Okami HD Review

By Kevin Tavore,
While the phrasing has disappeared in modern conversation, gaming press and developers used to hype up games as franchise killers. Each genre had its monolithic franchise that other developers would constantly try to top. Those who had the best chance of doing it applied certain monikers to their games: Mario-killer, Halo-killer or FF-killer, for instance. These franchises are still around so it’s pretty obvious none of these killers ever found that mass market success, but at least some of them did topple their targets in terms of quality and they’ve garnered a dedicated fanbase ever since. So what was Okami? Okami was a Zelda-killer created by Hideki Kamiya, the man beyond Resident Evil and Devil May Cry, who would eventually go on to found Platinum Games. It’s one of those killers that just may have been a bit better than its target back when it was released in 2006, if not today.

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The most defining feature of Okami is its artstyle. The art style is based on the traditional Japanese Ukiyo-e. This is an art style that evolved in Japan during the 17th-19th centuries, and it’s quite unlike anything Western audiences had ever experienced. Artists of this style would favor bright colors that struck a sharp contrast with each other, and while eventually artists would shift focus to the indoors and more intimate subject matter, early painters in this style used their skills to illustrate people out in a beautiful world.

As a modern reinterpretation of this style, Okami is a veritable success. While the colors are muted by today’s standards to match the traditional style, which had to make do with the inks and painting surfaces available three hundred years ago in Japan, the style’s sharp contrast makes the colors feel bright, as if they’re jumping off the page of your screen. As you survey the world in Okami, any given screenshot can look as if you are viewing a painting. It’s entirely different to any other game of this calibur, and its base in traditional art style also makes it timeless. Okami is a game that will never fall victim to increasing graphical standards as its goal was only ever to be something classical and traditional.

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The story also takes inspiration from traditional Japanese culture. A darkness is sweeping the land and you play the goddess Amaterasu, incarnated as a white wolf, who's on a quest to stop it. Along the way you’ll meet heroes, celestial gods and goddesses, and the people of Japan. The story is woven as a folktale mixed with a look at traditional Japanese culture in the form of the people in the towns and villages you will visit. On a technical level, the story is cliched and predictable, but that’s easy to forgive as folktales and myths typically are. The world itself stands apart as a lovely depiction of a Japan by which anyone could be fascinated.

The gameplay also takes Ukiyo-e and renders it into mechanics quite unlike any other game. In a Zelda-style game, you’ll always be going through dungeons, collecting various pieces of equipment to increase your abilities. In lieu of equipment, Okami uses brush strokes that affect the world in a very real way. It starts with simple straight lines for a slash, a circle on the water for a lily pad, or a circle on an object to bring it to life, but you will earn more and more abilities as you progress, which you’ll need to paint onto the world to achieve your goals. Most importantly, while painting with a controller sounds painful, the brush strokes are quite easy to master and you’ll quickly find yourself becoming comfortable with them, ready to unleash a new trick at a moment’s notice.

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Dungeons are present, of course. At the start, they are short affairs that will teach you brush strokes and then give you puzzles in which to use them. The puzzles are unfortunately far too easy. The game spends its opening half relying almost entirely on its art and world to keep you playing, as the gameplay is certainly too simple to hold you there. It’s not until the second half of the game, when you’ve learned a larger repertoire of brush strokes, that the game truly flourishes. The turning point was a haunted island; the location served as a dungeon that was large in scale and filled with many puzzles that made you use multiple brush strokes together in a quick fashion to get where you wanted to go. It’s a long journey to walk, but eventually the game’s promising mechanics do pay off if you have the patience to get there.

Combat follows the same course as dungeons. Initially, it is entirely too simple: you spam your attack until the enemy turns to stone and then you use a single line brush stroke to finish it off. Enemies are not threatening and you’ll nearly always have enough health to withstand multiple hits. Even if you die, there’s a mechanic that will allow you to revive and continue the fight, although this was never needed. Later enemies — especially bosses — do become more complicated, if not tougher to fight, which makes them altogether more interesting. If you’re looking for a challenge, Okami will not offer it, but its combat does eventually evolve into something that is really quite fun to play.

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The game does suffer on the level of technical design. It’s simply not modern. While most cutscenes and dialogue are skippable entirely, you can’t skip forward individual lines of text like you can in many games. This makes having a conversation painstaking and frustrating. Unfortunately, you’ll need to do it if you want to have any idea where to go or what to do without using a guide, as the quest log only tracks the main quest and only does this vaguely. This was the game’s biggest issue and side content was skipped entirely, simply because I didn’t want to wait for a slow scrolling line of text to play out for minutes at a time.

This issue was compounded by the audio. The audio has pros and cons. Tying into the storytelling through text, there’s no voice acting. Most games without this, like Zelda in its earlier days, would replace this with grunts and other sounds on occasion. Those sounds are an acceptable compromise when voice acting is prohibitively expensive, but Okami takes it a step too far. Each of the characters constantly spouts beeps and boops that were probably inspired by R2D2. As you’re sitting around waiting for the line of text to get to the end so you can get on with it, these beeps and boops become incredibly frustrating. On the plus side of the audio, the soundtrack is an arrangement that quite beautifully captures the world and the emotions of the game.

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The achievements are fairly easy. If you use a guide, you’ll probably get a completion in about 40 hours. Along the way you’ll complete a few combat challenges, find a boatload of collectibles and complete a small number of the game’s side quests. You’ll also need to score the highest marks at the end of the game, although it’s all grindable except for having less than six deaths — luckily, the game is very easy and you’ll likely be fine. Three achievements are missable. That said, you’ll want to make copious amounts of save files as achievements will glitch and fail to unlock, forcing a replay if you can’t quickly reload a save and try again. This happened twice and the game’s solutions indicate this is a problem with every achievement in the game.

Summary

Zelda has moved past Okami today, but in 2006 Okami earned its title as a Zelda-killer. The game's innovative gameplay created unique dungeon and combat scenarios unlike anything we’ve seen before or since. That gameplay, based on brush strokes, was inspired by the traditional Japanese art style Ukiyo-e. The style seeps into everything the game has to offer, creating a beautiful world with timeless visuals and backed by a story that sounds like a traditional Japanese folktale. The world is filled with people with whom you can interact and genuinely have fun as you play. It’s only held back by exceptionally easy combat and some frustrating storytelling design decisions, which make having a conversation with any character painful to play and hear. If you’re looking for deep combat and puzzles in a Zelda style, you’ll have to look elsewhere, but for anyone else, Okami offers a rich world that will undoubtedly leave you happy to have been in.
4 / 5
Okami HD
Positives
  • Beautiful art style that's complimented by the gameplay
  • Clever use of painting brush strokes to create unique scenarios
  • World is full of life and worth exploring
  • Later dungeons make good use of mechanics
Negatives
  • Combat and dungeons are very easy until late in the game
  • Storytelling is frustratingly archaic
Ethics
The reviewer spent approximately 25 hours making his way through a mythical Japan. Along the way he learned brush strokes, made it through dungeons, helped the people of the land and earned 28 of 51 achievements for 360 Gamerscore. An Xbox One download code for the game was provided for the purpose of this review.
Kevin Tavore
Written by Kevin Tavore
Kevin is a lover of all types of media, especially any type of long form story. The American equivalent of Aristotle, he'll write about anything and everything and you'll usually see him as the purveyor of news, reviews and the occasional op-ed. He's happy with any game that's not point and click or puzzling, but would always rather be outdoors in nature.