When you think of the quintessential Zelda experience, what comes to mind? What sort of features does the game have? Chances are you think of a vast, open world, filled with monsters and small puzzle sections but barren of interesting cultures and characters. You think of dungeons with bland visual design which blend together after awhile, topped off by forgettable bosses whose fights play out identically despite representing wildly different locations in the game world. And of course you think of Link’s arsenal – a vast selection of near-identical tools which break after a short time and are useful exclusively for combat rather than navigating the world or solving puzzles.
Wait…that’s not what you think of?
I’m perhaps being a little unfair to Breath of the Wild, a game that I originally gave a 9.5 back when I did reviews with scores. Things change, however, and in my time away from the latest Zelda adventure, I’ve come to find it somewhat forgettable. The Legend of Zelda is one of my favorite video game series of all time, and each game I’ve played in the franchise sits with me long after I’ve finished. Each one has something about it that I love and which draws me back into that world again and again. Breath of the Wild doesn’t feel like that. It’s a good game and I enjoyed playing it, but at the end of the day, Breath of the Wild isn’t a good Zelda game. It offers completely different things. That’s great for folks who felt that the formula was becoming tired, or those who never liked quintessential Zelda in the first place. But in my case, I loved the series I grew up with and have been missing that classic experience on my Nintendo Switch.
Enter Okami, a game I’d heard of for years but never picked up for one reason or another. By this time in my life, the original game had reached legendary status. So when an HD version hit the Switch for the ridiculously worth-it price of $20, I jumped in with both feet. I actually didn’t know when I purchased it that Okami was frequently compared to The Legend of Zelda, that in ways it was inspired by this series which I so loved. I just knew it had a cool wolf and lots of people enjoyed the game, so when those first familiar elements started working themselves in, it was a pleasant surprise that drew me into the world of the game even more.
So how exactly is Okami “like Zelda?” Let’s start at the beginning. You play a prophesied savior who awakens from a long slumber to defeat a wicked evil plaguing a vast mythical kingdom. You are accompanied by a small, overly talkative sprite who serves as your guide and are sent on your way by the spirit of a great tree. On your journey you must gather the power of the gods in order to defeat the lord of darkness, and you delve into such exotic locations as an abandoned temple in a forest, the belly of an aquatic beast, and the peak of a volcanic mountain. Great and terrible foes will try and stop you, from spider queens to sword-wielding boars to an ancient, sealed evil which you must defeat in the exact same manner three different times over the course of the game. All of this leads up to a boss rush before the final battle with the dark lord, who can only be stopped when you call upon all of the unique characters that you met during your journey.
Okami certainly feels as if it borrowed many of its story beats from the Zelda franchise, but the developers did an excellent job of using Japanese mythology to make the world feel different from Zelda despite the many similarities. The stories in Okami both are and aren’t stories that I have heard a million times before. From the false hero who becomes a true hero when facing his destiny to the mysterious rival whose identity as friend or foe is unknown until the very end, the characters in Okami are familiar tropes whose stories are delivered with such sincerity and spirit that they feel fresh in spite of that. The redemption journey for Issun – a character I thoroughly hated for most of Okami – legitimately had me crying during the final moments of the game.
It’s also worth noting that while many themes in Okami are quite similar to Zelda, the theme of faith in the gods is played quite differently. Only in Breath of the Wild did anyone in the Zelda series ever question the gods or give a second thought to their relationship with their faith. Conversely, Okami is all about humanity’s relationship to the gods. Amaterasu is the sun goddess, “origin of all that is good and mother to us all.” Yet humanity has completely forgotten her. In the past when she appeared to protect them from darkness, they called her Shiranui and gave most of the credit for banishing darkness to the human hero Nagi that accompanied her into the villainous lair of Orochi the dragon. Humanity’s lack of faith left Amaterasu weak, and much of the game is spent earning the praise of the earth and its creatures in order to regain your abilities.
In Zelda, the gods are distant and inactive. Humans – er, Hylians, I suppose – are the actors in the world. Their tools and powers may be from the gods, but Hylia, Nayru, Din, and Farore stopped caring or being involved a long time ago. Conversely, Amaterasu is the reason that human heroes are able to succeed in their endeavors at all. Look at Susano, whose every sword stroke is actually Ammy’s Power Slash brush technique – which the game does so well both in goofy contexts and truly epic ones that I don’t even care it is essentially a quick-time event. Humans often get credit for Ammy’s actions and it is only after Issun’s missionary work that she is recognized as the hero of the story.
In both games, faith is rewarded, but very different gods are the recipients of that faith. The goddesses of Hyrule are distant – benevolent, sure, but also perhaps irresponsible for leaving in the world artifacts which can be misused to perpetrate great evil. Conversely, Amaterasu is a goddess who takes responsibility for her failings and earns the praise of her people by the sweat of her brow. So while this theme is present in both titles, Okami chooses to focus in and expand on the idea of faith in order to explore it fully throughout the course of the game. This isn’t inherently good or bad, in my view – just something that differentiates the game from the material that inspired it.
