Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Okami HD


Okami HD
In this HD rerelease Okami shows its mechanics and charm can stand the (admittedly short) test of time. The graphics have been upgraded from gorgeous to stunning and the PS3 version supports motion controls (for the minuscule portion of the population that own a Move), making the choice between this and the Wii version simple for those who own a Move, but a matter of 'better graphics' versus 'slightly more immersive controls' for those that don't.

If anyone remembers Okami -- it's not been so long that it should've been forgotten, but it didn't sell so well as to be carved immutably into our collective memory -- they probably remember a pretty okay Zelda clone starring a dog (who happens to be the Mother of All Creation, Amaterasu) that was a dozen-or-so hours longer than it needed to be. They probably remember an above average combat system, with fights paced in a thrilling start-and-stop manner, enemies stunned by square and triangle techniques before they are destroyed by a slash or bomb summoned by magical brushstroke. They probably remember a lot of bobbleheaded characters representing the best and brightest in Japanese folklore.

Most of all they probably remember that it is gorgeous. Its sumi-e style is crisp and clean, with brilliant colors and bold black lines, and playful ink-swooshes that represent distant mountains, and imperial flags blazing in the sky whenever the sun is drawn, and happy little sparrows pecking at the ground, and wide open fields that roll in green hills for as far as the eye can see. Okami is beautiful regardless of platform, and this is not its first rerelease, but in widescreen and high definition every inch of it is beyond compare. Seeing it like this we are reminded that no one has done it better -- though El Shaddai had an impressive outing in similar modes -- even though they've had six years to try. Watching it now it's easy to forget that we played this game half a decade ago on standard definition TVs, because our memory has filled in the gaps and told us "yes, certainly, it has always looked this good."

To be fair its cel-shaded style is better suited to a graphical upgrade than more traditional polygonal games, like Shadow of the Colossus and Metal Gear Solid, where smoother corners on character's faces can only do so much. But graphical fidelity only goes so far, as the unexcitingly murky browns of Call of Duty and the mishmash kitchen-sink approach of Final Fantasy XIII show. Instead of relying on processing power, Okami's true visual successes are due to its ceaselessly clever design aesthetic and its insane level of detail. Everything in the world feels like it was carefully and purposefully crafted. One of Amaterasu's weapons of divine power, worn on her back as she dashes about the world, is an elaborate stone dial that perpetually shatters into and reforms itself from nearly dozen individually hovering pieces. Another, a mid-game sword, brandishes a constantly scrolling elevator-line of spiked fronds. This is not what videogames look have ever looked like, before or since.

It's interesting then that Okami is not very bold, or brash, or even very presumptuous. For a game whose main character is not only -a- god, but Shinto's -the- god (insofar as such a thing exists), it is frequently, remarkably, low key. Amaterasu maintains a loveable "dumb dog" persona of falling asleep at inopportune times, of being hoodwinked into helping the most obvious bad guys, and of eating almost everything in sight. It is silly, and stupid, and charming, and it is completely at odds with the wolf-badass we see of her during combat, where she wields teeth and claws and telekinetic swords and firestorms and rosaries that blast like shotguns at distant foes. And this contrasts even further with the Amaterasu who sits stoically while fed-animals bask in her regal bearing or the one who can accurately be called awesome, in the way that nobody uses the word 'awesome' anymore, as a trail of flora sprouts constantly in her wake while she sprints effortlessly through infinite fields of green.

There are many Amaterasus on display here and we are comfortable with all of them because everything -- from her languid yawns to her ferocious growls -- is depicted in such detail that we come to appreciate her character, despite the fact that she has not a single line of spoken dialogue and no apparent motive. Indeed, it often seems like Amaterasu couldn't care less about saving the world, she's just kind of going along with what everyone else is doing. But she is majestic and she is strong, and her actions are beautiful and they are brave. And what more could anyone possibly want from a protagonist than someone who is impressively powerful, yet constantly and selflessly steps into the background so mortals can take all the credit? That feeling of limitless power, transferred to us when we use the Celestial Brush to slash boulders in half, or electrocute an enemy by drawing a line of lightning from a storm cloud to his sword, or make the moon rise at night, is mitigated by the gentle humility of making a little girl's dreams come to life by drawing her fashion designs on a kimono-maker's clothing.

It's a game with a lot of beauty and a lot of heart. In 2006, when Okami was released, one the most popular videogames on the PlayStation 2, God of War, was popular because it let you to impale a hydra's eyeball on the broken mast of a sinking ship. Now, the most popular videogames feature badasses named "Marcus Fenix" and "Ghost" wearing balaclavas and bandanas and ski masks with skulls on them and blowing up stuff while shouting "Tango Down!" and "Danger Close!" Everyone in these games is very serious, if not angst-riddled, about "getting the job done" and the context around them is very "extreme!" By comparison, lots of Okami is pretty slow. Lots of Okami involves digging up hidden flowers, or revitalizing a copse of withered trees, or feeding a pack of wild boars. By comparison, Amaterasu dog-yawns through, or outright falls asleep during, most of the important plot points. By comparison you defeat the big bad guy by getting him drunk.

But... it's a little on the long side, and its pacing is uneven, and a third of the way through it feels like you're charging up to the last boss, ready to end the whole thing. Afterwards, when you beat him, it's revealed there's two more vast areas to explore, including the imperial capital. Hearing that, a hair's breadth of the excitement is muted by this confounded feeling of "but... what? didn't I just save the world?" Fighting the supposed last boss a first time, then a second time, then a third time kind of dulls the majesty of it. Only "kind of," but a little all the same. Moments that should blow you away, like when a mid-game boss produces her own divine brush techniques to interfere with yours, aren't soured per se, but they do feel a bit mulled over by time.

You've lived a pretty charmed life if Okami is the "worst" thing you've ever made. So it is for Hideki Kamiya, whose other games (Devil May Cry, Resident Evil 2, Bayonetta, and Viewtiful Joe) could comprise their own best-of list for the past fifteen years. So maybe it's unfair to consider Okami to be lackluster when we are doing so mostly by comparison. Okami's only significant problem is that it's a pretty excellent game at fifteen hours but at forty hours it lags a bit. It drops you in a bit too much combat. It gives you a bit too much dialogue to page through. It's a game that could've used a few more careful touches from an editor, but then, few people have ever complained about getting too much of something great. And still, even forty hours in, when your single brush stroke sprouts new life on a whole row of cherry trees it's hard to imagine anything more satisfying.

Overall : A
Graphics : A+
Sound/Music : A
Gameplay : A-
Presentation : A

+ Phenomenally beautiful, surprisingly complex combat system
Pacing lags a bit between epic encounters,

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