Okami Retrospective

A Slow Opening

Okami is a strange game. It was one of the final two games to be released by Clover, the celebrated Capcom studio behind classics like Viewtiful Joe and Godhand. Actually, those are all the games that Clover ever made; they were always a niche taste, and when Capcom finally pulled the plug many of the developers moved on to Platinum, where they continue to make similarly high-quality and overlooked niche titles. But I’m getting away from my point, which is that in 2006 Capcom published a beautiful, Zelda-inspired adventure in the twilight days of the PlayStation 2, one in which you played a wolf who is also a god and who manipulates the world through a divine paintbrush, because everything looks like a Japanese painting. It is a lengthy tale brimming with charming characters, humor, an engaging combat system, and a beautiful soundtrack.

Nobody played it.

But fortunately, Capcom, for whatever reason, has continued to release Okami in various ports, first on Wii, then on PlayStation 3, and now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC (with, presumably, a Switch version to come at some point in the future now that Nintendo’s gamble has paid off). I don’t know if Okami has finally found its audience, and I don’t know if Capcom really understands or cares that the game is excellent, but I’m happy to have it available. It is one of my favorite games, perhaps my top favorite, and I hope to explain why.

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Tell Me a Story

Okami is very clearly inspired by The Legend of Zelda. A silent protagonist journeys through a somewhat rural, medieval land, fighting evil and accruing new abilities to progress, sometimes journeying into elaborate, self-contained environments to solve puzzles and defeat a boss. Okami is not as difficult as Zelda–indeed, it is perhaps a bit too easy–and its dungeons never approach the levels of complexity or craftiness of even the more mediocre Zelda titles (at least pre-Breath of the Wild). It is more beautiful than Wind Waker, it does more with the idea of a wolf protagonist than Twilight Princess, and it has more elaborate combat than any of them. But what I return to as the distinguishing element of Okami when comparing it to its inspiration, the one that truly sets it apart and elevates it, is the story structure.

Okami is a long game. I would estimate that a relatively thorough playthrough will take around 40 hours. And where the Zelda titles that have those lengths have a tendency to feel stretched out, marking time until they open up the next dungeon, Okami packs in one subplot after another. The game opens with the resurrection of Amaterasu, our lupine protagonist, who has been dead for 100 years after being injured fighting the dreaded eight-headed dragon Orochi. Orochi is revived after the sacred sword that imprisoned his spirit is removed, and a local tree spirit awakens Amaterasu to come to Nippon’s aid.

In Zelda, Orochi would be the final boss of the adventure. In Okami, Orochi is defeated about 10 hours into the game. This arc is complete with its own characters–who largely don’t participate in subsequent events–and subplots, and once Orochi is felled the narrative shifts to an entirely new plot. Okami is like almost no other game I’ve ever played in that it is essentially its own sequel. Sequels, I suppose, since I would say there are three distinct narratives followed by a sort of epilogue that ties everything together.

This is a bold move, and not one that everyone appreciates. But it adds a grand feel to the game that few others can match. This isn’t simply a one-and-done quest, but a lengthy series of adventures that recalls literary epics. This is The Odyssey. This is Journey to the West. It is massive in scope.

The Writing on the Wall

Of course, an ambitious structure is worthless without decent writing to back it up. Fortunately, the writing is quite good and the localization excellent. Every character has a clear and distinct personality, from wannabe-loser hero Susano to the ambiguously French Waka, which is vital given how many of them there are. Furthermore, each story in the game is presented clearly and comprehensibly, often with humor, flowing easily from one adventure to the next. It’s astonishing considering that the credited writer is Hideki Kamiya, best known for fast-paced and thuddingly stupid action games like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta. Would you be surprised to learn that the end of Okami makes me tear up a little in how well it encapsulates the whole experience? I was. And I wish we’d get more writing like this from Kamiya.

A Little Bug

Speaking of Kamiya, I’ve heard before that he essentially is Issun, a character we need to talk about. Issun is a ponkle, which is apparently a Japanese fairy being. They’re pretty much like European fairies: they are tiny, live in forests, and have vague magical qualities.

They are also mischievous, although Issun might be described these days as “problematic.” He is Okami’s equivalent of Navi, a helper character who provides someone to guide the silent protagonist and lead the player along where necessary. Unlike Navi, he has no real gameplay mechanics attached (remember, Navi was originally created to help players grasp Z-targeting), and also unlike Navi he has a ton of personality. He talks. Constantly. A lot of people find him unbearable. He’s kind of a lazy jerk who is along for the ride just to learn the Celestial Brush techniques (more on them later), and he’s greedy, quick to take offense, and also kind of a creep, introduced sleeping in the breasts of a forest spirit. His perviness is played for laughs and is part and parcel of his redemptive arc; he’s Amaterasu’s partner, and by the end of the game he overcomes his general shittiness and becomes a better person because of it. But it’s easy to see how someone might not find this forgivable. I like Issun, but I understand why others don’t like his behavior and/or (intentionally) annoying chatter.

