Ordinarily, I only use this site’s wider format for games I enjoyed overall, but I’m making an exception here because this is going to be long and I need the space. That’s not to say that I hated the entirety of Okami, though—there’s a slice of this game so good that I was able to see why it’s ended up on so many “best games ever made” lists. The first third of the game was painful and unimpressive, sure, but I was totally on board by the second third when things suddenly got awesome. Then the unnecessary, overlong, underwhelming last third of the game happened. How could I possibly recommend a game that I hated two-thirds of? My notes were overflowing with complaints about almost everything from the mechanics to the story to the quest design and even the graphics at certain points, and why it finally got out of its own way and found its own voice only to suddenly return to the same kind of stupidity that plagued the early parts of the game is beyond me. For reference, I played the 2012 HD version available for the PS3, widely considered the definitive version of Okami, so there’s really no excuse for the number of flaws that still exist here.
The story and characters are largely underwhelming
I have a weakness for mythology in games, but not at the expense of everything else. Okami begins with an unskippable cutscene detailing a myth, and it then tells it to you again. And again. And again. Naturally, the myth is being explained in slightly different words each time, so the cutscenes and dialog conveying this are also unskippable despite containing no new information. After awhile, I was left with the feeling that the writers were so impressed with the beginning myth that they were unwilling to move beyond it to something new. It’s when they finally do that the game becomes great, but the end of the game then delves right back into that long-exhausted story, elaborating on the back story of everything a bit, but still being firmly rooted in the opening myth. This game took me 36 hours to complete, which means something like 20 of those hours were spent watching the game slowly obsess over its own mythology and strand me on its self-indulgent treadmill of superfluous, unskippable text.
That might be forgivable if the characters were all enjoyable, but the characters you see the most of tend to be the most annoying ones in the game. Case in point: Issun. He follows playable sun-god-in-wolf-form Amaterasu and effectively serves as her voice (she’s mute for some reason despite other animals talking), but he’s maddening for most of the game. This is subjective, obviously, but he struck me as Ocarina of Time’s Navi on cocaine. At least you could ignore her most of the time; Issun regularly offers his opinion on the current situation, often in—wait for it—unskippable dialogue. There’s no ignoring him. It’s only when the game starts to get good that he shifts to being the lecherous comic relief, a role he’s far more suited to. For most of the game, though, he’s insufferable and pads the game out with his pointless thoughts.
Then there’s Waka, the weird magical prophet who follows you around. I got the distinct impression that the game wanted to build him up as some kind of mysterious character who could either be a villain or an ally in order to add a layer of tension and mystique to the story. Instead, I found him to be completely superfluous. You could remove him from the story and nothing would change. He seems to be little more than a hint dispenser, but his prophesies are so staggeringly obvious once you’ve reached the point where they become relevant that he’s simply not needed.
Even minor characters manage to be annoying. The number of people who have lost a dog in this game is mind-boggling, and everything involving dogs is just terrible. At one point I saved a dog, only to have Issun magically divine that he had imperiled himself to teach his owner about taking risks in the pursuit of adventure. Or something stupid like that. Not only does this make no sense, but it’s a bizarrely huge leap shoehorned in to set up a needlessly emotional and preachy “courage is important and also magical friendship butterfly sparkles emotion” moment. Not all forays into emotion are this terrible, but I’d say the attempts only landed and had the intended effect about 50% of the time. Considering how eye roll-inducing this kind of thing becomes when you don’t feel properly invested, that’s not great.
There are even bizarre moments of inconsistency. In a quest early-ish in the game (which I’ll be talking about again later because it also happens to be one of the most terribly designed quests I’ve ever seen), Amaterasu and Issun are asked to find “canine warriors” in a village using a canine tracker, and Issun refers to them as “puppies” during the conversation. Not long after this—and I checked my screenshots to be absolutely sure that I wasn’t just making up problems out of annoyance—he claims to be surprised that they’re dogs rather than humans. It’s like the developers wanted to pad out play times by including as much text as possible, even when it makes no sense.
The mechanics are interesting, but could definitely be better
Okami is basically a Zelda clone. Issun is like Navi, the first area opens up to field with a guy running around it just like Hyrule Field, and there are dungeons with the same kind of flow as Zelda dungeons (minus boss keys and other elements of tedium, which actually makes them quite a bit better than Zelda dungeons with one huge exception). Really, the only difference here is that Zelda’s “progression” items like the hookshot and such are replaced with the Celestial Brush, Okami’s primary gimmick. When you press R1, the screen turns to parchment and time freezes, allowing you to use the brush to draw symbols that have various effects. You gain new brush techniques over the course of the story, and these open up new areas to explore and progress the story exactly like in a Zelda game because Okami oozes Zelda.
