Okami HD Review: A stroke of brilliance (PS4)

(Image courtesy of Capcom)

This is a spoiler-free review.

Okami, developed by Clover Studio, first released for the PS2 in 2006 and was destined to become a cult classic. Despite being released at the end of the PS2’s life and suffering poor sales, critics lauded the game for its stunningly unique art, innovative gameplay and humorous yet moving story, all bolstered by an expansive roster of charming characters. Over a decade later – and after several enhanced ports – Okami is routinely praised as one of the best games ever made.

But as someone who attempted — but never finished — the Wii version, I went into my playthrough with tempered expectations. After powering through the somewhat uninspired and slow beginning to the story, a colorful and charming world soon bloomed before me. Okami HD is a gorgeous experience that I can recommend with few reservations.

As mentioned above, the narrative pacing is a bit eschew in Okami. The game plays out in three interconnected story arcs, each building upon the characters, lore, and skills introduced in the one before that culminates in one of the weirder game endings I’ve experienced.

The player takes the role of the wolf Amaterasu (Ammy), a god who has been reborn to help vanquish the eight-headed serpent Orochi. A vibrant cast of quirky characters with unique personalities is quickly introduced: the unmotivated descendant of a legendary warrior, the cheerful and sweet sake brewer, a flute-playing, flying, lightsaber-wielding prophet, and many more. Issun, Ammy’s traveling companion, is an inch-tall roaming artist who excels at getting angry, being a womanizer, and providing unrelenting commentary. Balancing the needs of so many characters can be daunting, but they’re all charming enough that I never felt overwhelmed — just entertained.

However, the first six or seven hours of the games are sluggish. Ammy, our silent protagonist, is slow to gain very many interesting Celestial Brush techniques at first, limiting the player’s options for both combat and exploration. The retelling of an ancient Japanese myth is interesting, but doesn’t leave much to the imagination regarding the overarching plot. Meeting new characters and exploring the environment is fun, but it lacked emotional urgency. Thankfully, the narrative picks steam during the second half of the first arc and you soon realize that the lore of Okami extends well beyond the initial quest to slay Orochi.

The second and third arcs introduce even more characters as the narrative takes a darker dive. No longer are Ammy and Issun simply on a journey to defeat a singular entity; their bright and colorful world is at risk of being blotted out – permanently – by an ancient evil that once brought the downfall of celestial beings.

It’s a somewhat familiar scenario that’s augmented by both Japanese myth and lore unique to the Okami universe. And once the narrative ball gets rolling it doesn’t stop. There’s always someone new to meet or a side quest to be completed. Powerful demons are behind every corner, threatening the human world. The stakes are high and only get higher as the plot progresses.

Narrative pacing aside, perhaps the biggest detriment to Okami’s story is our talkative fairy friend, Issun. While he can be both humorous and sincere, it’s easy to find yourself wanting to skip entire portions of his dialogue. Issun has been compared to another notoriously grating companion: Navi. (The game’s creators have said that the Legend of Zelda universe heavily inspired Okami’s gameplay and narrative.) His constant ranting and sexual comments are annoying enough, but you’ll spend quite a bit of time listening to him explain basic scenarios repeatedly or tell the player exactly where to go or what to do next.

The womanizer gag was funny once, maybe twice, but the fairy’s constant fixation on young and pretty women is overdone. And the outright ridiculousness of the jiggle physics in this game is surprising at best. Who approved this? A bunch of middle school boys? This alone would have been reason enough for the game to earn its “Teen” rating, alcohol and violence aside.

And why wouldn’t the womanizer also be homophobic? The “half-baked prophet,” Waka, pops in and out from time to time, but his role gains importance as the narrative progresses. He’s the token flamboyant character who Issun refers to as “fruitcake.” It could be argued that he simply means weird, but come on. The flamboyant male characterization has always been an easy target for low-brow humor. But it was tacky in 2006 and even more so in 2020.

Gameplay in Okami focuses on light platforming and item gathering, aided by the novel Celestial Brush mechanic. Using the touchpad on the controller or the analog sticks, the player recreates simple symbols to damage enemies, destroy obstacles or navigate the environment. The more techniques you unlock – from bombs to lily pads to rushing wind – the more the landscape opens up to exploration.

