For the good and for the bad, Okamiden heavily relies on its prequel
Okami was an overlooked masterpiece that came out during the twilight days of the Playstation 2 and, therefore, was unable to gain a level of commercial recognition that matched its critical acclaim. Sensing its greatness deserved a second shot at success, Capcom took the game over to the Nintendo Wii hoping its highly artistic visuals and its gameplay based on brush motions would find not only a welcoming audience but also a hardware that would leverage the title’s core features. Sadly, the sales numbers of the Nintendo Wii entry still failed to do the game any sort of justice; fortunately, though, they made Capcom feel confident enough in the software’s performance to fund a handheld sequel to the game. And so, Okamiden was born.
In Okami’s central plot piece, the main character – Amaterasu, the sun Goddess – returned to earth not only to defeat the demons that had suddenly spread distress and darkness throughout the land, but also to regain her former power, which had vanished as people’s faith in the gods had diminished over time. Any parallel between that script and the story of a game that had to garner a big enough group of followers in order to keep on going as an amazing action-adventure franchise is certainly unintentional, yet poetically delightful.
Okamiden starts exactly nine months after Okami’s blissful conclusion. Amaterasu defeated the mighty Yami, supposedly ridding the land of Nippon of all of its demons. For achieving her goal and regaining people’s faith, she had her power restored and was able to return to the Celestial Plain, from which she looked after the world below. However, as Okamiden begins, demons mysteriously make their way back to curse the landscapes of Nippon and its gentle citizens alike. Sakuya – one of the continent’s guardian spirits – notices trouble rising and calls upon Amaterasu to save Nippon once again. However, her pleas are, instead, answered by Chibiterasu, Amaterasu’s son, who comes clueless into Nippon and stumbles upon the Celestial Envoy, and Amaterasu’s former traveling companion, Issun. After showing the little puppy the basics and having fond memories of Amaterasu awake in his heart, Issun tells Chibiterasu he should find a partner to help him in his quest; it is then that the lonely wolf departs towards adventure.
One of Okami’s greatest qualities was its strong writing, which backed up all of its fantastic characters and the many plots that surrounded them. Unsurprisingly, then, Okamiden manages to keep the ball rolling in that regard. Aside from the intriguing scenarios, occurrences, and dialogues that appear as Chibiterasu dives into the demoniac problems of Nippon, Okamiden deftly takes advantage of the young wolf’s search for a partner in his journey and uses it as a trampoline for astonishing character development.
As the game goes by, Chibiterasu will come into contact with five children who will eventually, at distinct points in the adventure, mount on his back and aid in his quest. Each one of those partners will have stories, troubles, and motivations of their own, which means that Okamiden has a very strong set of main characters that will – along with Amaterasu’s son – learn a lot about themselves and mature right in front of players’ eyes as a result of the challenges they will undertake.
It is extremely hard not to develop strong connections to all these central playable characters, who will start as insecure kids and leave Chibiterasu as stronger humans that are aware of their responsibilities. Playing Okamiden is witnessing their development, and as they grow so does the game’s fantastic plot. It is extremely rare to find such quality writing in a game that focuses on adventure and exploration, but Okamiden does it to such a high degree that even the overall absence of Issun – and his humorous and naughty tone – is not felt. The great aura he lent to Okami is replaced by one of a more touching nature, which goes a long way towards defining Okamiden as a separate entity from its predecessor, even if – thankfully – the humor is certainly still there.
Okamiden follows the same basic structure of Okami, which is excellent considering how great and unique the latter was. Players will explore huge areas that have been torn apart by the demons and their curses, and try to restore them to their former beauty. The culmination of that exploration comes in the form of puzzle-filled dungeons or battles against mean bosses that have taken over one area and harmed its inhabitants. Many of the places present in Okami will be revisited, and while some of them will still look exactly the same, which is slightly disappointing; others will have changed with time due to natural disasters.
