For the Japanophile in all of us
In the age of social networking, few games fly under the radar long enough to achieve cult status. Capcom’s Ōkami is probably as close as it gets to a modern-day equivalent, with the video gaming community seemingly divided into those who love it and those who’ve never heard of it. Until recently I fell into the latter category and was surprised to learn it won the 2006 game of the year. In hindsight, I was fortunate in that I only read one or two reviews before making the purchase; overzealous fans would have you believe that it’s a legitimate contender for the ‘best ever’ mantle, if only on the basis of its heavy emphasis on traditional Japanese themes. Make no mistake, Ōkami is a very good game which innovates extremely well, but praising it highly is a matter of choosing to ignore its obvious faults in order to focus on its astounding successes.
At the outset of Ōkami you’re introduced to the game’s premise through a beautifully-presented tale lifted from Japanese mythology. Through an unnamed human’s folly, the arch-demon Orochi is awakened and threatens to engulf the world in darkness with the assistance of its hordes of demonic followers. As the sun goddess Amaterasu, it’s up to you to descend to earth in wolf form and restore the fictional country of Nippon to its former state. Teaming up with the miniature, hot-headed sprite Issun, you embark on a journey to restore your celestial powers and save Nippon’s inhabitants – both floral and faunal – from Orochi’s evil machinations. If you’re unsure whether or not you’re a fan of Japanese culture, be it the artwork, folklore, humour, music, even narrative style, one playthrough of Ōkami will make up your mind for you. Few games have been used as an opportunity to showcase a country’s pride for its rich cultural history, and none experience success to the extent that Ōkami does.
Undoubtedly Ōkami’s greatest charm is its ink-and-wash graphical style. I’m usually pretty critical of overhyped graphics but I have to admit, these are deserving of every superlative thrown their way. While any given screenshot looks like a competent watercolour, the game itself feels like a living painting. Navigating Nippon’s environment is like exploring some gigantic tapestry full of bright pastel colours, from the lush grasses and shimmering rivers of Nippon’s fields to the fiery volcanos of Oni Island. The closest comparison you could make is probably the cel shading from Wind Waker but far less cartoony and far more artistic. It’s not very realistic, obviously, but what would you expect in a fairy tale? The style lends itself perfectly to the large map and naturalistic setting, and the diverse range of landscapes gives your journey a certain epic-ness which quickly makes exploration the game’s most enthralling aspect.
In this and many other respects Ōkami seems to be keenly self-aware, recognising what its strengths are and playing to them extremely effectively. In conjunction with the graphical style, which will be instantly reminiscent of Japanese culture to most Western gamers, the soundtrack is composed of traditional Japanese music played on traditional Japanese instruments. At times it’s peaceful and melodic, expertly fitted to the tranquillity of Nippon’s fields and villages. At others an upbeat tempo serves as the perfect backdrop to titanic boss fights, all the while staying true to its unmistakably Eastern roots. It’s a massive gamble, but one with a fanatically loyal fanbase which will likewise pay great dividends for the majority of first-time players, if only because there’s nothing else quite like it on the video game market. No other game manages to capture the essence of a time and place like Ōkami captures Ancient and Feudal Japan. Of course, it wouldn’t be a gamble if everyone liked it, and the game relies on its artistic presentation like a crutch. If you can’t stomach traditional Japanese music, about forty hours’ worth of ink-and-wash paintings and strange blends of crude and slapstick humour, then it’s just as likely that you’ll hate Ōkami with a passion.
Storytelling isn’t one of Ōkami’s stronger suits – despite what fans might have you believe. The drawback of the graphics is that they don’t depict detail very well, which is particularly problematic when it comes to human characters’ faces. Most don’t have mouths, many don’t have eyes, and as such they have very little capacity to convey emotion. The developers have forced themselves into relying on slapstick techniques like making characters jump up and down or having steam come out of their ears just so you can tell that they’re angry. Since there’s no voice acting either, I didn’t feel attached to any characters.While I liked playing as a sun goddess incarnated as a wolf, Amaterasu is completely mute and resultantly isn’t exactly what you’d call a likeable character. Other characters don’t fare much better; Waka’s pseudo-French dialogue is cringeworthy, and 90% of female characters seem to be incompetent, vacuous airheads. All the characterisation eggs have been placed in Issun’s basket, but even ignoring his incessant twittering – one of the most annoying sounds I’ve ever heard in a video game – I didn’t find his crude brand of humour remotely funny. Call me a prude, but seriously, if Ōkami’s humour is supposed to be as representative of Japanese culture as everything else, then you’ll forgive me for thinking the Japanese to be a bunch of perverted sleazeballs.
As far as gameplay’s concerned, the greatest innovation Ōkami offers is the ‘celestial brush’, the main mechanism for employing Amaterasu’s considerable powers. Holding down the B button pauses the game and turns the entire screen into a virtual canvas, positioning above the landscape a colossal, controllable paintbrush for you to make changes to the environment, Looney Toons style. Suddenly the game’s beautiful series of watercolour paintings becomes interactive; painting a circle around a withered tree causes it to burst into bloom, while drawing a crescent in the sky turns day into night. Later on you gain the ability to manipulate fire and water, cause the wind to blow in chosen directions, cut your enemies in half with a quick horizontal slash, among many others.
