For a divine being, the wolf god Ameterasu doesn’t have a lot of luck. Okami, a visually stunning action adventure with a rich, sprawling storyline, was released towards the end of the PlayStation 2‘s lifecycle in 2007 and, despite glowing reviews, sold dismally.
The Wii-optimised re-release failed to sell much better, even though the console’s control system appeared to be the perfect venue for the game. Selling just 600,000 copies overall, the Wii iteration of Okami earned the rather depressing record for “least commercially successful winner of a game of the year award” from Guinness.
So what was it about Okami, a game that earned huge amounts of praise from critics, that failed to capture a larger audience’s imagination? Were its sumptuous graphics, inspired by traditional Japanese painting, a little too artistic for most people’s tastes? Was its wolf protagonist too unengaging for gamers more used to playing the part of a human?
Four years on from the original Okami, Capcom has decided to give the game another chance with Okamiden, a follow-up that pads similar territory to the first title, while adding a few new ideas of its own.
The most obvious difference is that, on its new home on the Nintendo DS, Okamiden has a technically basic platform to deal with. Capcom has therefore found a way of simplifying the character models from the first game, while retaining the distinctive brushstroke aesthetic that made Okami so memorable in the first place. The result is a more simplified, cartoon-like style that looks fantastic in motion – the screenshots dotted around this review really don’t do the game justice.
Following on from the events of the first game, Okamiden introduces a new central character, Chibiterasu, the wolf cub son of Amiterasu. Smaller and less powerful than his parent, Chibiterasu pairs up with a young boy, Kuni, also the son of a character from the first game. Other partners appear later in the game to help Chibiterasu in his quest to save the land of Nippon from an evil demonic horde.
The game’s central image, of a child loping around the countryside on the back of a magical wolf cub, is an unforgettably endearing one, and in spite of the technical limitations of the DS, is engagingly brought to life with some beautifully wrought animation.
Okamiden’s sumptuous, dreamlike visual style does much to disguise the fact that, for the entirety of the game’s lengthy campaign, you’re essentially staring at a canine’s backside.
The original Okami introduced the concept of the Celestial Brush, in which spells were cast by drawing shapes and lines on the screen. In both its PS2 and Wii incarnations, it was a great idea that never quite worked – attempting to draw a circle with a thumbstick was as clumsy as it sounds, while drawing with the Wii remote induced arm ache after an hour or so.
With the DS’ stylus, this potentially fantastic mechanic has finally found a natural home. The ability to draw directly on the screen immediately dovetails with the rest of the game’s controls, and casting spells – which is achieved by first freezing the action with a shoulder button, and then scrawling the appropriate shape on the lower screen – feels instinctive and satisfying.
With the Celestial Brush, you can blow up walls with divine bombs, slash enemies with magical sword attacks, and cause wizened trees to sprout blossom. It’s a perfectly realised part of the game, albeit tempered slightly by the developers’ insistence on dropping extremely large hints as to when and where you should use your magical powers.
The addition of a human partner adds a new dimension too, beyond the convenience of having a foil to Chibiterasu’s plucky determination. With a tap of a button, the character will dismount, and can then be controlled indirectly with the Celestial Brush. This comes in particularly handy when faced with a bridge that’s too rickety for both characters to cross at once, a puzzle element that appears repeatedly as the game wears on. It’s a simple yet welcome addition to the original’s action adventure gameplay.
Otherwise, Okamiden’s almost identical to its predecessor, with many of the characters and locations from Okami making a reappearance for this small screen adventure. But while some of the missions you undertake will leave you with a cloying sense of déjà vu – fetch-and-carry missions, demon hunting – Okamiden’s only slightly less epic in scale than its bigger cousin, and will take many, many hours to complete.
And while some of the errands you’re saddled with seem rather inconsequential in the game’s grander narrative, others are invested with an emotional twang that keeps you drawn in – one early mission sees you putting on a firework display to cheer up a terminally ill girl. The brief cut scene that follows, where the girl stares delightedly as the sky lights up above her, is unexpectedly moving.
It’s a moment that illustrates Okamiden at its best – it immerses the player in a painterly wonderland of simple, innocent people, and despite the legion of demons you have to kill, its tone is light-hearted, yet faintly melancholy.
Worryingly, Okamiden appears to be cursed with the same lack of fortune that bugged its parent – released just as the world’s going nuts over the seductive 3DS, it’s another game that’s appeared at the tail end of a system’s lifespan. It’s unfortunate, too, that Okamiden has the might of Pokémon Black and White to deal with, a franchise that achieves the kind of sales a relatively niche game like Okamiden can only dream of.
A beautiful game that has been put together with evident affection for its characters, Okamiden deserves your attention. It doesn’t push the boundaries that Okami established particularly far, but it’s nevertheless a pleasure to revisit one of gaming’s most visually distinctive, vibrant worlds in handheld form.