Brush with greatness
I've stated this in a previous review, but allow me to reiterate the fact that I'm not a believer of the whole “video games are art” thing. They've always been something that you do to kill a couple of hours before you do something more important like school, uni or your significant other. Having said that, Okami, like Journey, is quite an experience that challenges this claim of mine. It's one of those games that's best summed up by how each of the elements work in order to create the experience, rather than the elements themselves. On their own, they're good, but to truly enjoy this majesty is to enjoy the game as a whole.
Okami is a tale of the great goddess, Amaterasu, being called into Nippon to restore it to its former glory by reviving Guardian Sapplings. What had happened was that the seal keeping Orochi imprisoned had been broken, and in an act of rage, he put a curse on the land, creating barren landscapes, polluted oceans and turned most of the inhabitants to stone. With Guardian Sapplings, Amaterasu can bring portions of the land back to life. To help Amaterasu is Issun, a Poncle (or little sprite if you will, or flea as I thought he was at first) who happens to be quite the little artist as one of the first things he does is draw up a picture of the forest sprite Sakuya, who had been protecting the Kamiki Village for over a hundred years and had summoned Amaterasu once Orochi plunged Nippon into darkness.
The story itself is rather straightforward, but the characters are there to keep things interesting – Issun, for instance, is a perverted dickhead with a heart of gold, and thus provides us with a lot of comic relief. That's if Susano's bumbling idiocy doesn't do the job whenever we meet up with him. Amaterasu herself doesn't say anything, although given that she's meant to be the wise and revered sun god (which makes the decision to make her a wolf make a lot of sense since that's basically what white wolves usually are – and eh, why not make Issun into something some of us can confuse for a flea), it's a sensible enough decision. Not to mention, you can't really have a cast of colorful characters without having some warm shades of gray to keep it in balance. Paper is white not only because it helps each of the other colors stand out, but also because it works best when there's some left on an otherwise colorful canvas – so that it isn't a mishmash of colors, and that's what Amaterasu is; the white on a rainbow canvas.
A lot of Okami's draw comes from its art style, which is pretty *bleep*ing beautiful. At first glance, it looks like your typical cel shaded game, but as you continue to behold the majesty that is Okami's graphics, you'll notice more and more that it also uses the traditional Japanese painting style. No, not anime/manga art, I'm talking about a more oily, water colored style – I believe that they call it ink wash painting or “sumi-e”. In fact, the best way to describe it is that it's like a sumi-e painting that's come to life. The character models aren't given heaps of small detailed lines or a lot of different shades of colors, but what they are given is rich and vibrant. The environments are given the same style, although there are some smaller details and they aren't quite as rich nor vibrant so that they don't stand out quite as much, especially the ground. It might sound like other cel shaded games like Wind Waker or Dragon Quest 8, but the art style itself is what separates it from those two games. Hell, even without this distinction, it still looks pretty damn good.
To compliment the graphics is the traditional Japanese soundtrack. During the calmer moments like during a cutscene or while you're running around the world, the music is soothing; while you're fighting, more drums are implemented and the music is pushed a bit more forward into the foreground to get you more into the spirit of kicking ass. But every step of the way, there's always that feeling that you're either a samurai wandering through a walkway with cherry blossom trees on either side, or the feeling that said samurai has to take down a worthy advesary in a circle pit surrounded by cherry blossom trees.
Unfortunately, by the way the voice acting is done, it's like the samurais learned how to speak from Banjo-Kazooie because everybody talks in this annoying gibberish language that isn't really cute or comedic, but just out of place in what really is a serious game with some comedic moments from Issun and Susano. Man, this would be better if there was either full on or no voice acting. Bit of a shame I had to say that – I liked the music quite a bit and found that it complimented the beautiful graphics to a tee, not just in aesthetics but also in feeling and the fact that they're both distinctly Japanese.
But that's not to say that its gameplay drags it down – if anything, it only pushes it even further forward. The biggest feature this game has to offer is the Celestial Brush. As you collect each of the thirteen Celestial Brush techniques, you'll be able to perform more and more miracles. From restoring the life of dead plants to turning night into day, you'll have a wide swarth of powers at your disposal by the end of the game. A lot of them will be used in dungeons to solve various puzzles – from painting vines in order to get to a flowery platform in the air to making tracks to scale vertical levels, there isn't a shortage of puzzles that require special powers. The Celestial Brush is also used to help out the various village folks – one villager will need a pole to hang her laundry up on while another will need you to start up a fire. It's all done simply by holding the R1 button and holding square while moving the left stick around to draw shapes or patterns that conjure up these miracles.
