Running a Zelda website is difficult – actually, running a fan site in general must be difficult, because writing a review of a game that isn’t [insert franchise here] seems impossible. I feel expected to like Zelda, when in reality I love tons of games, and dislike many Zelda games (game boy Zeldas, you know how I feel!). This is why I’m thrilled that my latest most favorite game bears such a striking similarity to the Zelda series that I could express my love for it in front of all of you ZU readers.
Okami was originally released for PlayStation 2 in 2006 to rave reviews. It didn’t receive much attention, attention that it very well deserves, but it did publicize itself enough that its demographic felt it was better suited for the Wii, and not the PlayStation 2. Two years later, that demographic wins the hearts of Capcom, who agrees to abuse ReadyAtDawn Studios’s goldmine of talent to port Okami to the Wii console.
For those unfamiliar with exactly why there was such a clamor to port Okami to Wii, I present the mighty reason: In the Zelda series, Link acquires items that give him skills and abilities, allowing him to solve certain puzzles and advance further in the plotline, and eventually defeat whoever the final boss is. In Okami, you receive “brush techniques” – painterly abilities that are not physical items, but work the same way. You literally paint on the screen using special brush strokes to manipulate the world around you, allowing the main character, Okami Amaterasu, to solve puzzles much in the same way Link does.
In the PlayStation 2 version, Okami players were forced to use the analog stick to control the brush – aptly named the “Celestial Brush” – a tedious and slow motion that was perfected on the Wii. I was personally surprised at how natural painting on the screen felt. Disregarding the fact that I use a projector screen to play my video games and that left me ginormous room to paint, the Wii’s motion sensing capabilities have astounded me to no end with their abilities to accurately sense my brush strokes.
So, here’s the quick skinny on Okami: You are Okami Amaterasu, goddess of the Sun in the form of a white wolf. You died 100 years ago in a furious battle against the eight-headed demon, Orochi, and ushered in an era of peace. Unfortunately, you died as well, and your lifeless body was turned into a statue to commemorate your heroism. Now, 100 years later, Orochi has returned. You have been revived by the wood sprite Sakuya to once again defeat Orochi and bring peace to the land.
I believe the only thing that bugged me about the game was that Amaterasu had no recollection of her past, or at least could not speak to tell the viewer about her past. But this is a small battered copper coin among mountains of gold, and Amaterasu’s past is oddly explained throughout the course of the game through stunningly beautiful sum-e style artwork. The amount of work that went into defining the style of this game is impeccable – all the Wind Waker-haters out there surely must succumb to the sheer beauty and style of Okami, which takes cel shading and turns it into a form of art. Although The Wind Waker was beautiful – and my favorite Zelda game by far – its cel shading is nowhere near as creative and stylistic as Okami’s, disregarding the fact that Okami was developed and released nearly three years after The Wind Waker.
Okami’s artwork extends beyond its cel shading. Hand-crafted pieces of artwork appear before each new enemy encounter, and custom views of Amaterasu were created for each different weapon she equips. This nuances in artwork create a world that extends beyond the 3D realm, and bring to life the paper of the playing field. Enemy design is exquisite and intricate, and it’s clear that the style was intentionally chosen so that enemies on screen would look as close to their 2D artwork counterparts as possible. This merging of 2D and 3D artwork into a single, flowing piece is not only beautifully done, but harmonic – encountering new, more challenging enemies is an event both frightening and looked forward to. On one hand, the player may face certain doom as the challenge overwhelms him. On the other hand, he gets to view a wonderful work of art before meeting his demise. Such art is scattered throughout Okami. The amount of work that went into defining and creating Okami’s art and style is breathtaking. And bosses get similar treatment – but their drawings are far more extravagant.
Having played Twilight Princess long, long before touching or hearing of Okami, I will state that anybody who enjoyed Twilight Princess will get a kick out of Okami. I previously stated that the main character, Okami Amterasu, is not only female but also a wolf – not simply for part of the game, but for the entire game. So, as you pick up the Wiimote and Nunchuck to begin to play, you instantly think of Wolf Link if you have played Twilight Princess for Wii. And for good reason: The control scheme is not only similar to Wolf Link’s, it is exactly the same. Shake the Wiimote to thrust forward and attack. Use the nunchuck to run around and dodge. Etc, etc etc.
But Okami takes it quite a few steps further: think Wolf Link on steroids. Twilight Princess had changeable weapons, but only for Human Link, and only two weapons – the Ordon Sword and the Master Sword. Amaterasu has not two, but fifteen different weapons, or “Divine Instruments,” to choose from, and three different types of weapons. In addition, weapons can be equipped as main and sub weapons – as a main weapon, the equip will deliver more powerful attacks whenever you shake the wiimote at an enemy. As a sub-weapon, it will perform a different attack that activates when you press the Z button near an enemy. Therefore, each weapon really has two abilities, lending good ol’ Ammy thirty different attacks. Amaterasu carries these weapons on her back, and they are only directly usable while in battle. Those weapons, and your brush (many strokes act as offensive maneuvers), are what will defeat hundreds of demon foes.
