Were I to declare the PlayStation 2 the greatest console ever released, I doubt I’d get much pushback from this crowd, and for good reason. In fact, if it had any flaws at all, it was that there were simply too many good games released on the system in such a relatively short period of time, enough that I never got around to completing half the games I wanted to. Never finishing Okami, originally developed by the now defunct Clover Studio and released on the PS2 in 2006, was one of my biggest regrets. After starting and stopping Okami 3 times over the past 12 years, on three different systems, I finally had the chance to finish the story thanks to Capcom's latest remaster, this time for PlayStation 4.
Okami tells the tale of Amaterasu, the Shinto sun goddess from Japanese mythology, masquerading as a white wolf tasked with saving the world from the dreaded Orochi, an eight-headed serpent. Along the way the player will pick up a feisty companion by the name of Issun, a tiny wandering painter trying to discover the master techniques of the Brush Gods, celestial beings who shape the world with the stroke of a paint brush. Several other characters from Japanese mythology also make appearances, as you travel through ancient Nippon in a quest to save the realm.
Watercolor Comes to Life
The most striking aspect of Okami, be it now or back in 2006, is the visual presentation. From a pure artistic standpoint, without regards to things like texture counts or HDR, Okami is arguably the most beautiful game ever created. Whereas God of War III’s wonderful visuals were the result of replicating oil paintings, Okami achieves its artistic splendor through the emulation of watercolor and Japanese sumi-e ink art. Vibrant and fluid, the world of Okami is a masterclass in artistry, and one that you control with your Celestial Brush, the key element of Okami’s gameplay. At any time during the game, you can briefly pause the action and bring up your brush to destroy, restore or transform the world around you.
As you travel the world, Amaterasu will learn various brush techniques from other ancient gods and goddesses that may be used to assist her in several ways, from restoring missing pieces of the world to creating stronger attacks. More often than not, you will use this brush to bring life back to a decaying world overrun by evil, and the rush of color as a rejuvenated land comes back to life before your very eyes is truly a beautiful site. I never once tired of using my brush to restore life to plants, create waterfalls and spouts, or grow trees, which was fortunate as you do spend a good deal of time doing just that.
The Art of Combat
Not everything in the world is roses, however. In fact, most of Nippon is cursed at the start of the game, and it is up to you to clear these areas of evil spirits and restore balance. To that end you will find yourself frequently engaged in combat with various demons. Throughout the course of the game you will acquire new weapons for Amaterasu, allowing for a variety of attacks and bonuses, all of which can be used either as a primary weapon or a sub-weapon where it functions differently. It is your Celestial Brush, however, that is your biggest asset, even in combat. Many of the brush techniques you acquire over the course of the game are directly related to boosting your attack and defense in battle, or giving you the edge in other ways. A typical fight may involve using regular attacks to knock down or stun enemies and then using power strokes to finish them off, or slow down time so you can flank your foes, or even summon the local flora to weaken them. The result is combat that is simplistic on its face, as it is never terribly difficult, but wonderfully fun in how creative it allows you to be. You never have to fight the same enemy the same way, and the number of options you have at your disposal only grows as the game goes on.
The boss battles in the game are a different story, as they require more unconventional approaches. Like most open world adventure games of its original era, Okami follows a fairly standard Zelda-like dungeon format with formidable foes at the end of each. What separates most of these dungeons apart from similar games is how unique and distinct they are. Rather than the usual temples of something like Zelda or any JRPG, Okami’s set pieces run the gamut from traditional dungeon to the insides of an emperor’s body to a kitchen of nightmares, none of which will give up their secrets until you tackle their boss. Unlike more traditional games in the genre, Okami does not give you dungeon-specific items that are only applicable to that area. Instead, the game fleshes out the skills available to you through your brush, and then requires you to use them all in new and innovative ways. The game builds on this mechanic so that nothing in your arsenal ever goes to waste, instead becoming part of a bigger repertoire that makes you feel truly powerful.
Music of the Gods
While the visual splendor of Okami will be the first thing to grab your attention, the sound design is equally beautiful. The newly remastered soundtrack, from famed Capcom composer Masami Ueda, does a wonderful job evoking the feel of a truly ancient Japanese land ripe for exploration but also fraught with danger.
Each character also has their own theme music, which is used quite effectively to set the mood for any scene, providing a sense of purpose based on the most important person in the scene. In a way it reminds me of old-time stage plays, ensuring every player gets their turn to shine.
All dialogue in the game is delivered through a form of videogame idioglossia, a made-up language that each character pronounces slightly differently to accentuate their own personalities. Rather than trying to localize the dialogue for all the various regions, Clover smartly defaulted to a language of their own that allows them to let inflection and tone do most of the talking. It’s not a perfect solution, but it fits much better with the overall look and feel than English dubbing would have.
A Long Road to Paradise
All the aforementioned aspects of the game add up to a lot, and make for a rich and rewarding experience, but even returning fans are likely to find plenty of frustrations along the way, as well, most of which are byproducts of the game’s original era. Dialogue in the game is usually delivered at a painfully slow rate, sometimes as slow as one letter per second. Perhaps an attempt to let some moments have a bigger impact, it actually left me mashing the X button and wondering why I could fast forward through some conversations and not others.
There’s also a lot of filler in Okami, with the game being a good 5 hours longer than it needed to be, even if you were to ignore most of the side quests and curiosities. As my play time crept into the high 20 hour range, I began to feel increasingly disappointed each time it was revealed that I had to travel to yet another land to fetch yet another pointless item. Whereas the first 15-20 hours are tightly woven and wonderfully paced, the latter half of the game really lags as it gets bogged down in these meaningless excursions.
It’s also worth noting that a lot of the game’s attempt at humor comes in the form of your companion, Issun, relentlessly sexually harassing every female you come in contact with. I’m not sure how much my comedic sensibilities have changed over the last decade or so, but I don’t think tiny little perverts constantly telling women how big their boobs are was ever funny. In light of recent social developments on this issue, these attempts at humor don’t just fall flat; they’re downright embarrassing.
While the audio visual overhaul is definitely welcome, it really is a shame that some of the aspects of the game did not receive any modernization, because for as unique and engaging as Okami still is, it often feels like a game trapped in the past, preventing it from being as good as it could be. Ultimately it’s worth the ride, especially if you’ve passed on previous chances to play it. I’ve always wondered why Capcom has been so eager to devote resources to remastering this game more than once, but so hesitant to continue the series with fresh installments. Hopefully at some point that changes and we’ll get a modern installment of Okami that reaches the full potential of its concepts, but until that day, I’m glad we have this remaster on PS4.