Platform: PlayStation 2
Developer: Clover Studio
Review Date: 1/11/09
When I initially read that "Okami" had 100+ hours of gameplay, I was immediately turned off. When would I ever have that much time to play a game? Fortunately, a series of snowstorms left Seattle paralyzed for over a week, leaving me stranded at home with my PlayStation. Thankfully, unlike other storms in the past, the power never went out so I was able to curl up in a big blanket and completely immerse myself in what the game had to offer. It took me about 55 hours to complete the main story arc, but I could easily see spending another 20-30 hours on side quests and collecting things that I missed the first time through.
The story begins when the dreaded demon Orochi awakens from his 100 year sleep and wreaks havoc on Kamiki village. Legends say the demon had originally been defeated and sealed away by a great warrior named Nagi and a wolf god named Shiranui. To combat this new threat, a new wolf god shows up named Okami Amaterasu, but she lacks her predecessor's power because the peoples' faith in the gods has waned. With an annoying sprite companion named Issun tagging along, Amaterasu must reclaim the thirteen celestial brush strokes, renew the peoples' faith, and drive evil out of the land. And thus begins an epic journey across various magical landscapes, making new friends and facing increasingly difficult obstacles.
The first thing you notice when you start playing "Okami" is the extremely irritating voiceover. All of the characters in the game speak in this bizarre dialect, so you'd better get used to it or learn how to tune it out because there's no way to turn it off. The next thing you notice about the game is that the intro is nearly twenty minutes long, so you better have lots of time on your hands. When you finally get around to actually playing the game, it's astonishing. The visual presentation is in a classical Japanese watercolor style, and stylistically very similar to "Viewtiful Joe." (the game makes several references to that game as well) The game truly is art in motion, and the visual style is constantly enchanting. In sticking with the artistic theme, one of the tools at Amaterasu's disposal is the Celestial Brush, which allows the player to "paint" various effects onscreen. These techniques are required to solve environmental puzzles as well as defeat certain enemies. Drawing onscreen with the PlayStation controller can be extremely tricky, but the game is fairly forgiving. Amaterasu also collects various divine instruments through the course of the game which can be equipped as melee weapons, and can purchase holy artifacts that streamline gameplay and make her life easier.
Structurally, "Okami" is very reminiscent of "Shenmue" (1999) with its epic scope, deep story, engaging characters, emotional storytelling, rich environments, and use of music. It also shares "Shenmue's" tendency to constantly distract you from your main goal with numerous side quests, which makes the game incredibly hard to put down. The gameplay is very addictive, and you can find yourself happily feeding animals, digging up treasure, and running various errands for hours on end. Of course it's not all fun and games for Amaterasu, and sometimes the game can become infuriatingly difficult. The first boss battle takes an exhausting twenty minutes, and later bosses can take even longer. The fishing mini-game is aggravating and no fun at all, but required to make progress. The digging mini-game is also no fun, and Kaguya's digging game is so incredibly difficult that I nearly gave up altogether. The enemies become increasingly difficult to fight as the game progresses, so a strategy guide and a third party cheat device can be extremely handy. A strategy guide is always a good thing to have on hand, because there is so much content in the game that you're likely to miss. Additionally, the game's objectives aren't always clear, and I often found myself not making any progress at all.
Production wise, the game is nearly flawless. The gorgeous presentation is accompanied by an incredible music score, which you should immediately attempt to track down. It's an expensive 5-disc set, but it's definitely worth it. And unlike the "Shenmue" soundtrack, it actually features music from the game. How novel. The controls are slick, intuitive, and responsive, with only the painting being an occasional nuisance. The camera is very cooperative most of the time, but it often freaks out during the final boss fight, which makes things more difficult than they should be. Load times are minimal and non-disruptive, and the game ingeniously uses them as an opportunity for collecting valuable demon fangs! The writing in the game is excellent, and localizing the text was clearly a huge undertaking. Much to the developer's credit, the English text is superb and manages to expertly convey the emotional tone and flavor of the characters, as well as the intricacies of the story and the rich texture of the culture. The game has a strange sense of humor which attempts to lighten the tone, but also tends deflates the drama. There's also plenty of weird sexual innuendo courtesy of Issun, who is quite a pervert and easily swayed by the fairer sex. Especially those with large breasts.
Overall, "Okami" is an incredible emotional experience and a journey well worth taking. It can be annoying and frustrating, but it's always worth coming back to. My enjoyment peaked about 35 hours in, but my investment in the story and the characters gave me the will and motivation to keep playing. "Okami" is definitely a contender for "best game ever," and like so many great games, it's a shame that it was a commercial failure. It's also sad and unfortunate that Clover shut down shortly after the game's release. The world needs more games like "Okami," but with rising production costs, reluctant publishers, and an unappreciative audience, who is going to make them?