I like East Asian culture and artsy video games, and I collect PlayStation 2 titles. That’s why it’s a small wonder that back in 2006 I never got around picking up Ōkami, a renowned action-adventure by the now defunct Clover Studio (later emerging as PlatinumGames). In my defense, not that many people bought Ōkami anyway as it bombed commercially. However, the game’s critical success has ensured it a cult status, and it has been revived for newer console generations. With a fresh PS4 remaster (also out for Xbox One and PC), I’m in an excellent position to review the game from a clean slate without quivering in a sloppy nostalgia.
An old legend tells how a white wolf Shiranui aided a young warrior Nagi to defeat Orochi, an eight-headed serpent terrorizing Japan. A time of tranquility ensued for hundred years but the vanity of men led evil to rise again. Once lush and green meadows are turned into grey ghost lands and the evil spirits haunt people. The sun goddess Amaterasu takes the form of legendary white wolf, and aided with a snappy spirit Issun (just don’t call him a bug!), she embarks on a quest to free the country.
The first thing you’ll notice about Ōkami HD is its distinctive visual style. The heavily stylized cel-shading imagery imitates East Asian ink wash paintings known as sumi-e. Add to this woodcut-like and watercolor-style embellishments, and Ōkami turns into a living painting, breathing uncanny live in its every move. if you scrape off the unique visuals, underneath lies a very much Zelda-like 3rd person action-JRPG. The game is mostly linear, only allowing some freedom between quest areas. Nevertheless, you’ll be in for a long haul. In addition to the main story, there are lots of side quests and activities, most involving helping hapless people in their chores. By doing good deeds Amaterasu earns praise (you could call these followers in today’s social media!), which can be spent to increase her solar energy (health), astral pouch (a reviving resource), purse (money, doh!) and… a number of ink pots.
Ink pots? Here come’s the most substantial part of Ōkami’s gameplay, making the difference to typical Zelda tropes. Amaterasu wields a celestial brush to aid her in questing and battles. With a press of right shoulder button, she can turn the current scenery into a canvas, and daub brush strokes onto it with a flick of left thumbstick. Eventually there’ll be 13 divine brush techniques to learn, each essential in solving puzzles along Amaterasu’s journey. Most of them concentrate on reviving the land in different ways, like drawing a circle on a dead tree to make it blossom again.
Evil spirits roam the land Amaterasu and Issun traverse, and are often needed to deal with to restore the balance of nature. The fights are fast-paced and nimble, something Clover Studio’s successor PlatinumGames would be later known for. A fast melee combo in, and the stunned enemies can be cut in half with swift brush strokes. Later, brush techniques can be utilized in drawing various hazards for enemies, leveling the odds especially in the boss fights. It’s all rich and slick, making fights constantly fun and something to look forward to.
Having not played Ōkami before, I was under an impression that it’s a solemn art game. It’s breathtakingly beautiful to look at for sure - and listen to as well, with an excellent and diverse traditional Japanese soundtrack enlivening the adventure. I was most surprised, though, to find out how humorous the game is. It’s not content with wallowing in the fine art display of sights and sounds, but brings forward Japanese deities and mythology in an entertaining way. The epic premise and ethereal presentation are juxtaposed with an unexpectedly whimsical, sometimes even mischievous, attitude. The game never misses a chance to bring out cheeky character designs, goofy people or offbeat humor, but it gets away with it. That’s not to say the game isn’t without its serious side, as it promotes environmental values. If there ever was a game that could be called “green”, it’s Ōkami.
Many games resorting in art as their means of expression are often just that; art for art’s sake with a very little of game thrown in. In Ōkami, the chosen visual style is an integral part of the gameplay. The game presents almost flawless mastery of the form, from the presentation to the brush as the player’s essential tool. Everything works within and out, never rambling about but focused into the game’s celestial make-up. Today, Ōkami looks better than ever. You could say that it’s only now the amazing visuals shine in the way they were originally intended to. Everything is delightfully big and bold, enhanced in a crisp, vivid and smooth HD image.
By the vibrant looks and graceful gameplay, you’d never guess Ōkami HD is derived from an 11-year old game. Usually, the most common inconvenience with remasters are clumsy controls or wonky camera. Not here, as not a single thing about Ōkami is outdated. The ambitious creative design gives it away, though. No one really makes games like this anymore, taking wild risks while at it. The gamble didn’t pay off with the original release. Dissatisfied with the poor sales, Capcom decided to stall Clover Studio and merge it with in-house teams. The key personnel escaped the merger and went on to form PlatinumGames. As they say, the rest is history. Now that 2017 saw Japanese games taking back the respect they deserve, I hope Ōkami HD too will find its audience. After all these years after the original game’s release, I have no qualms in awarding Ōkami HD a perfect score. If only I had given it a chance back then… Don’t make the same mistake!
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.