Battle is incredibly similar to Twilight Princess’s Wolf Link battle schema. Battles occur in an enclosed space, blocked off by a circular wall that disappears when the battle is finished. Within the enclosure is Ammy and her foes – and the battle ensues, just like Wolf Link’s would. Fortunately, as previously explained Amaterasu has a wealth of attacks that give battles true diversity. Wolf Link feels rather boring compared to Ammy due to his dull, limited attacks. Amaterasu likes to show us just how powerful a wolf can really be, and after playing Okami it seems silly that Wolf Link was so powerless. Had Wolf Link had the same item and battle schema as Amaterasu, he could have easily taken Ganondorf down right quick.
Dungeons are not as straightforward as they are in Zelda; it’s not always evident when you’re in a dungeon, going to a dungeon, or finishing a dungeon. Nevertheless, it gives the game a flow that you don’t see in Zelda. Twilight Princess felt so very linear. You knew when you were going to the next dungeon. You knew exactly when it started, what you were going to get, and when it would end. Okami is scatterbrained, in a good way. The dungeons themselves aren’t crucial – there are only five or six of them. Sure, you’re required to traverse through them, but it’s not always apparent that you’ve gone through a dungeon. Boss battles don’t always happen inside dungeons, or at the end of them, and because of this the entire “dungeon” construct become irrelevant. You’re free to enjoy the game and its puzzles pretty much everywhere, and you never know what’s going to show up next. It’s not obvious the way Zelda games are, and it’s refreshing in that aspect.
Granted, Okami also feels more adult than any Zelda game I’ve played (a major component of the game is the Japanese rice wine “sake”, which fuels both comic relief and plays a major part in stupefying a certain boss). Large amounts of dialogue from Amaterasu’s guide, discussed later, are filled with sexual innuendo. Nevertheless, its dialogue is intricate and its storytelling is far from the second-grade vocabulary that the Zelda series surrounds itself with. It makes sense, given that the entire game is meant to feel like a book and painting; the player is never overwhelmed with words, and the dialogue never gets boring. Often times characters will repeat something that they just said, but that’s a minor annoyance and makes dialogue go faster when it needs to. If you really feel that the dialogue gets long and tedious and wordy, they’ve included an ability to skip dialogue and cutscenes in the Wii version of Okami – a blessing when there are rather long scenes just before boss battles. Nonetheless, it is the dialogue of Okami that creates the true atmosphere of the game.
The game wouldn’t mean much if faith and godliness weren’t a major component, and I must say that I’ve never felt such a pressing sense of evil and destruction in any game I’ve ever played. Villains these days have become comical. They never represent a true threat – even Ganondorf, dark and foreboding in Twilight Princess, was overshadowed by the rather comical and downright goofy Zant. There is no evil being identified as the true villain in Okami, even though Orochi is initially thought to be the antagonist. Rather, evil is a presence that is everywhere, and the truly religious talk amongst villagers and their actions of prayer to prevent it create an atmosphere that makes the evil feel, for the first time, actually dangerous. Evil is scary – evil causes death. How do they fix that? Pray to the gods.
And when they pray, you gain power. Amaterasu gains experience, called Praise, much like modern RPG’s. Instead of leveling up, you can increase your life. Heart Containers become Solar Energy, the Magic meter becomes your Ink Bottles (the number of times you can use your brush before losing your divine abilities temporarily). You can increase any of these if you have the praise enough to do so. And if you find three Sun Fragments, your Solar Energy goes up by one unit – think Heart Containers. It’s strikingly, if not exactly similar the Zelda series’ formula.
And what Zelda formula would be complete without our guide? Ocarina of Time began the tradition of tying Link’s guide directly into the story; The Wind Waker took that a step further, and Twilight Princess made Link’s guide a major character not only crucial to the storyline, but the reason for the game’s title. While Issun, Amaterasu’s inch-high guide, is not the reason for the game’s namesake, Issun is a major character and plays a huge role in the game’s plot. Issun packs twice the attitude of Navi into the same sized package – his presence at first seems to be only for comic relief. By the end of the game, his comments are still laughable, but his presence does have a greater purpose – even if half of his dialogue is perverted. Issun actually comes, most interestingly, directly from Japanese folklore – the inch-high boy who went out to find his place in the world. He saved a princess from a monster, and the dead monster coughed up a mallet that could grant its holder any wish. The princess used the mallet to grow this folkloric Issun to normal size, and they eventually wed.
It’s not surprising that there is a special item in Okami: The Lucky Mallet. But it does rather the opposite of growing Amaterasu – it shrinks you down to Issun’s size! These references to real Japanese culture create an even more realistic atmosphere. The reason why evil feels so darn evil in Okami is because you’re placed in a world so humbled by its tradition, stories, religion and environment that it’s more than worth saving. It must be saved! What’s even better, the game does not take place in a fictional land. Okami is set in classical Japan. An uncanny amount of the game’s characters are ripped straight out of folklore. Amaterasu is the actual name for the sun goddess in Japanese mythology – what can Zelda say about its gods? Okami can say: ““Okami Amaterasu, origin of all that is good and mother to us all.”
Okami is a gem of a game, and you are a fool if you don’t purchase it. As a Legend of Zelda fan, you are a fool if you do not purchase it. As a Wolf Link fan, you are a fool if you do not purchase it. As a fan of all fine art, you are a fool if you do not purchase it. As a reader, a storyteller, a religious zealot, an atheist, a common man or woman, or a hardcore gaming maniac, you are a fool to not purchase Okami, origin of all that is good and mother to us all.