Okami is a game that has sort of just…stood there in time. It’s a game, much like Capcom’s classic Resident Evil 4, that has been re-released countless times on countless systems and – let’s be honest here – will probably get ports to upcoming systems due to the game’s visual style being perfect for higher resolutions.
I was interested in the game at launch because hey, Japanese folklore mixed with the Zelda formula! And a cool brushstroke mechanic!
Yet I just never got to playing it. I had Okami HD on PS3, likely as a free game given on Sony’s PS+ paid service. I also now own it on PC and, for the purposes of this review, the Nintendo Switch version.
So let’s get started!
Okami: Released April 20, 2006 on the PlayStation2, released on Wii on April 15, 2008.
Okami HD: Released on PS3 (10/2012), PC, PS4 and Xbox One (12/2017) and Nintendo Switch (8/2018).
Originally developed by Clover Studio, published by Capcom.
Okami was originally released in 2006 to very high praise. The game unfortunately, like many projects developed by Clover Studio, suffered from poor sales, just one of many reasons why Clover was shut down months after the game’s original release.
And truthfully, I can somewhat understand the poor sales. Okami is a love letter to Japanese mythology and folklore, a love letter oftentimes too full of itself. This game is VERY Japanese, one could say sometimes to its determent. There was always going to be a loyal audience that ate this type of experience up, but I could also see many players looking at this and wanting to run far, far away.
The game begins with several minutes of narrative concerning the legend of the white wolf Shiranui, who alongside the legendary swordsman Nagi sealed the evil eight-headed demon Orochi one hundred years ago. Orochi is later revived in the present time and with that, Amaterasu, the sun goddess now taking the form of Shiranui, is summoned in hopes of restoring Nippon to its original state.
Okami’s art style is easily its most identifiable feature, and it absolutely shines at higher resolutions. It is inspired by the Ukiyo-e style, a Japanese watercolor/wood carving method. There are many out there who could describe this far better than I could, but simply put, this game is gorgeous. The animation is fluid and everything just pops. Characters are easily identifiable and unique through their mannerisms. One quibble, and I’m unsure if this is a design decision or limitations working with an older title, is that the draw distance is pretty short. It is very jarring for characters and/or enemies to just pop up from several feet away, which somewhat breaks the illusion of a seamless overworld.
The world of Nippon could tell a story with Okami’s art style alone. And outside of the clear references to Japanese Shinto historical and mythological figures, the game’s plot is otherwise pretty straightforward.
And there lies a major problem, or strength depending on who you ask, with this game.
Okami loves to talk. It loves to hear itself talk. It will go on and on about itself, describing in great detail simple concepts. The game loves exposition dumps. It also commits a cardinal sin similar to other Japanese media in explaining something multiple times in a matter of minutes. Cutscenes are not skippable during a first playthrough, and the cutscenes will either fascinate or absolutely drive you mad depending on how much you like the game’s characters.
And I imagine the game’s characters are very divisive. The biggest debate is likely Issun, Amaterasu’s tiny artist sidekick. His character is rude, impatient and most upsetting, outright sexist to every major female character in the game. His very first scene is managing to fall inside a female character’s skirt and cheekily being happy about this. One female character is essentially described by him as having a very large chest and not much else. There’s endless flirting, endless double entendres and little blowback directed at him.
There are many other characters that come and go as you explore Nippon. Some of them are memorable, but most of them just silly and often tryhard wacky. You either like the bumbling lazy idiot Susano or you don’t, I suppose. Many of the characters just appear to be yet another chatterbox in an already cutscene-heavy game.
As noted above, Okami is clearly indebted to the Legend of Zelda series, something that the game’s director, Hideki Kamiya, has never hidden as an influence. All the tentpoles/tropes are here – the large overworld, the themed dungeons, the many powerups (in this case, taking the form of new brushstrokes that grant specific abilities) and boss fights requiring mastery of those new powers.
And at its best, the game’s world is its ultimate strength. There’s a quiet joy in improving Amaterasu’s influence throughout the world, no matter if it’s as simple as feeding animals throughout the world or as dramatic as cleansing evil in an area resulting in a beautiful blossoming of flowers and trees within that area. Improving the world and giving reason for its inhabitants to believe in you grants you karma, which can be exchanged to upgrade Amaterasu’s stats.
Yet none of the gameplay gels together quite as well as a great Zelda game. The game’s combat is not seamless, as each encounter locks you up in a walled arena. The brushstroke mechanic, while clever in that actively drawing symbols makes you feel more invested in combat, is not perfect and often feels like work with some enemies. The dungeons range from being just sort of there to being irritating, including a water dungeon clearly designed as a challenge to see which major developer could make the worst one. The boss encounters are either very simple, frustrating and/or incredibly obtuse – no help given from the brushstroke system being sometimes too fussy for its own good.
Finally, as you might have heard from previous discussions of this game, the narrative ends at least twice, but the show must go on. The game could have ended the first time and we’d be discussing a perfectly solid video game that could have been a bit longer. The game could have ended the second time and we’d say mostly the same thing, but it could have been trimmed a little.
But the game keeps going. And keeps talking. I actually put the game down for a month or two because I just needed a break. And when I came back, the final portion of the game was just a completely unnecessary boss rush featuring lots and lots and lots of exposition, and concluding with an overlong final encounter.
Okami is a beautiful love letter to nature. There is true heart and soul applied throughout – the game is very much a personal statement from its developers. But ultimately, that personal touch needed a third party to reign in its many, many overindulgences. There’s a much better, tighter game enclosed inside this lovely mess, and I certainly do hope those responsible get to one day make that experience.