Friday, June 26, 2009

REVIEW - Ōkami

There are three types of gamers. Those who love Ōkami,
those who hate it, and those who haven't tried it.

Let's get this out of the way: I love Ōkami. Since its release in 2006, I find myself returning to it two or three times a year for thirty hours of light-hearted relaxation and simple, old-school adventure. The majority of my gaming diet consists of very messy, high-action mature-rated pursuits that would make a mother cringe in disgust and demand to know why anyone would subject themselves to such horrors, but after feasting on the darkest reaches of human suffering, Ōkami is the comfort food I always return to. It is a mental palette cleanser. It is chicken soup for my gamer's soul.

When it comes to graphics on the current generation, the greatest lack is not one of real-world fidelity - it's the result of that ambition. The pursuit of realistic characters and environments often seems to be at the wheel, while artistic vision and creativity sit in the back seat, muttering about the good old days. There are exceptions, of course. Prince of Persia successfully met its objective as a "living painting", but even then its gorgeous but sparse worlds lacked the lively, vital spark that Ōkami tamed and set loose. Prince of Persia attempts to show a wave of life sweeping over a previously dead landscape as Elika heals a fertile ground, but this current-gen interpretation has nothing on the spectacle of Ōkami's last-gen explosions of life.

We all know it's gorgeous, but beyond that obvious praise the art design is a smart choice. If you're going to create a game based on the central myths of the Shinto religion, interwoven with Japanese folk tales, why not reference the art style those stories were told in? And so, with great dramatic strokes and muted colors, Ōkami adopts the form of its inspiration's original media and allows it to inform its design. Even your weapons (a shield, a rosary and a sword) are mindful of this history, representing the Imperial Regalia of Japan.

So it throws in the Celestial Brush, your tool for performing miracles. The three-dimensional game requires you to always consider it as a flat panel, for at any moment you can pause the proceedings and paint across the view with your brush. Dead trees blaze to life in a torrent of cherry blossoms by drawing a simple loop, neon-bright fireworks blow open a blocked path by adding a straight stroke to the circle - a bomb - and time is slowed to a crawl by simply drawing the pause symbol.

It's an elegant solution to the old problem of always having to dig around in your inventory to select a bomb or arrow or the right magic wand for the job at hand - every skill is always at your disposal.

Perhaps it's my position as a North American who's pretty unaware of Shinto that allows me to happily enjoy the stories of Ōkami. It's a welcome change to play an adventure title without having to inhabit a preteen elf-child with a hidden power or the last descendant of an ancient line of heroes, and instead be addressed as "origin of all that is good and mother to us all." You are Amaterasu, the goddess of the Sun - flowers bloom behind you as you move - and for an extra pinch of cool, you've taken the form of a white wolf (an animal not native to Japan). But Amaterasu is the central deity of Shinto - so this is essentially like playing a game called "God" where you take control of Jesus as he wanders Galilee and tries to spread the Word, healing the blind as you go and occasionally meeting characters from Grimm's Fairy Tales. As neat as that sounds, I'm not sure it would fly - so my lack of familiarity with the religious subject matter serves me well.

Regardless of your spiritual leanings, Ōkami makes no bones about who your character is or what she's here to do. There are no karmic choices, there is no moral grey area - you are good. More than that, you are goodness personified, and every action you take is about life and love and hope. Every tree you heal or person you help or monkey you toss some food to will reward you with a modicum of praise, which can then be spent on upgrading your health bar or ink supply. It may sound like the game is forcing you to be so very divine, but even with my maxed-out character I still find myself just wandering around healing things and helping folks.

I don't feed the rabbits because I need more health, I don't clean up a patch of cursed grass for the reward - I do it because that's what one does in Ōkami. Amaterasu does not leave a place until it is awash with life, she's just so good.

Before getting to the game's arguable shortcomings, I have to mention the music. Occasionally overlooked by some titles (Killzone 2, for example, would have benefited immeasurably from a score on par with God of War or Halo), Ōkami's soundtrack exceeds all expectations. Every character, every area, every feeling the game wishes to inspire are masterfully rendered with traditional Japanese instruments. Until you make an effort to notice it, the music sits contentedly in the background and informs the emotions of a scene or the grandeur of a location. But when you finally take off the blinders and start paying attention to the soundtrack, you realize that the single most impressive thing about Ōkami isn't the animation that expresses character so well, it's not the charming, gigantic story or even the much-touted art direction. The music is astonishing.

I say "arguable" shortcomings because, honestly, I think there are very reasonable explanations for them. Ōkami will not challenge you - not in the least - unless Hooked on Phonics has proven an impasse. There is a metric ton of text to wade through, and every twist and turn of the narrative comes with an exhaustive, hand-holding explanation that could have been paraphrased with a single line. If the first half-hour doesn't have you walking away in disgust at the copious content, however, you'll find it never gets that bad again.

Puzzles are few and far between, and (one aside - damn you, Blockhead!) you'll likely never swallow your pride and search for a solution online. The combat, as well, may be an example of the game's flashy style with bursting "floral finishers", but a challenge it is not.

Despite its T-for-Teen rating (thanks mostly to the lascivious leanings of your loud-mouthed, pint-sized guide Issun) it's a bright, lighthearted game aimed squarely at the E-for-Everyone crowd, and so it succeeds in addressing its target audience. For folks like us, who exceed the legal drinking age and expect games to slap us around a bit until we get the hang of things, Ōkami offers no resistance. And so, Ōkami's faults are only faults from our aged perspective.

I suppose one could also argue that it cribs design philosophy from The Legend of Zelda a bit too freely. You'll often discover inaccessible areas you won't be able to explore until you return with a new Brush power (the sting of backtracking is soothed by the beautiful scenery, and an early warp ability), and you'll think you may have defeated the game after ten hours, only to discover you've successfully completed Act One.

After two and a half years with Ōkami on my shelf, though, I find I still adore the title. With six or seven playthroughs under my belt, I still find myself welling up at the end, I still find myself exulting at the hugely imaginative locations, at the endearing cast, at the sheer size of the game. There's so much heart in it, so much loving attention, so much life. It captures everything I want in an adventure title, and offers touches I never would have thought to request.

Video games can be regarded as a meditation on the subject matter. You are what you think, and more often than not, games require you to think on violence or evil or darkness for a few hours. Ōkami, in contrast, is unabashedly optimistic, and it's a welcome refreshment to sit down and think on goodness, for goodness' sake.

It may not be perfect - no game is - but it comes as close as any great title has ever managed. Ōkami is a masterpiece.

-incredible music
-gigantic scale

-one of the most beautiful games ever
-a uniquely positive mood
-smart, easy use of your powers
-sorta' like Zelda, only not

-sorta' like Zelda, only not
-very easy
-tons of text



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This review is one of my personal favorites you've written.
    I share the same feelings of love towards Ōkami which is why I'll re-read this review every once in a while to bring back fond memories of such I lovely game. I'm surprised there aren't more comments.

  3. Thanks! ^.^ I've always been very fond of this one (and the Siren review) - it's technically one of the first ones I did. After I'd stopped writing for years, I found myself on the Penny Arcade forums discussing the game in detail and it was like "oh my God, I'm writing again!"

    Eventually I gathered all my thoughts on the game into this review - but it was actually writing about Okami that put me on the road to this blog.