Hands on with Okamiden on the Nintendo DS

A cult classic on the PS2, Capcom’s Okami has been squeezed into the Nintendo DS as Okamiden - and here’s our hands-on preview…

Okamiden

Nintendo’s recent preview day was filled with one squeal-inducing surprise after another. First, there was the revelation that – incredibly – the 3DS really is worthy of all the praise it has already received. And while the lack of playable games was a bit of a disappointment, the rest of the games Nintendo had on display certainly weren’t.

Kirby Epic Yarn is a game I’ve already waffled on about at length, and it’s still one of the most unabashedly joyous games I’ve played in months, but the appearance of Okamiden on the DS was yet another wonderful surprise.

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Nintendo’s gleaming white demonstration area, bleeping away on a lone DS, it was all-too-easy to miss what could be a brilliant sequel to Clover’s criminally overlooked Okami.

The handful of players who played the PS2 original, released in 2006 at the tail end of the console’s lifecycle, will no doubt remember it well. An adventure game along the lines of the Zelda series, Okami was distinguished by its Celestial Brush mechanic, where drawing shapes and strokes on the screen could variously kill enemies, revive dead plants, cast spells or repair objects in the environment, as well as its unique, cel shaded visuals, which, in the best moments, resembled a Japanese watercolour come to life.

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Where most publishers would kill off a poorly selling property without a moment’s thought (and Okami had a second roll of the dice in 2008 with a port to the Nintendo Wii, which also failed to take off), Capcom has instead created Okamiden, which reworks the premise of its predecessor for the DS’s humble circuitry.

When the game was originally announced for the handheld a few months ago, critics were initially divided about the game’s chances. While most agreed that the DS’s stylus would be perfect for Okamiden‘s Celestial Brush elements, some suggested the original game’s stylish visuals simply couldn’t be replicated on the DS’s low resolution screen.

Having played Okamiden at length, I can happily say the naysayers are entirely wrong. By reworking Okami‘s visuals, and simplifying the character designs for the smaller screen, Okamiden‘s producers have created a game that approximates the look of its forebear, while creating a unique atmosphere that is all its own.

If anything, Okamiden‘s new protagonist, a snow-white wolf cub called Chibiterasu, is more engaging and filled with personality than Okami‘s, and the inclusion of Nushi, a small boy who rides around on Chibiterasu’s back like he’s a horse, creates a partnership that is almost too cute for words. Expect numerous Okamiden tie-in toys to follow in due course.

Okamiden‘s two characters also create an entirely new structure to the game’s environmental puzzles. While the player has full control over Chibiterasu, who can run, jump and attack, they can only command Nushi indirectly with sweeps of the Celestial Brush.

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In the areas we played through, the landscape was filled with bridges too weak to take both characters’ weight at the same time. To traverse them, Nushi must first jump off Chibiterasu’s back (he can be told to jump on and off with a jab of the X button), before being sent over the bridge with a sweep of the stylus, allowing Chibiterasu to wander over safely by himself.

The Celestial Brush mechanic, as so many predicted, feels perfectly at home on the DS. Hitting a shoulder button activates the brush mode, and strokes of the stylus can be used to attack multiple enemies or slash through rock barriers. Where drawing shapes with a joypad on the PS2 was an often fiddly affair, performing the same task on the DS is an absolute joy. And with this more comfortable control system in place, designers Kuniomi Matsushita and Motohide Eshiro have been able to include far more intricate applications for the mechanic in Okamiden.

At certain points, a pattern has to be traced in the night sky. Draw the shape accurately enough within the time limit, and a new brush skill is unlocked, triggering a cute, quintessentially Japanese cutscene at the same time. The one I saw was filled with dancing penguins.

In line with Okamiden‘s simpler, cleaner aesthetic, the game’s combat system has been greatly simplified too, with physical attacks achieved with the repeated tap of a single button. Brush attacks will inflict greater damage, but will drain your precious reserves of ink, which can only be topped up by finding the jars dotted around the map.

If anything, Capcom has crafted a game even more engaging than its predecessor, and has cleverly wrought Okamiden‘s graphics and play mechanics around the DS’s strengths and weaknesses. The result is an intimate adventure filled with subtle design and often poetic visuals.

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We just hope that Okamiden can achieve the deserved success its predecessor unfairly lacked.

Okamiden is due for release in Europe next year.