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What Issun looks like when you’re not so much bigger than him that he’s just a bouncing green dot.

Happy Little Trees

Another distinguishing element of Okami is its art style. Rather than aiming for a realistic style, or even something like cel shading, Okami emulates traditional Japanese paintings. It is gorgeous, and has proven to scale beautifully all the way up to 4k resolutions. But the best thing about it is how it inspired Clover to take a novel approach to Zelda-style gadgets.

Zelda famously has gadgets. Bombs, the hookshot, the fire rod, and many more, some more fun and/or useful than others. Okami simply has the Celestial Brush. At the press of a button, the player can switch to a parchment overlay and, using a limited ink supply, draw symbols directly onto the game world. Each symbol has a different effect, from summoning wind to calling down lightning to making trees sprout up from the ground. These symbols–the Celestial Brush Techniques–are organic, and don’t need to be assigned to a button as in Zelda. They are, in practice, somewhat like the gesture-based magic systems of games like Black and White and Arx Fatalis, and they serve a wide variety of uses throughout the game, both in and out of combat.

Thunder Ear

Much has been said about Okami’s art, but its music is uniformly excellent as well. It has a huge soundtrack, encompassing character themes, battle themes, area themes, and more. I don’t know enough about music history (or music in general, frankly) to know how well it evokes traditional Japanese musical composition, which is clearly one of its goals, but I do know that tracks are catchy and well-deployed. My favorite is Great Divine Inspiration, which plays after restoring Guardian Saplings.

Choose Your Weapon

Okami’s combat is an oft-neglected part of the game. Enemies appear in the world as floating banners, with their color indicating the relative strength of the opponents that will be spawned. Upon contact with them, they spread out to create an arena, and Amaterasu must fight them here. It’s an odd combination of JRPG-style random encounters and more traditional action-adventure combat, but it works well, as the game uses the confined space to force quick and decisive action. The player is rewarded for both avoiding damage and defeating enemies quickly, and though the game is relatively easy the sheer number of options available makes the combat quite engaging.

Amaterasu has access to three different weapon categories that can be equipped to either a primary or secondary slot. How they function in combat depends on which slot they belong in; for instance, mirrors are bashing devices in the primary slot and shields in the secondary slot. Combos can be strung together, new moves purchased from dojos, and Celestial Brush Techniques deployed at any moment (everything freezes when using the Celestial Brush, which opens up some wild opportunities for combining attacks). Enemies are very diverse and have a range of vulnerabilities, such as flying fish zombies whose wings can be slashed off or demonic cranes who can be made vulnerable by using wind to blast away their umbrellas. And in the moment before death, using the proper Celestial Brush Technique on a defeated enemy will reward savvy players with Demon Fangs that can be traded for special items that can make life easier, such as fast-regenerating ink or the ability to run on water.

Like a Kirby game, then, combat in Okami is less about overcoming a challenge and more about proving your worth. It’s fast and increasingly flashy, as a growing pool of divine powers opens up ever more ways to assault the demons who plague Nippon. Where most games are at their best when the player is low-power and has to work hard to achieve victory, Okami is at its best when the player has many tools at their disposal and blitzes through combat in seconds by treating each combination of enemies as a puzzle to be solved through the application of divine wrath.

Victory Howl

There isn’t really another game like Okami. Not even its sequel, Okamiden, really captures the magic (and it’s not helped by the fact that it directly lifts most of Okami’s areas and squeezes them down to run on a DS, making the whole thing feel like a hollow tracing of the original work). It’s sprawling, beautiful, and loads of fun. And it’s good that all these years later it’s still easily available and ready to charm more people.

Doodles in the Margins

  • I didn’t want to make a long post even longer, but there is some interesting thematic work going on with the game’s villains. This is especially noticeable during the Sei-An City arc with Blight and Ninetails, who are dark reflections of Issun and Amaterasu, respectively.
  • I mentioned that the game was easy, but it also includes tons of consumable items and underutilized gameplay systems (like the Astral Pouch) to make it even easier. I’d love to know why this game, nearly alone among Kamiya’s oeuvre, is so easy.
  • I avoided mentioning it specifically, but this game does have a slow opening, and no, I don’t really think that’s an excuse for not playing it. Compare it to a typical Final Fantasy, Persona, or even a few Zeldas and I’d say that the opening hour of Okami gets you further into the meat of the experience than many similar-length games.
  • Speaking of comparisons to Zelda, Okami is definitely a game in the same vein, with lots of overt parallels. The dungeons are probably where it diverges the most, as they are nearly invisible, being far less discretely separated from the rest of the game world and far more integrated with the plot.