The brush is an interesting inclusion and I can definitely see how the mechanic could be interesting on the Wii or using the Playstation Move with the PS3 version (so for the three people out there who have Move controllers… jackpot!), but it’s also fraught with awkwardness. For some bizarre reason, a bunch of the symbols are similar or even identical to each other and it’s incredibly easy to confuse the game about which one you’re actually trying to use at any given time.
Assuming you’ve obtained all the relevant powers beforehand, drawing a circle on the water will create a lily pad while drawing a circle in the sky creates a sun and makes it daytime. Drawing a circle around a dead-looking tree, though? That’ll restore it. Then there’s the swirly loop that creates wind. Sometimes the game will decide that a normal circle is actually a loop and create wind, though. That’s not even the end of the confusion; late-game powers mostly involve drawing a line from something (fire, water, ice, lightning) to something else, but drawing a line too straight often means doing a power slash attack instead. Since using the brush to successfully do your brush magic costs ink (if the symbol is meaningless, you don’t actually use any ink), with ink effectively being a slowly regenerating mana pool, this can become incredibly annoying when it occurs in, say, boss fights.
OKami sports a kinda-sorta-RPG system dictating the number of ink pots you have, the amount of health you have, the size of your wallet, and how many “astral pouches” you have. About astral pouches: I still don’t know what they actually do. From what I could tell, they revive you when you lose all your life, but this game is one of the easiest I’ve ever played and I didn’t once need them (so they’re probably best ignored). All of these things are leveled up with “praise,” which is basically experience. You don’t gain praise from fighting, though. Instead, you earn praise by doing god-type things like giving food to animals, purifying cursed areas, and helping people out. This keeps you from being able to grind praise, though there’s a recurring sidequest that sends you out to finish off a bunch of demons in what pretty much amounts to grinding anyway. I eventually ignored these because of how repetitive and gimmicky they are; even once you’ve finished a demon off, you have to manually check it off the list. Drawing straight lines in a small space with an analog stick is hard, though, and the game doesn’t give you a lot of leeway for drawing outside of where you’re supposed to. Did your finger slip? Too bad; Issun will make you do it again. It’s an annoying gimmick for the sake of including a gimmick. Not cool, Okami.
Let’s talk abut the dungeons
Like I mentioned earlier, I actually find Okami’s dungeons better than Zelda dungeons in general. There’s one huge exception to that in addition to a lesser exception, and they just so happen to be the game’s first and last dungeons. Okami’s first dungeon is the lesser exception, and there’s really nothing wrong with it aside from the fact that it’s nothing particularly special. It hits all the expected notes and isn’t terrible, but it’s also formulaic and one-note, like it exists solely to cross off an entry on the “how to be a Zelda clone” list. After that, though, dungeons get awesome. The Moon Cave is where the first third of the game ends and it plays out like a dungeon filled with friendly enemy NPCs, something that gives it so much personality that it barely feels like a dungeon at all. The one after that fares similarly, sporting the basic puzzles expected of a Zelda-ish dungeon, but also introducing a new mechanic by having an NPC ride you—I suddenly feel the need to reiterate that the main character is a wolf for anyone who missed that detail earlier on—and allow you to remove curses by aiming her curse-destroying pieces of paper at doors and enemies. It’s also quite short for a dungeon and lacking a proper boss fight at the end, both being things that managed to subvert my expectations in a good way. Speaking of subverting expectations, two dungeons later I found myself in a dungeon that’s only a few rooms long and that only features one puzzle to figure out. My mind was blown by this point because I’d been trained by Zelda games to expect a lengthy series of puzzles, and Okami’s dungeons were becoming more and more focused.
