types based on the weapon you have equipped. Weapons have two slots – main weapon and sub weapon – and you have four or five weapon types to choose from. Depending on which weapon you have in the main slot versus the sub weapon slot, you have different applications. For example, the Reflector weapon type (the one you start with) performs a reliable three hit combo at a steady pace, hitting decently hard and decently fast when equipped to the main weapon slot. As a sub weapon, the Reflector creates a shield to block attacks. This opens up lots of combinations as you experiment with which weapon you like in your main slot versus your sub weapon slot.
In most adventure/RPG titles, the reward mechanics are pretty simple: fight random battles to gain EXP and gold, EXP grants more levels to give you stronger abilities (for fighting) and gold allows you to buy more powerful equipment (for fighting). Most if not all rewards are connected to combat and influence combat, making the mechanisms that operate outside of the battle system largely irrelevant. Okami doesn’t work that way, and it’s one of the best features of the game.
Okami’s two rewards are yen (= gold) and praise (= EXP). Yen is gained by breaking objects in the environment, selling treasures you find while exploring, and defeating enemies in combat. The final of the three is probably the most significant way to receive yen, and other than hunting for demon fangs to turn in for other rewards is the only incentive you have to engage in combat. Praise, on the other hand, is the necessary resource for increasing your health, your ink reserves, your number of Astral Pouches (these revive you if you die), and the amount of yen you can carry. Praise is gained by completing quests, restoring the environment to its natural state, and feeding the wildlife you find wandering the world.
Comparing this to many other video games, we see that the main reward for character advancement – the thing from which Amaterasu truly draws her strength – is not the deaths of her enemies but the restoration of the world she created, the praises due her from the very creatures she protects. It devalues combat and puts emphasis on the other actions you take in the world – exploring to find bare patches to restore or to discover more animals that need fed. Okami feels rewarding even in those situations where a scene doesn’t build to a huge combat encounter.
The game also uses its Celestial Brush mechanism to create engaging puzzles or conflicts that aren’t “battles” in the game’s own parlance. For example, in many areas there are corrupted trees which throw evil fruit to harm you. When you first meet these trees, you only have the ability to deflect the fruit and stun the tree. Later on, you gain a brush technique which allows you to restore the trees to normal and gain praise. These are, in essence, mini combat sequences – you knock the poison fruit back at the tree to stun it, then purify it with a brush technique. Yet you never enter a battle screen. It’s not organized using the same well-defined structures that clearly mark combat elsewhere, so it feels organic and unique. Small puzzles are built into all of the nooks and crannies of Nippon, and as you explore you’ll see areas which make you say “oh, I don’t have something for this yet – I’ll need to come back later.” It makes Okami a delight to explore and old locations are actually worth revisiting.
I honestly have no idea how long Okami is to give me an idea of how far my ten hours has put me. I don’t feel, though, like this game is going to be ending anytime soon. I still have two entire weapon types to discover, multiple brush techniques I know I am missing, and lots of upgrades to purchase with the praise I gain. Each session I play gives me just enough to want to dive in for more – the last time I finished, for example, I just unlocked a method of fast travel to help me revisit earlier areas with my newest abilities, so I’m eager to get exploring and to reap the rewards of some of the challenges I’ve overcome along the way.
Now I turn the conversation to you, adventurers. Did you play Okami back in the day? Are you trying it now, like me? What are your thoughts on this game? I’d love to hear from you in the comments, but I’m still working through the story so no spoilers, please!