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Ōkami HD

Score: 100%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: Clover Studio
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Action/ Adventure


Graphics & Sound:

The end of 2006 had me frustrated beyond belief. The world had absolutely lost its mind over The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, a competent but unambitious release. As it has always done with new Zelda games, most of the press refused to look at it critically and instead chose to seat it on a throne constructed out of fluffy reviews, perfect scores, pointless "Game of the Year" talk, and other meaningless superlatives. At the time, I was spinning my wheels working at a game retailer. People who had finished Twilight Princess were in a state of existential mourning, despairing at the wait they would have to endure while Nintendo crafted another masterpiece. I would ask "Did you play Ōkami?" and be answered not only in the negative, but with a follow-up that stung worse and worse every time I heard it: "What's that?" And then it was my turn to despair.

Ōkami had released seven months earlier and was vastly superior to Twilight Princess in every conceivable way. At the time, barely anybody knew it existed and even fewer had played it. Clover Studio regrettably bought the farm after this game failed to make a big enough financial impact, but our story has a happy ending nevertheless. Clover is now PlatinumGames, one of the most respected action game developers working today, and Ōkami is now widely viewed as one of the greatest video games ever made. On top of that, I would argue that it is the most deserving title from the sixth generation of video game consoles to be given the HD rerelease treatment. Ōkami HD is a worthwhile return to a masterpiece that completely defies its age.

Had Ōkami released for the very first time this year, it would have been none the worse for wear. How insane is that? This game is pushing twelve years old, and it comfortably finds its place among any next-gen library. Such is the enduring legacy of Ōkamiís transcendent, as-of-yet unsurpassed artistic design. Its impossibly rich, vibrant watercolor visuals pervade every aspect of the gameís execution, and not once do they falter. The creativity and sheer craft on display cannot be understated; the presentation positions the entire enterprise as a rapturous celebration of life itself. Environments and special effects are largely comprised of solid colors, clear lines, and universal symbols, while the outline of every animate object is so possessed with the essence of life that it almost appears ready to leap from the screen. You must see it to believe it.

As Ōkami is rooted heavily in traditional mythology, you should expect a soundtrack that includes shamisens, shakuhachi, taiko, and Kabuki-esque vocalizations. Itís undeniably authentic and often incredibly beautiful. You get a lot of this kind of stuff from distinctly Eastern-themed experiences, but rarely is it of such a high quality. The serious stuff makes up the grand majority of the music, though the two most important supporting characters are given themes that basically make fun of them. Thereís no voice acting, nor should there be. Most of these lines simply would not work, especially considering the context in which they are delivered. Instead, weíre treated to lines of text accompanied by Banjo-Kazooie-esque phonetic gibberish, and it works.


Gameplay:

Ōkami is rooted in Shinto legend. A hundred years after the legendary warrior Nagi teamed up with the white wolf Shiranui to vanquish the eight-headed serpent Orochi, an unbeliever has broken the seal that has since held the evil spirit. At the behest of the tree spirit Sakuya, Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun, is summoned to the world of the living in the avatar of Shiranui. Accompanied by a foppish, lecherous little poncle named Issun, the goddess sets forth on a grand quest to purge Nippon of the evil that plagues it.

Itís a classic story of gods and demons, but itís in the telling where Ōkami truly shines. At times dignified and self-indulgent and at others cheeky and irreverent, it is occasionally poignant, frequently heartwarming, and always charming. A story like this simply cannot be told with a straight face in this day and age; the game is deeply aware of its own absurdity, but sells it completely nonetheless. It embraces its intrinsic weirdness to excellent effect by amplifying its cast well past "larger than life." The dignity youíd think would be afforded the creator of everything and giver of life is undermined at every turn by her seemingly-uncontrollable canine instincts. Sheís frequently trying to eat Issun, napping during serious story moments, and letís just say some of her late game abilitiesÖ are both what youíd expect and what they should be.

But how does it play? Well, for the most part, like a Zelda game. Itís a guided open-world adventure punctuated by light puzzle-solving and combat elements. You adventure from place to place, solving problems as you go in the way that only you can. You rid the natural world of the curses plaguing it, exorcise demons with holy implements of destruction, and resolve matters both cosmic and mundane. In short, you work miracles to get stuff done.