The brush mechanics are mostly responsive. From time to time I’d have to redraw a symbol because a line wasn’t quite straight enough or the code recognized it as the wrong technique. The light platforming suffered as techniques failed to register just often enough to be annoying.

When exploring, there are plenty of chests to open, “praise” (upgrade currency) to earn, and side quests to complete. Backtracking is simple with fast travel “mermaid springs,” but trekking across the sizable landscape is made easy thanks to the grace and speed with which Ammy dashes across the terrain. The sheer amount of treasure (Japanese pottery, jewelry and sculptures) to be dug up (literally) along the way is equally rewarding.

New techniques are earned fairly regularly and I never regretted backtracking on foot as there would always been something new to see or do. Though I’m far from a completionist, I can see myself aiming for Okami’s platinum trophy one day. 

The Celestial Brush techniques add even more depth to the combat system. The three “Divine Instrument” groups – Reflector, Rosary and Glaive – allow you to mix long-and-short-range combat depending on which weapon is equipped as a main or sub instrument. All of your attacks result in bright flashes of color and cascades of flowers whirling around the screen; I found that utilizing brush techniques (as often as allowed by the upgradeable ink pot gauge) allowed me to deal damage while keeping a clear view of the battlefield.

Crushing enemies is simple once you learn their basic attack patterns and which weapons or techniques they’re most vulnerable to. I applaud the developers for integrating the brush techniques in logical ways; knocking an enemy out of the air with a large gust of wind or slashing their wings felt right.

Combat is fluid and fast-paced, but also avoidable in most situations as monster avatars roam the landscape and are none too fast. It’s unlikely you’ll face a game over screen as the bosses are none to difficult and there’s a plethora of healing items to be found. Difficult? No. Satisfying? Absolutely.

Besides the technical issues with the brush techniques and some frustrating platforming, gameplay in Okami has aged fairly well. The camera is slow moving and finicky at best, but that’s practically a trademark of the genre. Overall it’s a well balanced blend of combat, puzzle solving, and collecting that rewards the player generously for simply enjoying the game.

The presentation in Okami is more of a mixed bag, unfortunately.

First, the positive: the art style is still stunningly unique and vibrant, two console generations after its initial release. Cel-shaded graphics age well anyway, but it’s the combination of cel-shading and Japanese watercolor illustrations (known as sumi-e ink wash painting) that makes Okami a visually gorgeous experience. Enemies based on Japanese myths are brought to life; religious temples and artifacts are recreated in a respectful fashion. The charm of Okami is not only in its art style, but also the developer’s dedication toward celebrating centuries-old design and culture.

Had it not been for the lack of crispness in outlines and small details, it could be assumed this was a current-generation game – disregarding the HD moniker, of course. Numerous essays and think pieces have been written about the game’s animation and art, explaining the specifics much better than I can. However, I do know I agree with their sentiment: Okami is very, very pretty.

But my least favorite part of the Okami experience was the soundtrack.

It’s not spectacularly bad in any way, but it’s easily the least impressive part of the game. When compared to the franchise that inspired it, Okami doesn’t have any memorable tunes. Most gamers will recognize the “Overworld Theme” or “Song of Storms” from the Legend of Zelda almost instantly. Okami simply doesn’t have that. The tracks here sound great and do an excellent job of blending in traditional Japanese folk music, no doubt; I just haven’t caught myself humming any of the tunes absentmindedly or felt the urge to download the soundtrack. The songwriting is perfectly serviceable and enjoyable, but lacks a distinct identity that makes it immediately recognizable as “music from Okami.”

VERDICT

All this said, I can understand why Okami has gained its cult classic status over the past 15 years.

Inventive controls keep combat and exploration fresh through the 34 hour playtime despite technical issues and only serviceable platforming. Memorable and compelling characters oozing with personality propel the story through its less engaging stretches. And though the game’s soundtrack didn’t stick with me, the art certainly will.

Okami HD isn’t my favorite game, but it is a damn good one.

4.5/5

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