The fact that the Nippon explored in Okamiden is pretty much the same one that was visited in Okami is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the bright side, it is something that makes a whole lot of sense given both titles are just nine months apart; additionally, it brings a great sense of unity and connectivity between both games, as Chibiterasu will come across numerous characters that met his mother, be able to see how their lives have changed, and hear various references to her glorious adventures. On the negative side, however, going through the same scenarios once again can be a tad boring, and it reveals that developers spent more working hours towards successfully translating a huge world from the Wii to the DS (which is indeed a magnificent achievement) than aiming to create an entirely new region.
And therein lies Okamiden’s greatest strength and weakness: it is just way too close to its prequel for comfort. While in a way that is utterly fantastic, because an extra doses of the Okami gameplay is exactly what gamers who went through the original wanted; it is hard not to walk away from Okamiden feeling that developers could have done a little bit more to embed the game with its own character.
Not only is the world the same, but Chibi also has the exact abilities his mother possessed. He can slash enemies with his weapon of choice, and use the Celestial Brush – and its many powers – to bring them down or to solve puzzles on the environment around him. The brush techniques found in Okamiden are pretty much the same ones that players mastered in Okami. It is possible to make plants bloom, manipulate elements (such as water, fire, and thunder), restore broken artifacts, slash objects and foes, create bombs at will, and perform a few other nifty tricks. The difference, naturally, is that – on the Nintendo DS – these skills are activated by drawing with the stylus, which is far more effective and precise than the Wiimote, even if some symbols will occasionally not be recognized despite the fact they were drawn relatively well.
The really big change, gameplay-wise, that Okamiden features is that depending on the child that is accompanying Chibi at a certain moment in the game, the wolf will gain a new ability as a consequence of a special skill possessed by his partner. When the young Kagu is on his back, for example, Chibiterasu will be able to see objects that are invisible to most. This characteristic allows for every segment of the game to be considerably distinct from the others, as the design of the dungeons will be inspired by the abilities of the partner Chibi will be carrying at that point in the game. That way, the over twenty hours of Okamiden always bring something very fresh with them, and while the game copies its predecessor a little bit too much, it never really repeats itself.
Another ability that comes with the addition of partners is that it is possible to control Chibi and the kids separately. All players have to do is press the X-button, and the child will get out of the wolf’s back. With such a move, it is possible to guide the children so they can use their skills to reach places that Chibi cannot. However, despite being a very unique characteristic to Okamiden and the source of very clever riddles that could not have been done in Okami, having to control both characters to get through a simple puzzle sometimes breaks the pace of the game, especially because the children are quite vulnerable when they are by themselves.
The game’s pace is also harmed by some forced battles against minor enemies that players will find along the way. Battles were never the most exciting aspect of Okami, as they are basically hack and slash affairs that occur in the midst of very compelling exploration. Therefore it was always a good thing that it was simple to avoid battles against regular enemies in the original. Okamiden, though, will often throw mandatory battles at players, especially inside dungeons, which is quite disappointing.
By being in a system that is not as powerful as the Playstation 2 or the Nintendo Wii, most would expect Okamiden to suffer due to being unable to reproduce the artistic goodness and visual candy of Okami. However, Capcom achieved quite a bit with the title, because Okamiden genuinely feels like Okami in a handheld, and there is not a single moment in the game where one could possibly think that visuals or characters could have been done better. The game still looks like a moving watercolor painting and its scenarios are absolutely gorgeous, even though they are broken down into smaller zones with short loading times in between them. Okamiden is huge, there is a lot to do, discover and explore, and in those categories it is not matched by any other game available for the Nintendo DS.
Okamiden, then, is a very good game that both lives and dies by its heavy inspiration on its predecessor. On one side, flying so close to the sun yields very positive results, for it is an epic adventure filled with cultural and artistic references to Japanese folklore, astounding boss battles that are almost way too big to fit in a portable console, amazing abilities that are used to construct inspired puzzles and dungeons, breathtaking scenarios, abundant sidequests, and remarkable songs. However, on the other side, when it comes to being original, it really does not do much aside from he partnership system and the character development style that stems from it. Nonetheless, Okamiden is one of the best titles in a system that is widely know for its strong library and certainly one of the grandest adventures to ever be put inside a Nintendo handheld. It is a precious gift to a world that, for a little while there, ran the risk of never again playing a new Okami game. We should all be thankful Amaterasu blessed us with yet another journey into the world of Nippon.