Ōkamiís three pillars of gameplay are sustained by the creativity that drives both its presentation and its mechanics. That being said, the distribution of weight between exploration, puzzle-solving, and combat isnít equal. Considering that they arenít equal in strength, this is acceptable. Merely existing in the world of Ōkami is a pleasure, so itís only natural that exploration takes a slight majority of the focus. That being said, the game goes out of its way to accommodate different playstyles. For example, exploration inevitably leads to puzzles and combat, which in turn lead to treasures and currency for upgraded skills and equipment.


Difficulty:

Ōkami is easy, and some might argue to a fault. This is by no means a challenging experience. The foundations of the combat system are elementary. Button-mashing will get you pretty far, and the only multi-button combo attacks revolve around using different weapons. Of course, things get exponentially more interesting when you factor in the Celestial Brush, so take this with a grain of salt. Iíd never accuse the combat of being boring, and thatís largely thanks to the visuals. But even if youíre not a fan, it can at least be avoided in most cases.

The lack of challenge extends beyond the combat and into the puzzles, and itís here where I take slight issue with the way itís delivered. Every puzzle is solvable after a minute or two of exploration, observation, and a quick accounting of the tools at Amaterasuís disposal. But Ōkami occasionally falls prey to a distinctly Nintendo-flavored design flaw: it grossly underestimates the playerís intelligence. Between the inescapable directorial hints and red text worked into the dialogue with all the subtlety of an anvil to the head, Ōkamiís tendency to preemptively solve its own puzzles on your behalf is perhaps the one concrete flaw I can find with the game as a whole. But even that isnít enough to prevent me from giving the highest honor I can bestow.


Game Mechanics:

All of the visual splendor of Ōkami feeds directly into its signature mechanic: the Celestial Brush. Amaterasu is a goddess, after all, and her influence on the world is palpable. But she canít save Nippon on her own: she needs a little help from her subordinates, who have been imprisoned in some way, shape, or form. Once released, these lesser gods bestow upon Amaterasu the essence of their natural aspect, granting her the ability to literally paint divine intervention into the world with her tail. In-game, this function is both striking and innovative. By holding down a button, the world is subtly and quickly converted into what appears to be a sheet of parchment. From there, itís a matter of painting a simple symbol where you want the miracle to happen, releasing the button, and watching the magic unfold.

The Celestial Brush has applications in exploration, puzzle-solving, and combat. For example, if itís night and you need it to be daytime, paint a circle in the sky and the sun will appear in its place. If some wooden posts are blocking your way forward, paint a line through them; theyíll be cleft in twain. Fighting elemental enemies that are frozen solid and on fire? Draw a line from the fiery enemy to the frozen one to melt the ice, then paint a clothoid loop over the fiery one to summon wind and blow out the flames. Discovering these possibilities and strategies on the fly is part of what makes Ōkamiís gameplay so frequently enthralling.

Combat is rarely forced; most encounters manifest themselves as "demon scrolls" that float around the field and only initiate upon contact with Amaterasu. When this happens, she is transported to a compact circular arena and confronted by any number of awesome-looking demonic beings who are ready to throw down. From there, itís simply a matter of utilizing Ammyís Divine Instruments in tandem with Brush Techniques to dispatch them.

Thereís an awful lot to do in Ōkami, and most of it is excellent. Its numerous open world environments are rife but not oversaturated with collectibles and special activities. The sidequests are worth completing and bear tangible rewards, but not all of them are fun. For my part, Iím really not a fan of the digging mini-game. That being said, the natural flow between diversions strikes the right balance that provides both the incentive to travel off the beaten path and the brevity that will put you back on course in no time.

Thatís the last time I will use the word "brevity" to describe Ōkami; this is an incredibly lengthy adventure, and thatís not at all due to artifice. This game absolutely earns its runtime, which, depending on how much you want to do, can have you crossing the finish line at anywhere between twenty-five and thirty-five hours. Itís all time well-spent, even more so if you go the extra mile and invest in the progression system. While itís true that Ōkami is an easy game, youíll still feel compelled to aim for total completion, be it via passive upgrades earned through Praise (experience), equipment and abilities bought with yen, or the wealth of lore and bonus material naturally acquired during exploration.

It isnít too often that we see a high-definition rerelease of a game thatís more than one generation old. Considering the technological and philosophical leaps and bounds that our favorite medium is prone to over the years, revisiting the distant past becomes riskier the further back you stretch. Rereleases must earn the right to be counted in the here and now. Ōkami HD makes short work of that caveat and then some.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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