It's imperative that you do what the villagers ask you to do, because they'll give you Praise, which serves as your experience points. Given that you can upgrade your health, ink pouches (to let you use the brush more often), Astral Pouches (which can revive you if you die in combat) and your wallet (how much money you can carry), it would seem like you have a lot to upgrade. Really though, you're really going to want to upgrade your health as quickly as possible. Not because this game is hard or anything, but because you can only get a certain amount at a time before it stops and a bit of insurance never hurt anybody. You'll also be given Praise by the local wildlife if you feed them specific food items that you may either find throughout your quest or off the beaten path. At the same time, it always feels like this was added as some sort of afterthought, like they needed to have RPG elements because... well, why not? Praise could've easily just been something you acquire and that's it, but then they give it an arbitrary use like this and you wind up just upgrading your health anyway, maybe add an extra ink pouch or two.
Okami isn't shy when it comes to sidequests – in fact, one of the biggest things about Okami is that even when you're done with the long story (roughly 30 hours in length), there's still plenty of shit left to do. But let me tell you something – while a lot of sidequests are easy enough to figure out, about a third of them are not quite there. Vague descriptions, tedious backtracking to the nth degree and just the sheer fact that they tend to be fetch quests may be enough to put you off of getting 100% and might entice you to just rush through the main story. At the same time, you may not realize what you're really doing until you're engaging on one of the crappier sidequests because Okami is the kind of game that just draws you in. In short, Okami takes you by the scruff of your neck and never lets go. It's structured in a way that lets you naturally run around the world to help out people, blow up cracks in walls, scale towers, solve other sorts of puzzles and even go as far as to restore dead trees to life because you'd associate a lot of things with your abilities without so much as batting an eyelash. A lot of games nowadays prefer to dumb themselves down to the player's level, but games like this teach the player what they need to do and let them use these techniques at moments that they'd associate it with.
That much extends to the combat – it's not complicated like Ninja Gaiden or anything, but it has what it needs. Amaterasu can execute a basic combo with one of the three sorts of weapons she can equip and she can also learn how to expand the basic combo by a couple of hits and dodge from a dojo nearby. Theoretically, you're meant to combine weapon attacks with the Celestial Brush, but more often than not, I found that simply using the weapon was the more natural, easier way to go about it. Some enemies do require the use of the Celestial Brush to expose their weaknesses, but they're not as common as enemies that simply require you to beat them down. The “I can't believe it's not Zelda” bosses are quite a lot of fun to fight. I mean, a lot of them basically require you to use whatever item or technique you've just acquired while they're in a vulnerable state, but the fights themselves are rather interesting as you have to creatively utilize these abilities to take them down while they're either winding up for a big attack or resting from said attack.
If there are any problems I have with the combat, it's that you're using the first weapon for so long that it's tricky as hell to get used to the other two. You have this circular blade weapon that they call a shield that you use for like four *bleep*ing hours, and then you suddenly have to use this whip (or rosary) and it takes quite some time to get used to its quirks – it can stack up heaps more hits, but the enemies don't stagger quite as much. After a few more hours, you'll get your first glaive, which is a huge weapon you have to charge up and attack. The variety is a nice thought and once you get used to each of the different types of weapons, you'll find yourself getting drawn back into Okami. But the fact that you're introduced to these weapons a wee bit too far between one another goes against Okami's overall design. Okami's biggest draw is that it sucks you right into the experience, so whenever you're taken out of it, it's like “why do people like this game so much”.
That's the thing with Okami – when deconstructed, it's a good game, but it's also quite flawed. The combat and puzzles are a wee bit too simple and a lot of the quests range from a minor inconvenience to a pain in the ass. It's when you put it back together and take it in as a whole that you can bask in its finer points. The brilliant art style, complimented by the very Japanese soundtrack, aids in keeping you engaged while running around the landscapes of Japan. That's the beauty of Okami – nature, like how you're restoring nature back to the way it looked instead of having all of this artificial darkness, or how you'd naturally use the different Celestial Brush techniques in order to solve various puzzles in dungeons. Because of this, Okami goes from a game that's good to a near masterpiece.
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