From the first time you see Amaterasu the white wolf shoot across a green mountainside, with colorful flowers bursting up from her footsteps, you know "Okami" is not your usual video game. This revelation will repeat itself many more times as you travel through an ancient Japan and marvel at the incredibly beautiful landscape in this amazingly designed game.
Originally built in 1996 for the PS2, "Okami" garnered fantastic reviews, if only for its cel-shaded look, which mimics the style of old Japanese art, like sumi-e. The innovative play though instantly made gamers crave a port to the Wii, an iconoclastic system that shares a creative mindset with "Okami." Two years after arriving on the PS2, and failing miserably sales-wise, it finally made the leap to Nintendo's console and is all the better for it.
For those familiar with the PS2 adventure, there's nothing new to discover here, as the content remains the same, with the only changes coming in the presentation and controls. For those new to the game, you play Amaterasu, a sun god who takes the form of a white wolf. Joined in your journey by a tiny sprite named Issun, you are tasked with saving Nippon, which has been blighted by evil, leaving the land dark and lifeless. In keeping with the popular trend of "going green," you must return the land to it's previous state, using your godly power to defeat the demons behind the destruction and nurse the Earth back to health.
The first time you succeed, and watch flowers, trees and glass explode across the land in a brilliant piece of animation, you really feel like you've accomplished something (in the realm of video games at least.) It's easily one of the most life-affirming experiences you can have holding a game controller, establishing "Okami"'s spot as something unique in an industry loaded with shoot-em-ups and fantasy violence orgies. Throw in a hilarious sense of humor that rounds out a story that's loaded with action and drama, and the most accessible heroine ever (try to look at Amaterasu's tilted look of confusion and not smile)and you've got a world you can escape into without a hint of guilt or a moment of boredom.
The game is, in a way, a standard wander-and-explore affair, as you walk the land, collecting money and supplies, talking to bystanders and battling demons you come across. Admittedly, you'll find the start of the game a bit repetitive, battling and walking, walking and battling, but that's mainly because you're learning as you go. As your abilities improve and you get deeper into the action, you take on quests and side challenges, giving you plenty to do on the way to ultimate victory. Thankfully, the game balances guidance and freedom, letting you discover what you're going to do next. Because your character's progression feels so natural, you become more involved in the story, and in turn, the game.
The system to develop your character provides some nice variety in game play, as you can learn new abilities, buy new techniques and build an extensive inventory that comes in handy as you build faith among the people and animals of Nippon. It's kind of like "Populous," but on a much more personal basis, as a bag of seed will make birds love you. There are times when you just want to run around and check out the scenery, but because the story is so unique and entertaining, you will find you want to keep things moving to see what's in store for Amaterasu. Fortunately, there's plenty more in store, as the game will run you between 30 and 40 hours to complete, and you will want to savor every minute. Even the cut scenes, which can be skipped if the need strikes you, are highly enjoyable.
The combat in the game is unique, as you frequently can avoid a fight if you want, even when you're pulled into a battle, as there are often cracks in the wall of curses that surround you when facing off with demons. But it's a bit more fun when you go head first into combat, using your weapons and skills to slash down bad guys. Like many games of this genre, beating a foe will earn you the spoils of war, which is just one way to grow your character. You can also discover treasures off the beaten path, dig up good stuff and scour homes and caves, along with finding scrolls and logs that reveal more of what to expect and what you can do. Sure it sounds cliche, but "Okami" is so much more than a game. It's an experience.
This is the real reason people so badly wanted to see "Okami" come to the Wii. Being able to control the Celestial Brush in a very natural way, rather than by using an analog stick, enhances the game in a way that's beyond measurement. Keeping your movement to the nunchuk and attacks in the Wii-mote makes for a very instinctual control system, and gives the combat a fluidity that was simply not present in the PS2 version. Gesture with the Wii-mote for basic attacks, and hold down buttons to summon the Brush to continue your battle, and you feel much more a part of the game than the old system could ever allow, especially as you improve your abilities and learn new techniques. Due to the two-part attacks, which allow for combo chains, the battles rise above button-mashing, and allow you to feel involved. You almost begin to feel like a wizard, casting spells with your Wii-mote, as the gestures become second hand. The only way it could feel more "right" would be by using a DS and stylus, but then you'd lose out on the beautiful visuals. Though bringing up the map is a bit of a reach, as you need to use those awkward number buttons at the bottom of the Wii-mote, the rest of the controls are simple yet effective, with camera control in the directional pad and various functions attached to the buttons on each controller.
It's not all great though, as you need to be incredibly precise with your brush strokes at times, which can lead to frustration. One attempt to simply revive a tree by drawing a circle took six or seven tries, as the symbol either didn't hit just right or wasn't complete enough. Also a problem is the optional dodge technique, which you can purchase lessons for at the dojo. Because the move is mapped to movement in the nunchuk, it rarely works. You can try all you want, but good luck trying to avoid being hit with it, because more often than not, you'll jump right into danger.
Even when processed by the PS2, "Okami" was wonderful to behold, thanks to an art style that was detailed, yet simple, replicating the iconic art styles associated with ancient Japanese culture. Whether it's the fluttering of cherry blossom petals, the explosion of an evil curse into kanji symbols or a sleeping bear snoring, this game looks terrific. But a few improvements were made in translating "Okami" to the Wii, as the image got a boost in resolution to 480P, and a conversion to anamorphic widescreen, making it look much better on 2008's more widely-available HDTV monitors. The actual image hasn't changed much, maintaining the vibrant cel-shaded look of the original game, though coming across as noticeably more vivid. This is likely a result of a less evident paper grain behind the visuals, an effect that added to the artistic look of the PS2 edition. Losing that small element is a shame, though it's still visible in lighter areas of the map. The amount of on-screen action, whether in the well-designed combat "arenas" or the wide-open landscapes, can tax the Wii's capabilities, which results in some occasional slow-down in the frame rate, but for the most part the video is smooth and beautifully rendered.
Presentation is as big a part of "Okami" as the gameplay, and though most people think about the impressive visual aspects of the game, the audio is no slouch when it comes to enhancing the title. Between the sweet soundtrack's mood-setting sounds, the excellent audio effects and the localization-avoiding gibberish, the sound brings you deep into the world of Amaterasu. The mix envelopes you and puts you in the middle of the action, complementing the imagery to transport you to Nippon.
And in the End... It's the rare game that can be ported to a new system two years after its original release, nearly pixel for pixel, and yet still feel like a fresh new experience, but "Okami" is just such a game, thanks to an excellent implementation of the Wii controller on an already engaging game. Though there's nothing new to offer the few gamers who experienced the PS2 version, perhaps this well-done recreation will get the game the exposure it deserves, and deliver an immersive experience to a new audience of players.