I hope you’ve heard of Clover Studios. This little game company was responsible for some unique titles during the PS2’s lifespan; both the stylish sidescroller Viewtiful Joe and the beloved cult classic God Hand were part of their catalogue, but the one that always interested me the most was Okami. Both it and God Hand were released in 2006, the same year the company folded before becoming Platinum; as a swansong for the company Okami certainly received a lot of critical love though like most of their titles it sold poorly. Were the critics right to love it, and the punters wrong to reject it? Let’s find out.
Okami (Switch, PC, PS2, PS3, PS4, Wii, Xbox One [reviewed])
Released Apr 2006 | Developed: Clover | Published: Capcom
Genre: Action-Adventure | HLTB: 33 hours
Okami is a mishmash of Japanese folklore and mythology. 100 years ago, in the fantasy world of Nippon, the tiny Kamiki village was terrorised by the evil 8-headed serpent Orochi. Each year, the vicious beast would demand from the village a young maiden in sacrifice until one night a great warrior named Nagi challenged Orochi. Weakening the demon by feeding it divine sake, the two fought hard but even so the warrior was no match for Orochi’s fearsome power. Then, under the shining light of the full moon, the white wolf Shiranui appeared by Nagi’s side; unbeknownst to the swordsman, Shiranui was no ordinary wolf, but the great Sun god Amaterasu in disguise. Armed with control over the elements of the world, Shiranui wielded awesome power against Orochi and together the wolf and the warrior would defeat Orochi and seal it away. The toll of conquering Orochi was too much for Shiranui though and the wolf died, immortalised forever in a statue as a guardian spirit watching over sleepy little Kamiki village.
Our story starts a century later. Orochi’s seal breaks and the vicious serpent threatens Nippon once more, covering the land in endless darkness. Amaterasu reawakens in the world’s hour of need, and the white wolf walks the land once again. However, the century of slumber has drained her of her power; to fight Orochi she needs to travel the length of Nippon, recovering her magical powers over the elements and restore faith and light to the world.
Such is the setup for Okami. Amaterasu is aided in her adventure by Issun, a diminutive wandering artist with a motor mouth and a quest of his own. He acts as the voice for Amaterasu, given she’s a wolf and therefore not much inclined towards conversation, though that’s not to say she’s without character; an awful lot of effort went into crafting her personality. At times she is clearly a stately and wise god, eager to help those in need and you get the sense that she is playing more than a few steps ahead of Issun; often it feels like she is more than aware of the intentions of certain characters whereas our tiny artist is more impulsive and far quicker to judge. At other times though Amaterasu is literally just a dog; she likes to play, to run and jump; she digs up gardens, growls at people, and settles down for naps and pets. It gives an enjoyable duality to her character despite her never saying a word, and makes her so much more relatable than perhaps she might have been were she just an aloof, wordless, and benevolent deity.
The rest of the characters have a kind of strange, inhuman quality to them. I’m not saying they’re bad – it’s more that, though they all have distinct and clear voices, they do all have a vague sense that they’re talking as if part of a saga. So much of the dialogue is oddly formal or elaborate; it’s impossible to get through any dialogue without a word in praise of the spirits or somesuch – it kind of makes sense in context, I suppose, and especially so when you meet any other mythological entity, as all other gods give Amaterasu the same lengthy title whenever they talk.
Partly this is tied into the writing style in general. The very opening cutscene is related back to the player as if a storyteller or scholar were recounting a history or saga to an enraptured audience, and that feeling never really goes away throughout the entire game. I feel like it’s a make-or-break thing for some players; Okami has lengthy cutscenes that regurgitate information over and over, and the voice acting is an acquired taste. The entire thing could have done with more judicious editing, so if you aren’t prepared for or enjoy games that wallow in their narrative, then Okami might not be your cup of tea.
Okami might owe its story to Japanese mythology, but its gameplay is pure The Legend of Zelda. All the basics are here: you’ve got a world with large open areas to explore, towns filled with people in need of help, and dungeons hiding bosses to be defeated. Like your standard Zelda game, you make your way to dungeons, explore them until you unlock an ability that helps you make your way to the local boss monster, and then you beat the crap out of it. Rather than items though, Amaterasu and Issun gather techniques for the Celestial Brush. The Brush is one of the unique selling points of Okami, and it’s the way by which Amaterasu shapes the world and controls the elements. By drawing symbols Amaterasu can change the gameworld; for example, drawing a circle in the sky allows her to summon the sun and change night into day, or drawing a swirl across the screen makes a gust of wind blow wildly. It’s a magnificent idea, and one that is used to great effect; even better is that each power has uses in both exploration and in combat. For example, painting a dot on the floor might make a tree launch up from the ground when roaming Nippon but resourceful players can knock enemies out of the sky with the same power.
