I have been eagerly awaiting Okami, Clover’s new game that got a near perfect score from Famitsu, and was finally able to pick up a copy on the US release date earlier this week!
I had a few impressions that I wanted to share with my apparently non-existent readership:
The first thing that anyone mentions about Okami is its visual style. It is absolutely gorgeous! Clover engineers and artists were able to fairly convincingly make this 3D game look like a living Sumi-e (Japanese watercolor) painting. This technique makes some of the faces hard to read but we’ll forgive them because the flora is outstanding. The scenes where massive rejuvenation of an area take place (after reviving a Guardian Tree) are completely magical, time and time again!
The next most notable accomplishment of this title is an innovation in game design that is tied to both the story and the aesthetic; the Brush Mechanic. Your avatar, a wolf deity, is able to command a celestial brush. Whenever you clear a challenge you are rewarded by unlocking an additional Brush Power, there are 15 in all.
How it works: When the player holds down one of the controller’s shoulder buttons (R1) it stops game time and makes the scene look like a black ink drawing on parchment. While in this mode you can use the Analogue Thumbstick do calligraphy; the system uses gesture recognition or pattern matching in conjunction with target context to execute one of your 15 Celestial Brush Powers.
They got a lot of mileage out of creating this mechanic as it’s used extensively for battling, adventuring, and rejuvenating. It’s awkward at first but they did a good job of easing you into it (the first symbol that you learn is just a horizontal line) and before you know it you are drawing more complex symbols with ease.
Gameplay/Responsiveness: I don’t think that Capcom would settle for anything else. The game controls great, the wolf responds instantly to my input. Distances in the level design are in tune with your jumping and swimming abilities: secret ledges are often accessible only by a perfectly timed wall jump, some islands are not reachable until you get a certain brush technique, etc. Some movements, attacks, and combos have recovery time, which has a positive effect on the game, encouraging strategic play against the more difficult enemies.
Another thing that they did is have your avatar automatically jump over small objects, this is brilliant. I’m a huge fan of having the game do automatically what the player would intuitively want it to do. I can only imagine my frustration if my running was brought to a halt every time I got to a fence or small ledge.
Okami has really great animation, often times with comedic timing and action for villagers and, surprisingly, your avatar.
The Music sounds like it came out of a Ghibli film and is at times majestic, epic, or cute and always adds to the overall feel of your adventure.
The most endearing aspect of Okami, for me, is its Constructive Theme. Where as in most Action Adventure games the primary activity is to destroy and kill, Okami’s is to heal and feed. You rejuvenate the environment, you mend buildings, and you feed animals who respond by giving you loving affection whenever you come around. Even violence in okami is treated more romantically than other games too. As Jet Li has been philosophizing these days the purpose of martial ways is to stop war, and you get that sense in Okami, that most of your fighting is being done to restore harmony… it’s not for survival and its not for personal gain. With so much of the game being wondrous, the fight scenes and cursed lands really do feel uncomfortable; these are dangerous parts of the game, filled with darkness. When I am playing I deeply desire to be done with the fight and to return to the flower fields of peace. That being said, the violent actions of your avatar are often beautiful; your bomb creates a fireworks show, you can summon a tree to block an attacker, and things of that nature.
Psychonauts Syndrome – the first two hours of Okami are slow, filled with exposition and hand holding. This was made worse by my next gripe, the voices. You might expect them to be bad in a “dubbed” kind of way, but that wasn’t it at all. In a similar move to Katamari, only more annoying, voices in Okami are an abstract yet somewhat repetitive sound, like adjusting the resonance and cutoff of the “phone voice” from Charlie Brown … if only I could turn them off!
The “rejuvenation” brush mechanic requires you to draw a circle over/around a barren tree. Quite often the game’s targeting system does not register that your object of intention was said barren tree; it is not uncommon for me to have to try four times to get some trees to rejuvenate. I haven’t had any problem with any of the other brush techniques and the “cherry bomb” is surprisingly forgiving of my sloppiness.
Loading: while the load times are short, they can also be frequent, especially if you are in a town; there is ~ a one and a half second load each time you enter or leave a building. God of War has spoiled me!
Save System: I was expecting the save system from Resident Evil 4. Like RE4, Okami has save checkpoints, unlike RE4, if you die you return to the last saved game, not the last cut-scene or area-load. I was operating under the assumption that the save worked like in RE4, it felt pretty shitty when I died at 6.5 hours and was sent back to my last save at 5 hours… which brings me to my last gripe: the inability to skip dialogue or cut-scenes, particularly annoying if you have to replay 1.5 hours.
The good definitely beats out the bad, this game is worth playing! I don’t think that it is deserving of the near perfect score that Famitsu gave it, but it is worthy of the praise that it is receiving. (The Metacritic scores at the time of this writing: Resident Evil 4, 96; God of War, 94; Okami, 93.) For me it isn’t as good, technically, as RE4 or GoW however it is SO fresh that it would be deserving of Famitsu’s score if they had been able to address some of my gripes above. In terms of game of the year, I don’t think that the loads would be an obstacle for Okami, but the slow beginning could be, if for no other reason than it could keep people from getting to the good part.
My advice: get the game, play it for two hours and then put it down, come back the next day and let the fun times roll, and go ahead and save when given the option to.
Update: This game is too long; I played for 60 some hours and saw two endings that weren’t really the end. I think that I need to demote it to an 86.