Since our first look at the game, it was quite obvious that Okami would be something special, and very likely wind up as one of the PlayStation 2's last must-have hits. Gamers everywhere have been waiting for this game with bated breath as it has long promised to be entirely original, wholly beautiful and quite possibly the PS2's answer to Zelda.
In large part, the game has met all of these expectations. It isn't perfect by any means, but what it does right it does extremely well. In fact, the game will surprise you in ways that you hadn't expected, even after its beauty has become familiar and even taken for granted. It might not quite be on the level of Zelda, but it's probably the closest thing we've ever seen outside of Nintendo, and that's saying a whole lot.
Okami's design is based around its Celestial Brush, a godly mechanism that literally lets you paint things into the world or directly affect its state, like changing night to day or causing the winds to rush. Nearly every element of the game is tied into this brush in one way or another, and as such, much of its success is based on how well it works and was implemented.
Using the brush becomes second-hand almost instantly. Holding down the R1 button, you use the left analog stick to paint while the right analog stick will pan the camera, even in the brush's paused state of time. The Square button will paint a standard line while the Triangle button is pressure-sensitive, allowing you to paint thin or thick lines at will. You don't really need to use this very often other then when you need to cover a fair bit of the screen, but it's nice that you have this play with the pressure.
Your ability to paint detailed or even perfect shapes with the brush will depend upon your mastery of your analog sticks, but luckily the game gives you plenty of leeway with your shapes. If you need to draw a circle, a fairly long oval will usually suffice as long as you connect the ends. There are occasions where you'll miss this by a smidge and will need to retry, but there are hardly any cases where you'll get penalized for it.
The power that you have with the brush is rather fantastic. You're able to chop down most trees at will to find goodies, spring life back into dead trees, bring out the sun during the night, call upon the winds to do your bidding, yank water from a spring to put out a fire, materialize a large bomb and much, much more. These things you can do at will, but many of the bigger, "world changing" events, like drawing a bridge into existence, only work at predefined areas. While these sections can sometimes feel a tiny bit contrived as you're really just going through the motions and doing what the game wants you to do, many of the brushes other functions work at your whim and do so wonderfully.
Perhaps the only somewhat disappointing part about the Celestial Brush is that most every shape is based on either circles or lines. This means that through most of the game you'll be connecting two objects via a line, slashing through something or circling something else, and these three motions pretty much cover the game's 15 brush techniques. This is very likely the result from a combination of intuitive play and hardware limitations, but just a little more variety would have been nice.
One of the most surprising things about Okami is how good the story is, and even more so the dialog. The story progresses in a rather standard adventure game manner in that you have a giant, overarching goal that you need to meet with a lot of little and sometimes unrelated challenges along the way. Even though a fair bit of the elements may seem trivial, you get a great sense of how important your mission is to the world, who and what you are and how you affect the people of Nippon. In other words, Clover Studio has done a great job of making the game's events feel much bigger then just you and Orochi (the game's 8-headed antagonist), even if some of the missions don't seem to tie directly in.
One element that especially helps drive the game's story is the dialog, and Capcom has somehow managed to create one of the best translations we've seen in a long, long time. The characters are funny, witty, sarcastic, sly and generally have a ton of personality, especially Amaterasu and Issun, the bug-sized artist that acts as your guide of sorts. While Amaterasu may be a god, she's also in the form of a wolf and can't speak, but that doesn't mean her character doesn't come across. She'll literally lie down and go to sleep while someone is talking to her, which is both a funny and unexpected action for someone of her stature. Some of the one-off characters you'll run into in villages have passable dialog, but the main characters are absolutely fantastic.
As for the game's missions, some seem a little out of place, as we mentioned, but there's a fair bit of leeway in what you can do. The game takes you from city to city, leaving the world open in case you'd like (or need) to return to a previous area. Throughout the course of the game you'll have the option to stay on the relatively straight path to defeating Orochi once and for all, or you can choose to help out the game's many villagers in one way or another. These side quests will earn you money, items, or most importantly of all, Praise, which you'll use to upgrade Amaterasu's health, available ink and so forth.
Some of these side missions are fairly basic, like playing whack-a-mole or digging for turnips while running from a gardener, but they're also mostly entertaining. Some are as simply as talking to someone, drawing a quick line and reaping the rewards, so it can really pay off to wander around town for a short bit and see what you can do to help. You are a god, after all.
Not only can you set off on random missions from villagers, there's literally a ton of stuff to hunt down and find in the world. Buried treasures, giant plant pods that need blossoming, cursed areas that need life, statues to appease and more cover the landscape. Tracking all of these down would easily double the game's already fairly lengthy play time, so there's a lot to keep gamers going here.
One problem that we do have with the main mission structure is that it can sometimes be difficult to figure out exactly where you need to be or who you need to talk to in order to continue. There are even times where two important and overlapping missions must be triggered in the right order to get things going, which can cause frustration when you know exactly what you're supposed to do on a mission, but can't until you start another, only partially connected task.
The main issue here is that many times you'll need to initiate a conversation with key characters multiple times before they'll give you the next big goal. A green arrow will appear above people that you can learn something new from, but it's possible to miss this and thusly become pretty lost. More than once we had to wander around for a while, moving from village to village, in order to figure out who we needed to speak with to move on. Curiously, there are times in the game where you'll be shown exactly where to go, which makes these "lost" sections seem a little worse.
There are a fair number of puzzles to solve in the game, some of which are rather inventive, but they don't really start to challenge you until later in the game. In fact, the first half-dozen hours or so involves a lot of hand-holding and entirely simple battles. The game is certainly engaging enough to stick with it, that's for sure, but we would have liked to have seen the challenge pick up much quicker.
This actually applies to Okami's battles through much of the game. Enemies are generally encountered when you run into moving spirit flags that cover the land, allowing you to pass as many as you want. You really only earn money and other non-essential goodies from them, so you could likely finish the game without ever touching one of them. Should you choose (or happen) to fight, however, you won't have any problem whatsoever as these "random" encounters are incredibly easy to beat. The enemies are certainly interesting, but very few put up any sort of a fight at all.
The game's bosses are much different, however. Big or small, Okami's main enemies are creative, challenging (or at least require a bit of puzzle solving) and, most importantly, fun. You'll happen across bosses that tower leagues above Amaterasu, and only by combing a number of brush techniques will you be able to get by. Some of these are a puzzle in and of themselves, generally testing the techniques that you've learned up to said point in the game. Our only disappointment is we wish we'd encountered more of them, but what's there is great.
Visually, no other game in existence compares with Okami. Its art style is entirely unique, mimicking a moving painting more than anything else. Subtle but awesome visual tricks like blacks bleeding off of one object and into another make even static elements of the world seem alive. Coupled with how dynamic the environment is, being before and after you've affected a number of things, you'll find it a constant playground for your eyes.
The game's animation too is superb. Amaterasu moves brilliantly, her legs and haunches moving like the wind as she strides across fields. Controlling her is a dream, and the visual feedback you'll get from anything you do only heightens this sense. Even when you run out of ink and Amaterasu's signature weapons and flares are gone for a short while, she looks brilliant in motion. It's really the combination of the fascinating art style with subtle movement that gives her such grace.
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