Regular combat is a little more traditional. Amaterasu can equip two Divine Instruments as weapons. Prayer beads function as light weapons that hit fast, glaives are slow and powerful, and mirrors sit between the two. Each also has a secondary type of attack available; beads let her shoot from range, glaives let Amaterasu pull off a charge attack, and mirrors can block. Combining different pairs of weapons allows players to switch about and find a strategy that suits their fighting style; aside from that, new moves and techniques can be learned to further widen Amaterasu’s abilities.
As I’m sure is obvious from the screenshots, Okami is a visual marvel. Cel-shading is used to unparalleled effect in making the whole game look like traditional japanese sumi-e ink wash paintings and woodcuts; because of it Okami is without a doubt one of the most striking and finest looking games I have ever played. Nothing else is even remotely like it visually and thanks to the stylised art it has aged beautifully – it looks just as gorgeous now as it did upon release. Even enemy encounters and the in-game bestiary and journals are all accompanied by scrolls with vivid hand-drawn art that emulates the genre most famous outside of Japan, ukiyo-e. That these paintings exist in-universe as a product of wandering artists like Issun is a lovely bonus, tying together world and narrative.
Just as the story draws on Japanese folkore and the visuals draw from traditional national art, the soundtrack, composed jointly by Masami Ueda, Hiroshi Yamaguchi, Rei Kondoh, and Akari Kaida, is steeped in native Japanese folk music. To try and talk about the soundtrack in its entirety is madness – it’s over 5 hours long – but I urge you to give it a listen as the effect is profound.
Drums and flutes are used to craft an aura of mystery and otherworldiness, often combining with jingling bells and some excellently layered reverb, as in Cave of Nagi, while the pizzicato strings of Lake Harami tease that same mysterious feeling. Few games I can think of have songs as peaceful as Eat This, which achieves that serenity even with a teasing mid-song modulation that pulls it out of key. The vocals in tracks like The Curse contribute a lot to an oppressive uneasiness, which is characteristic of these moments where the evil that has claimed Nippon threatens to overwhelm even Amaterasu. A use of natural sounds, like the howling wind ringing chimes, accompanied by softly ringing bowls is another favourite technique to create Ominous Feelings; other times it’s more hectic, as in Eek! Mr and Mrs Cutter!. Battle themes make astounding use of percussion, with the triplet drums of Exorcizing Evil forcing the pace of fights, though it’s that initial vocal shout that sets my blood rushing. The same thing happens with Waka’s Promenade, which mixes in character motif brilliantly, a standard technique throughout the soundtrack.
While it’s a game I love, it’s not a perfect experience. It has some serious issues with pacing and repetition (one particular event happens 3 times! Why?!) and the game constantly reiterates whatever it says, whether it’s plot elements, general fluff, or, annoyingly, tutorials. This is combined with the already mentioned wordiness, and it can definitely tire a player out. The pacing is a particuarly egregious issue; Okami definitely suffers from The Lord of the Rings-syndrome, where the ending keeps threatening to draw closer before the game pulls out yet another major area to explore.
The Celestial Brush is undoubtedly a lovely idea and it is implemented well, but it’s perhaps unsurprising that the game occasionally has some difficulty in understanding what symbol you’ve drawn; sometimes it snaps to something you didn’t intend, which is a bugger when you accidentally use up your ink using a power you didn’t want. Any grumbling about Okami would also be remiss to not mention the minigames. While it’s not riddled with distractions, it does have a couple of recurring and piss-boilingly annoying minigames, not least of which is a digging one. It’s no deal-breaker but between the monumental cutscenes and minigames the game seems to spend an awful lot of time trying to stop you simply enjoying its solidly fun core gameplay.
With all that, it is important not to forget this: Okami is a work of art. Its flaws as a game are clear but mostly minor; the real test is how much fun it is to play and in that it excels. That Okami flopped commercially is criminal, and while its status is a bit more favourable now it still seems to forever be one of those games “oh I’ll play it some day” games. In my opinion, you really ought not to wait.
6/7 – EXCELLENT. Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.