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Okami is a Tribute to Japanese Culture and a Wonderful Game
In this series, I take a look at some of the most beloved gems spanning Sony’s (almost) two decades in the gaming industry. Potential spoilers ahead. (Click here for last week’s entry.)
When I think of great PlayStation 2 games, I don’t think of huge franchise titles like Grand Theft Auto or really even Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy. Sure, I love Square Enix’s flagship franchises, but to me, PlayStation 2 was an era of triumphant games that would never succeed in today’s market. We launched this series with one such game—Shadow of the Colossus—and I’d like to continue it in this entry with another beloved PlayStation 2 gem: Okami.
Treading the same waters as The Legend of Zelda, Okami succeeds in differentiating itself enough to avoid the dreaded clone label (despite being released the same year as Twilight Princess, where much of Link’s adventure takes place as a wolf). It is a tale of the ancient Shinto sun goddess, Amaterasu, who takes the form of a white wolf reminiscent of a hundred-year-old fable to defeat the octo-headed dragon, Orochi. While not the most impressive-sounding plot on paper (though the story shifts focus beyond the legend of Orochi), it is the elements of Japanese lore and mythology blended with its distinct Eastern style that make this game so charming and lovable.
One look at Okami’s cel-shaded/sumi-e graphics is enough to whet any Japanophile’s intrigue. Its liberal use of Japanese mythology characters such as Susanoo and Orochi will succeed in captivating them. And while this game is clearly not meant to accurately portray these characters or tales (think God of War in relation to Greek mythology), it tells its own story beautifully, lending very little to modern customs or plot devices. It is decidedly Japanese through and through, and that’s easily one of its core strengths.
The other is gameplay. More specifically, it is the Celestial Brush. Having only explored this game on PlaySation 2, I can’t say whether this particular mechanic benefited from the Wii’s motion sensor capabilities (I’d imagine it would), but on the Dualshock controller, it worked well enough. The Celestial Brush allowed the player to draw over the screen to influence the world around Amaterasu and her trusty sprite companion, Issun. For example, drawing a wispy line across the screen might conjure a wind, or drawing a slash across an enemy could cut it in half. It was an intuitive mechanic that never felt superfluous, irrelevant, or gimmicky. Clover Studio took care to ensure the game made ample use of its defining feature, while still delivering on other aspects of gameplay.
The combat featured enough stat and weapon upgrading to keep players happy without going too far or detracting from the game’s overall atmosphere. Puzzles were satisfying, as one might expect from an action adventure title of this magnitude, and rarely did the game lull with so much to do. As expected, the game offered bountiful side quests that stayed true to its spirit.
Though the story focuses primarily on Amaterasu, who does not speak and therefore possesses something of a projected personality, the game does not suffer from lack of characterization. Of course, it is largely done through the supporting cast, most notably Issun and vacillating companions Susano and Waka. The former is a descendant of an ancient hero who, together with the white wolf of legend, sealed away Orochi a century ago, and believes himself to be a great hero even though he’s more of a bumbling idiot. Of course, when push comes to shove he proves himself in a charming, if predictable, maneuver of growth. Waka remains a bit more ambiguous throughout the game, at once seeming both helpful and antagonistic. Though his story arc takes a bizarre turn in the end, he remains a memorable part of the game’s motley cast.
Perhaps most interesting about Okami is its emphasis on nature and rebuilding the world. Anyone who has studied Shinto may not be surprised by this facet, but it’s not often explored, and if it is, world-building is done artificially, with metropolises and such. Okami stays faithful to its religious roots by promoting (and often requiring) the player to restore barren lands to life. This happens with the Celestial Brush, which can be used to sprout trees and revitalize dead plants and whatnot. (In a clever nod to the developer’s name, the player can find four-leaf clovers across the land to revive.) While in cinema the emphasis on nature might be branded “nature-worshiping,” gaming can thankfully get away with this, and it proves to be one of the better quirks of Okami.
All in all, Okami is a wonderful game that was shamefully passed up by so many players. (Sadly, this contributed to the closing of Clover, though Capcom retains the rights to the game.) Its setting in ancient Japan and focus on Japanese lore provided the spirit and essence of the game, while the Celestial Brush was a touch of innovation that redeemed it from being a carbon copy. Perhaps one of these days I’ll pick this gem up on PlayStation 3 and enjoy the land of Nippon in high-def glory.