An ongoing debate amongst gamers is whether or not video games can be considered art. Those who believe that games can be a form of pop art (like movies or comic books) usually have a short list of games they like to cite as examples. Clover Studio’s Playstation 2 gameOkami has a tendency to show up on those lists. While it might be a leap to call the game a true work of art in any objective sense, it is a beautifully constructed and elegantly executed game which is just as much fun today as it was when it first released in 2006.
Okami is a fantasy adventure game set in Nippon, a land derived from Japanese folklore and myth. 100 years ago the eight headed demon dragon Orochi was terrorizing the land until he was defeated by the warrior Nagi, aided by a mystical white wolf. Now Orochi has been awakened by Susano, the foolish and unbelieving decendant of Nagi. With the demon dragon loose once more a curse has fallen over the land of Nippon, shrouding it in a dark and wicked mist. The guardian of Kamiki Village summons the sun goddess Amaterasu in the form of a white wolf to banish Orochi’s evil from the land and restore the natural beauty of the world. Players control Amaterasu and are accompanied by the diminuative artist Issun as the pair embark across the land.
The gameplay of Okami borrows very generously from the Legend of Zelda series, something that head designer Hideki Kamiya has freely admitted to. The general structure of the game is in fact nearly identical to that venerable series. Players roam about a semi-open world and at various points enter into dungeon type areas. In the dungeons players encounter enemies and uncover new skills and abilities before facing off against a boss character. The new abilities earned in the dungeons help the player access new areas of the world the and the cycle continues through to the end. On paper the game, at least in a structural sense, might even seem to be a blatant Zelda rip off. While the game design may be borrowered the presentation and nuances are completely original.
The first thing any gamer will notice about Okami is the look. Clover Studio opted for a highly stylized visual approach to the game, settling on something akin to the Japanese art of sumi-e, or brush and wash, painting. It instantly gives the game a unique visual beauty that is also highly evocotive of the place and time in which it is set. Whether it’s the fully painted static cut scenes or the in game action, Okami is never dull to look at. The bright colors actually bring about one of the game’s greatest thrills. When Amaterasu enters a new area it is likely in a cursed zone, meaning that all the color has been drawn out and everything is muted in black dark tones. However once the curse is lifted the landscape literally explodes with color as flowers and sunlight emerge across the screen. It’s very rewarding to see and also a nice environmental touch to the story. Being so stylized the visuals of the game look great even though a whole new generation of games have come along since it was first released. The music also does great work to create the mood and the setting. Every music track is tinged with classic Japanese aspects which flow beautifully from one scene to the next.
The actualy gameplay of Okami also has a feel all it’s own. On the surface it is well executed but seems pretty standard. Combat is handled fluidly, with three different weapon types to choose from. Players can equip a primary and secondary weapon in different combinations for different effects. In true Zelda fashion most bosses have a weakness against whatever Amaterasu’s newest ability is. There’s a small amount of platforming and environmental puzzles that need to be solved in order to progress, though nothing too frustrating. It might not sound like anything special but it all changes because of one brilliant mechanic: the celestial brush. It’s a bit of a tricky thing to describe but basically whenever it’s activated the game freezes and the player uses the brush to draw the effect they want. Wind can be summoned to blow out flames, vines can be drawn to swing Amaterasu to new areas, even fire balls and lightning bolts can be summoned. The actual abilities are not uncommon for an adventure game but this unique way of activating those abilities makes it all feel brand new. The controls are smooth and intuitive and there’s something very satisfying about using the celestial brush to defeat enemies and cross dangerous terrain.
Any gamer can tell you that there is no such thing as a perfect game, and there are a few dull spots in Okami‘s bright and shiny presentation. The biggest issue is named Issun. Amatersu’s diminuative sidekick seems to never stop talking and yet somehow manages to never say anything helpful. He states and restates the obvious, often with an irritatingly uppity attitude. Thankfully Issun doesn’t disrupt the gameplay during the heat of battle or the platforming sections. However he does make the story segments less enjoyable than they would be without his unstoppable mouth. In fact dialogue in general becomes a bit of a slog after a while. The game is rather wordy at times, and there’s no recorded voices. Instead there is sort of a pitched mumbling while the dialogue displays as text. Given how much dialogue there is this becomes tiresome by the end. Thankfully this is the only audio weak point as the music and other sound effects are fantastic.
These minor flaws do little to dimish the shining glory of Okami. The game has fairly tried and true nuts and bolts but the way those basics have been dressed up is something totally fresh, even four years after the game’s release. Sadly the game did not meet sales expectations and Clover Studio was closed soon after. There are murmurs of Capcom creating a sequel, but if that is done at all it will be with a new creative team at the helm. No matter how talented any design team on the planet would be hard pressed to recapture the unique charm and visual splendor of this wonderful game.