Then the last dungeon rolled around and ended up being one of the worst I’ve ever had to fight my way through. It’s frustrating, with all kinds of awkward platforming and puzzles that aren’t really puzzles so much as the game not telling you crucial things about the new enemies. To be more specific, there’s a room filled with usable cannons and enemy cannons, and you use your brush to set off the cannons to destroy the enemy ones so that you can get to the other side. This part is easy enough, but the cannons can only destroy one enemy each, and the leftover enemy cannon (and curse wall) blocking the next room can’t be destroyed by them anyway. There’s ice on the ground that makes moving around difficult while this thing is shooting at you, too, and there’s also an ice orb thing that serves no obvious purpose. I tried using it to freeze the cannon, but no luck. I tried ramming the cannon, but no luck. I tried using wind to move the orb around in the hopes that there’d be some use for it that I wasn’t seeing, but no luck. It was only after I had tried everything else that I stumbled on the solution: slow down time and hit the cannonball thing back at the cannon using the brush. These enemy cannons had just been introduced in this dungeon, so how was I supposed to know they could be destroyed outside of in scripted sequences (like using the cannons)? It had never been necessary before this point, and I had thought them to be indestructible because of the ways they had been used. Once it was destroyed, the curse blocking the door disappeared and it became apparent that I had to move the orb through the hallway beyond it, but late-game orbs can’t be touched without taking damage, so I had to get it into the hallway using the brush technique that creates wind. This only works sometimes, with the orb ignoring the wind entirely at times.
How are these minigames remotely acceptable?
When Okami isn’t subjecting you to seemingly endless cutscenes and conversations full of unskippable text, it’s forcing you to partake in its minigames. That’s not overstating it, either—these minigames are mandatory in order to complete the game rather than being optional content left for interested players to seek out. There’s also side content that incorporates them if you don’t value your free time for whatever reason (I know, I know—I’m just being mean now), but if you’re anything like me, you’ll have grown sick of the never-ending minigames long before these open up because none of the stupid things ever add anything to the overall game experience. After awhile they become little more than a chore, an obstacle to be pushed past in order to progress rather than a refreshing change of pace.
The fishing minigame is probably the most ubiquitous and indefensible, with your very involvement hinging on the fact that no one in the game ever seems to have a fishing line. Seriously; Amaterasu’s sole role is drawing a line from the bare fishing pole to a fish in order to make one magically appear. From there, you take control of the fisherman and move the stick in the opposite direction of where the fish is swimming to reel it in (you start to damage the line if you pull too much, but you can pretty much just tap the stick repeatedly to avoid ever going into the red). The whole thing is easy and pointless, leaving me with the impression that it was included solely to pad out play times. Backing this up somewhat is the fact that you never catch whichever fish you’re looking for right off the bat, instead having to catch two regular fish before the one that progresses the story even bothers showing up.
Then there’s the digging minigame. This is the other one that manages to be omnipresent throughout the game despite there being nothing justifying its existence, and it revolves around a 2D block puzzle where you use your brush powers to remove blocks and guide an NPC doing their best Lemmings impersonation past hazards to make it to the bottom so that you can dig where they tell you to. When the tutorial explaining how to play the minigame first popped up, though, I was already so burned out on the game as a whole that I managed to miss a number of details and consequently spent much of the game using bombs rather than digging and head-butting blocks where appropriate. Even once I went back to my screenshots and figured out the correct way to play, however, it failed to be fun. This proved doubly true when I realized that despite it playing in 2D, my bombs would occasionally pop into being in front of or behind the object I was trying to place them on, falling past it in the process and sometimes forcing me to restart the entire minigame over again.
There’s also a racing minigame that randomly shows up in one of the later dungeons. I didn’t mind this so much because you’re racing against a living piece of paper and it ended up being one of the rare occasions where the game’s attempts to make me like a minor character actually succeeded, but there’s no denying that it’s out of place. Some of the races are more akin to puzzles than anything, though there are also those that require a certain amount of dexterity and can become frustrating because of their small margin for error. No minigame grated my nerves with its need for quickness quite like the one that happens as you fly down a river on a log, though. Like the others, it’s completely unnecessary, and it involves hitting R1 when you see certain plants so that you can create vines to slow you down. Thing is, you’re moving so fast that it’s easy to miss these flowers, and your attempts to draw a vine are sometimes confused with the power slash attack if the line is horizontal and too straight.
Even having said all of that, there are numerous flaws I haven’t even mentioned yet. For example, conversations being broken into multiple pieces. Many times characters will begin to tell you something, only for the conversation to end and a triangle to appear over their head. This is a sign that they’re not actually finished talking and still have something to say (often—but not always—something important). This can happen anywhere from two to three times times when talking to a single person, and like so much else in this game, it serves no purpose other than stretching out a few sentences of actual content into several conversations where the same few points are repeated over and over. This is padding, pure and simple, the game equivalent of messing with the margins in Word to make a school paper appear longer than it actually is.