Now that we’ve looked at how the themes of the game are similar to those in Zelda, let’s talk about the gameplay itself. The most important resemblance to Zelda is of course Ammy’s tendency to shatter pots, but there’s plenty more where that came from. Okami features a number of dungeons, significant locations filled with puzzles and enemies that end in a boss battle. Dungeons are navigated by locating keys to open locked doors and learning brush techniques that allow you to move about the dungeon in a new way that wasn’t originally possible when you walked in. Like Link’s hookshot or bow and arrow, the new techniques Ammy learns allow her to suddenly solve a number of puzzles that originally barred her progress.
One thing I will list as being something of a flaw for Okami – the number of brush techniques which ultimately boil down to “draw a line from a specific spot to another specific spot” makes your power feel stale after awhile. Waterspout, Blizzard, Thunderstorm, and Inferno all just involve drawing a line from an elemental source to the thing you want to blast, and this makes a lot of the puzzle solutions more obvious the further you play into the game. Getting a brush technique became less exciting when you knew that it would only work when near an elemental source.
Still, there are standout techniques in the bunch. Veil of Mist, the technique for slowing down time, has lots of fun applications for navigating the world and solving puzzles. It even plays into combat against hyper-fast enemies, giving you openings to attack them while they suddenly move at a fraction of their normal pace. Vine, while still just being “draw a line from here to there,” creates some very fun platforming puzzles, particularly in the areas where you have to catch another Vine quickly after launching lest you tumble into a pit or ravine beneath you. Galestorm is another versatile technique which is useful for defense, offense, and navigation – often the techniques which have the widest variety of applications are those which end up being the most enjoyable to use.
Like any good Zelda dungeon, the dungeons in Okami end in boss battles. The bosses in Okami are familiar fare – the Spider Queen in the first dungeon, for example, is pretty much Queen Gohma and the flower boss from Wind Waker all in one enemy. This familiarity is enhanced by the fact that bosses are puzzles more than they are combat challenges. Fighting these enemies is all about pattern memorization, avoiding damage until the moment arrives when there is a Clear and Obvious Weak Point (TM) that you can exploit with a brush technique.
Now me, I love these kinds of battles. I enjoy fighting defensively until the moment arrives when I have an opportunity to strike, and then using my shiny new brush technique to create an opening to wail on the bad guy. Boss-battle-as-puzzle is a mechanism that works better for me than just handing me an otherwise normal combat scenario where the bad guy simply has more HP. My favorite boss battle in Breath of the Wild was the fight against the leader of the Yiga clan – it was the easiest battle in the game by a mile, but to me it was the only battle that was fun in the way that Zelda is normally fun.
Now this note about ease of battle is applicable to Okami as well. Perhaps even more than the Zelda series, Okami offers very little in the way of difficulty or challenge. I can count on two hands the number of times I used a healing item during the game, and one of those hands all happened during the final boss battle. What’s wild about this is that Okami seems to anticipate that it won’t be easy. Amaterasu has an artifact called the Astral Pouch which works like fairies in Zelda, reviving you if your HP plummets to zero. By using Praise to upgrade the pouch, you can have as many as four of these things active at one time. Now normally you have to slowly fill an Astral Pouch over time with food, but there are inventory items which instantly fill it to full volume. I had six of these things lying around at the endgame, and that’s without having purchased any. The crazy thing is, I never needed an Astral Pouch one time.
On top of all of this – how easy the bosses are and how many potential revives you can have in your pocket – the game gives you a woefully short time to figure things out for yourself. If you through a boss’s entire attack pattern one time without recognizing the Clear and Obvious Weak Point (TM), Issun starts giving you hints about what to try or look out for. This happens with puzzles, too – take more than a couple of attempts at any particular obstacle and watch as the game immediately proceeds to hold your hand and walk you step-by-step through the resolution of the challenge. It’s irritating that you’re not given more of an opportunity to make discoveries for yourself – I don’t necessarily dislike the idea of providing aid after a few failures, but really let me fail before I get to that point. One minute of mild head-scratching or trying the wrong solution to a boss battle isn’t grounds to tell me the answer.
These flaws are carryovers from the franchise which inspired Okami to be what it is, but they are flaws that I became accustomed to a long time ago and which ultimately don’t affect my enjoyment of the game. It’s a point in Okami’s favor that it manages to so faithfully recreate the sheer joy of the Zelda experience while also doing its own thing. There are many features I haven’t described about the game that make it unique from its inspiration, from the mild RPG elements to the way combat encounters in the overworld function. To me, this makes the comparison to Breath of the Wild even more interesting.
Eiji Aonuma has stated that he wants to experiment with the Zelda series, to push it in new directions and see how far he can go while still making games that feel like the series we’ve known and loved for so long. Breath of the Wild may have gone overboard – it has changed so much about the core formula that even with Link and Zelda in the cast, the game doesn’t capture the same feelings as other entries in the series. Conversely, Okami sought to create a fundamentally different game while still paying homage to the Zelda franchise. While it has many elements that clearly belong to Okami and not to Zelda, the overall experience captures the classic Zelda experience in a truer way than Breath of the Wild ever did for me. In the end, the Nintendo Switch game which ultimately provided the quintessential Zelda experience I pined for was Okami HD.