Despite Okami’s undeniable visual qualities and artistic achievements, the game is able to build a journey so well-constructed and masterfully written that its greatest beauty is not of the superficial kind, but exists in a level that is emotional and borderline spiritual
Being in the right place at the right time can go a very long way towards making a product successful. After all, history has shown us, time and time again, that quality itself is not the only element involved in the foggy, and certainly complex, equation that defines whether an item will fail terribly, do modestly well, be beloved by the general public, or transcend commercial boundaries to the point it will alter the very own world in which it exists. Case in point, Okami – originally released for the Playstation 2 and created by the talented hands of Clover Studio, a Capcom subsidiary – is widely considered to be one of the best action-adventure games of all time; however, despite the accolades and praise it garnered right upon its release, it was mostly ignored by gamers themselves, as it failed to be the commercial hit its quality indicated it deserved to be.
Two reasons can be singled out when it comes to figuring out the source of such an unfortunate happening. Firstly, Okami was in the right place at the wrong time: the Playstation 2 was one of the most commercially successful systems in history; yet, Okami arrived as the Playstation 3 loomed large on the horizon and the eyes of the users of Sony’s machine were set somewhere else. Secondly, Okami was just too bold for its own good: in a system whose best-selling titles either were grounded on realism or sported the names of big franchises, Okami was an artistically adventurous game that, despite coming from a popular producer, was both a new property and a title that embraced specific pieces of Japanese culture to build its universe. Fortunately, Okami was just way too good to fade into obscurity without putting up a fight, and it got, with the arrival of the Nintendo Wii, its second chance to amaze the world.
Okami beings in Kamiki Village. Located in the outskirts of Nippon, the huge continent where the game takes place, it is yearly haunted by Orochi, an eight-headed serpent that lurks in the nearby Moon Cave. Every year, it sends a silver arrow towards the house of one of the village’s maidens, who then needs to be sacrificed to the great beast on an altar in order to stop its darkness from corrupting the village itself and the lands that surround it. However, as the game narrates, 100 years before its events begin, that silver arrow hit the house of a maiden that was deeply loved by the village’s warrior. In order to save his damsel from such a terrible fate, the warrior heads to the cave with a white wolf as his companion. Inside the beast’s lair, they fight an epic battle, fail to completely defeat Orochi, but manage to seal the serpent with a sword.
Although the legend of the warrior and his wolf companion lives on and is told over and over again in Kamiki Village, the place’s current defender – a brave yet completely clueless warrior named Susano – does not believe in it. To prove his point, he breaks the supposed seal, and – to his horror – releases Orochi from his century-long prison. As life is drained from the nature of Nippon and corruption makes its way into the lives of its numerous villagers, Sakuya – the sprite responsible for guarding Kamiki Village – summons Amaterasu – the sun goddess, who appears in Nippon as a white wolf – to cleanse demoniac forces from the land.
Like all excellent games, Okami’s greatness does not lie in a sole factor, but in a combination of qualities that propels it sky-high. However, if one was to pick the main elements that make it stand out when compared to other games of the kind, those would undoubtedly be its art style and its courageous dive into the depths of Japanese folklore. To make matters even more impressive, these two components walk hand-in-hand, creating an incredible level of synergy. And that is because while Okami’s graphics look like Japanese watercolor and wood carving art that have suddenly come to life and started moving, a great portion of its important characters – not to mention the design of its demons – are rooted in Japanese culture. Little to nothing about the game exists without a purpose, inspiration, or origin; and that makes Okami not only one of the most beautiful games ever made, but also perhaps the deepest effort of the gaming industry when it comes to studying a culture and representing it.
More importantly, Okami’s unbelievably charming set of characters is not wasted, for each one of them is used as significant players in a storyline that keeps on giving. As it turns out, Kamiki Village and its surroundings are not the only places of Nippon that are going through troubles because of the sudden presence of demons. Consequently, as Amaterasu travels through this breathtakingly gorgeous and carefully constructed world, she will come across various engaging subplots, of natures that range from dark and sinister to light and fun, that are somehow connected to an overarching tale that is only revealed far into the game. The writing is by all means spectacular, turning the game into more than a journey to discover new gorgeous places or unearth fantastic gameplay scenarios, but a quest in which remarkable stories, situations, and characters emerge from every corner.