While Ōkami’s presentation draws few critics, this tends to overshadow the comparatively hit-and-miss nature of the gameplay itself. Fundamentally it’s an action-adventure which borrows extensively from the Legend of Zelda series, with a large open world serving as a hub for the various towns and dungeons that host the game’s primary events. Boss fights are interspersed with platforming, puzzle-solving and even a few obligatory RPG elements, while combat versus lesser enemies feels more like hack-and-slash than anything else. Each experiences a different degree of success. For one, platforming can be annoying as hell at times, requiring fairly precise timing and positioning lest you plunge to your death, or worse, survive only to be forced to tediously climb all the way back up to have another shot at it. The puzzles, conversely, generally work and make good use of the brush techniques you end up collecting, but are often let down by the Wii’s motion capture. You would have thought that the Wiimote and the celestial brush would have been a match made in heaven, but in reality it frequently struggles to figure out precisely what you want to do. It’s a major problem for puzzles that demand an insidious amount of accuracy. A big part of Ōkami is figuring out which technique you’re supposed to use in a given situation, and there’s nothing worse than being stumped for half an hour before finding out the very first thing you tried to do was the correct one, only the game didn’t recognise it. In one instance I tried to make an elevator rise no fewer than 25 times before the game picked up on it, even though I used the correct brush technique every single time. Exasperation would be an understatement – I was about ready to throw my Wiimote through the screen, and I suspect I’m considerably more patient than a lot of gamers out there. There’s also one infamous puzzle towards the end which is so insanely difficult as to almost be a gamebreaker. Suffice to say: the motion plus is highly recommended.
On top of this, the RPG elements feel tokenistic, contrived, and almost completely unnecessary. By performing tasks such as ridding particular areas of demons, assisting members of a village or town or feeding wild animals their favourite foods, you earn ‘praise’ which serves as currency for upgrades. Unfortunately you’re only able to upgrade unexciting things like your wallet capacity, or how much ink your celestial brush can use before it needs to be recharged. What irks me the most is that there’s still not much in the way of choice, since you’ll end up with the vast majority of these so-called ‘upgrades’ regardless of the order in which you select them. The only one of much actual worth is increased health, but this is only because enemies become more powerful as the game progresses. It’s just redundant; it more or less forces you to spend your hard-earned on health just so that you have a chance of staying alive (mind, you end up with so much money that you can get away with just pausing and popping one of your infinite doggie treats whenever necessary). Wouldn’t it have made more sense to keep health and enemy damage constant, rather than tacking on this little bit extra just to provide an illusion of control? It would’ve been so much better if your choices affected the potency of certain brush techniques and thereby have a tangible impact on how you play. And don’t even get me started on the ridiculous number of different weapons you can collect; once you’ve experimented once or twice with a shield, a rosary or a glaive you’ll develop a clear preference and won’t switch between them often, if at all. Obtaining one that’s particularly expensive or difficult to find therefore isn’t nearly the reward that it ought to be.
The combat is also pretty hack-and-slash when it comes to the majority of enemies. While you’re encouraged to experiment with different celestial brush techniques, only occasionally do you need to do much other than remember a given enemy’s specific weakness or swing, swing, swing the Wiimote until it’s dead. I didn’t find myself moving, dodging or blocking much at all. The exceptions to this were boss fights, which were a lot more interesting (despite their Zelda-esque tendency to be vulnerable to whichever trick you learned most recently). I was annoyed by how frequently bosses were recycled, though – all that implies to me is that the developers were either unwilling or unable to come up with a few more.
The bottom line is, virtually everything pales in comparison with the simple joy of exploring Ōkami’s beautiful landscape, restoring peace to the environment by eradicating demon infestations, causing trees to burst into bloom, and winning the affections of the local populace. Sure, you get rewarded with praise for doing so, but you have to restore some fifty trees or feed a few dozen animals before you can afford something amazing like another inkpot. You end up doing these things because you want to, not because it affords you any particular advantage. On the one hand it’s a brilliant achievement that a game can make you appreciate the beauty of its world enough to make you feel that attached to it, and is a definite win for its environmentalist themes. On the other, it smacks of sub-par game design that the developers couldn’t incorporate this in a way that makes the gameplay more enjoyable. In fact it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think Ōkami could’ve worked just as well as an out-and-out adventure, but I guess that isn’t the way the video game industry works. Never mind.
Conclusion: Ōkami is a very good game which feels like a Japanese fairy tale come to life, providing a vast and beautifully realised world for you to explore. The graphical style and score are breathtaking, and it provides one of the best artistic experiences available on a console. But it’s never good to buy into fanboy hype, because you’re inevitably going to be disappointed. Certainly, no other game manages to capture a country’s entire cultural tradition quite so effectively, but the gameplay is flawed in so many ways that this can’t possibly be the greatest video game of all time. I love that it tries to be different, and in doing so it succeeds magnificently, and while I’m willing to overlook some of its downsides because of this it’s also easy to get carried away. Japanese culture isn’t for everyone, and as such, neither is Ōkami – but it’s fair to say you’ll probably feel the same way about one as you do the other.
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