The powers and when you get them don’t even make any sense. Case in point: you start the game with the ability to create a sun in the sky and make it daytime, but you don’t get the power that allows you to create a moon and make it night until you’ve faced two parts of the game that require you to wait for night. If you’ve recently turned it to day, this can leave you to sit around waiting for six to seven minutes before being able to continue playing. You even have to do this one or two more times if, like me, you confuse one of the demon-hunting sidequests with something that moves the main story forward since said demons only come out at night.
Of course, I only confused the sidequest with something more important because I suddenly found myself with no idea how to move the story forward and said sidequest was the only thing left to do. As it turns out, I had to restore the trees in the starting village with a new rejuvenating power. This not being clear isn’t automatically a bad thing, but the game alternates between patronizing you by telling you exactly what to do (and this continues all the way to the end of the game) and leaving you to figure out for yourself how things work.
The most egregious example of this is the canine warriors quest that I mentioned earlier. This quest tasks you with finding five dogs hidden in a village, and I quickly found four of them who promptly ignored me and complained about being hungry. Despite their complaints, however, the “feed” command that shows up when interacting with wild animals never showed up. Figuring that I’d find the fifth dog and the person who gave me the quest would then give me some kind of special food to feed them with, I continued searching, only to end up incredibly frustrated by my inability to find the last dog. An hour of my 36-hour play time was spent doing nothing but looking for this elusive dog. Guess what? It can’t be found. It doesn’t exist. Instead, you have to open your menu and manually select the food you feed wild animals with—something you never once have to do outside of this stupid quest—to feed the four existing dogs, which causes the fifth to spawn. The only reason I know this is because I eventually swallowed my pride and looked it up online, and being told to find five dogs when you really only have to find four and then feed them via a roundabout, one-off method that you have no reason to know exists because it’s never once used before this point or even mentioned as a possibility is stupid beyond imagination. This is the point where I was cursing at my television and decided to set the game aside for awhile and move onto something better for the sake of my sanity.
We’re still only scratching the surface of Okami’s shortcomings. To start with, there are awkward timed sections that, like the frequent minigames, are mandatory parts of the story. The first of these isn’t too bad, but there are also two timed sections late in the game that force you to dodge enemies, platform on ice, avoid falling ice that freezes you in place/snowballs that damage you, and jump through awkwardly-placed holes placed in walls of hazardous material while the camera is far away enough that it’s hard to tell where you are in relation to anything else. It wouldn’t be so frustrating if the hit detection wasn’t intermittently wonky, but it very much is. This became patently obvious in one of the later dungeons in a room full of lasers where sometimes the lasers would damage me, but other times they’d go right through me. In the very same room, I got stuck on an invisible wall that makes it look like I run right into a chasm when I’m instead trying to angle up and to the side. Invisible walls and wonky physics are everywhere in this game, which makes it that much weirder when you can walk right through other objects that should have collision detection. Back to the room with lasers, I realized that using the brush to slow time down didn’t affect the speed of the lasers. Apparently, only certain things are impacted by that particular brush stroke, which is wonderfully inconsistent (though at a certain point, Okami’s inconsistency becomes a bizarrely consistent thing). It’s all too much.
I wish the whole game was like the middle part
The picture at the top of this review is from my favorite part in the entire game, a colorful underwater palace filled with resolute characters. Before that point, you’re dealing with kings and queens and priestesses who you’re not sure you can trust, and it’s all far more memorable and intriguing than the early game that forces itself to rigidly adhere to the opening myth. This part of the game isn’t perfect by any means, and you can see the little triangle in the picture that indicates that I have to engage the person in conversation again so that they can say more (so much rage), but I’d love Okami regardless if the rest of it was like this too-brief pleasant diversion. If only.
The graphics and music are decent, but not perfect
Okami sports a unique art style that’s like a cross between watercolor and cel-shading, and its uniqueness is a huge point in its favor, though it can also make symbols vague and difficult to decipher. I remember running around and trying to figure out the canine warrior quest and seeing what I could have sworn was a fish above one of the dog’s heads. Turns out it was just a picture of that dog. The less-than-realistic art style lends itself to seeing things when you’re desperately looking for a clue for how to proceed, but at the same time, that was definitely a “me” problem. There are also less subjective problems, though, such as objects not appearing until you’re really close to them, a problem when you’re running at full speed and things don’t pop into existence until they’re next to you. There are also areas where lines disappear in a conspicuous way when you get near them. As for the music, the only real problem I have with it is that it repeats a lot in the beginning, especially whoring out its “mystery” and “something quirky is happening” tracks. Later parts of the game rectify this, however, and the soundtrack as a whole has a refreshingly unique Japanese flair to it that I appreciated.