For all the seriousness of the cultural weight that Okami carries, and for all the unquestionably ominous moments it holds, the game is able to be surprisingly hilarious and somewhat self-aware. Much of that value stems from Issun, a bug-sized wandering artist that serves as Amaterasu’s traveling companion. Initially, and openly, he stands by her side for purely selfish reasons; and, like all major characters in the game, his arch of growth is both surprising and compelling. However, his most relevant feature is undoubtedly his role as Amaterasu’s proxy to the outside world, given she obviously cannot communicate. Issun is easily one of gaming’s most remarkable sidekicks, and he achieves that position through a great deal of sarcasm, which often flies over the head of gods, demons, and humans alike; a heavy doses of teenage hormones, which cause him to frequently comment on the most voluptuous parts of the bodies of female characters; a shortage of patience; and a funny mixture of overconfidence and self-deprecation.
In terms of gameplay, Okami is definitely not as original as it is in the visual and thematic departments; nevertheless, it remains relatively refreshing. Its one inspiration is quite clear: The Legend of Zelda. In other words, it alternates the exploration of pieces of the overworld – which includes interacting with characters and solving the problems they present – and the eventual trip into a dungeon of sorts, an enclosed space that features a bunch of enemies and a good amount of puzzle solving. However, differently from what happens in a regular The Legend of Zelda game, Okami leans more heavily towards the exploration vein than to the dungeons themselves, which are lighter than those of Nintendo’s flagship franchise. The mazes are, nonetheless, pretty great; in spite of their more straightforward ways.
The game’s originality is achieved by adding new components to that standard structure. First of all, and in a more low-key way, there is the element of restoration. The undeniable beauty of Okami’s world is tarnished by corruption, both big – in the form of large areas covered in sheer darkness – and small, such as in the hundreds of cursed cherry trees that are spread through Nippon. And there is an overwhelming wave of joy in watching one’s work materialize as nature comes back to occupy a space that had once been its own, be it through the defeat of a mean boss or through the return of mesmerizing pink leaves to trees that were once dead.
Gamers, therefore, play an active role in making a title that is already quite gorgeous even more beautiful, and Clover Studio is able to unlock a nearly therapeutic effect via that activity. The reward goes beyond self-realization, though, as restoring the land, like completing the game’s various sidequests or feeding famished animals, will earn Amaterasu Praise, which can be exchanged for the improvement of her statuses.
More significantly, though, Okami shines because of the Celestial Brush: Amaterasu’s most powerful weapon. With it, players can freeze the action, turn the current scene into a black-and-white canvas, and draw on it by moving the Wiimote around like a huge brush. Each symbol that is drawn (there are thirteen available once Amaterasu is done learning them all) will have a different effect. A straight line, for instance, will act like a sword and cut objects; while two parallel lines will slow down time for a few seconds. The Celestial Brush will also give Amaterasu the power to manipulate electricity, wind, water, fire, and do much more. Needless to say, each of those moves – like the equipment that is gathered in a Zelda game – is used in the building of clever puzzles and gameplay scenarios.
Additionally, the Celestial Brush will also be quite useful in the game’s numerous battles. While in most adventure titles players will find enemies wandering around freely, Okami takes a different approach and makes them appear out in the open as giant cursed scrolls. If Amaterasu touches them, she will be transported to a circle of fire in which she will engage a series of demons by using her weapon of choice as well as the Celestial Brush itself, which will consume ink containers that slowly fill back up as time passes.
Even though battles can be, mostly, easily avoided, they present three core problems. First of all, they do not give players any significant reward, only money. Although cash is indeed important, after all that is how Amaterasu can buy more weapons and secondary items, it is not quite as relevant as the increasing of her energy bar and ink compartments – which are both achieved via sidequests. In addition, using the Celestial Brush in battles reveals that its commands, sometimes, are not recognized properly, which may lead players to miss the opportunity to land considerable blows on foes, a problem that can be quite annoying in the game’s magnificent boss encounters. Finally, even if Amaterasu does have an impressive array of skills at her disposal during combats and despite the fact enemies are cleverly designed for the most part, combats against regular demons are sometimes too long, degenerating into mindless hack-and-slash affairs once players run out of patience to deal with foes.
Despite the occasional problems players may have when using the Celestial Brush via the Wiimote, it is hard – not to say impossible – not to walk away from Okami with the feeling that it is one beautiful game. Its beauty, though, is not of the superficial kind. Surely, there is a great deal of eye-candy and artistic glory to be found in its thirty-hour journey, and it is hard to avoid walking towards a beach or to a peak just to spin the camera around and bask under the magnificence of its watercolor spell. However, Okami’s real beauty is found in a level that is emotional – borderline spiritual. It is in the growth of its characters, the message of its script, and the soul that was poured into every single one of its tightly designed corners. To boot, it fills up that loveliness with a gameplay that drinks from the very best sources and that adds a special thematically cohesive flavor of its own to the recipe.