You have to give credit to Capcom for ignoring the numbers and focusing on words. When Okami was released on PS2 in 2006 it became an instant classic. More than just another Zelda clone the game built on the strong foundations of that series’ structure and wove a powerful identity of its own with its gorgeously stylised graphics, innovative gameplay and superbly realised sweeping story based on Japanese Shinto mythology. Critics were falling over themselves in praise of a game that is still considered one of the most convincing examples of video games as a form of art and gamers lucky enough to experience it were enraptured. But it didn’t sell. Neither the original PS2 version nor the 2008 Wii port came close to achieving one million worldwide sales. The game’s creators Clover Studio closed down and that should have buried Okami as an IP. But Capcom didn’t see it that way and commissioned a sequel in miniature for the Nintendo DS. Consider the existence of Okamiden a triumph for the power of critical praise and a victory for art over business.
Nine months have passed since the Great Sun Goddess Amaterasu delivered the land of Nippon from evil her young son Chibiterasu appears in Yakushi Village where he quickly meets his mother’s Celestial Envoy Issun. Before long it becomes apparent that the peace following Amaterasu’s triumph was short-lived as demons and cursed zones have once again overrun Nippon. With Issun distracted by his duties as Celestial Envoy Chibi instead teams up with Susano and Kushi’s adopted son Kuni to restore order to the land again.
The most obvious benefit of making the game for DS is how far the touch screen controls improve using the series’ signature gameplay mechanic the Celestial Brush. By holding R the action pauses and the main image on the top screen shifts to the lower where you can are free to draw and use your Celestial Brush Techniques. Drawing on a tactile screen is a marked improvement over the PS2’s fiddly analogue stick controls and even the Wii’s pointer interface; there’s no learning curve and pulling off your brush skills is quick and intuitive.
However that’s about the only way in which Okamiden actually improves on its big brother. Being handheld this time around everything from the hero to the world he explores is in miniature and many of the features and intricacies have been pared down. Many of the first game’s environments return slightly simplified and broken up into sections, others, such as Agata Forest make a reduced return and entirely new locations are mostly reserved for the dungeons. Combat involves repeatedly bashing Y to swing your weapon of choice with the occasional Brush Technique necessary to get round some enemies’ defences. The deepest addition to the gameplay involves your partner characters. You don’t just stick with Kuni for the whole game but accumulate several young riders as you progress through the episodic story solving their individual problems one by one. Each character has a unique attack that comes into play in combat and they can all be of use in the field in different ways. Nanami the mermaid can swim across bodies of water by splitting from Chibi allowing you to use your Vine technique to sling Chibi over the water to join her. Again the touch screen comes in real handy when guiding your charges.
It would be unfair to expect the kind of awe-inspiring visuals of the first game on the DS but all the same Okamiden is still wonderfully pretty. The cel-shaded style is detailed and full of character and everything from character models to menus and environmental details have been given a tremendous amount of attention. The payback is that many of the textures look very pixelated in frequent close-ups but this is still one of the best looking titles on the system all the same. It sounds great too, with a mixture of new and old tunes helping to enrich the vivid mythology. The writing is mostly pretty decent, characters come across clearly through dialogue but boy is the script littered with errors.
Okamiden’s world is open-ended but the reality of play is very linear. Side-quests are few and hardly the most compelling and there’s little incentive to stray from the critical path. Progress is always straightforward enough and while the dungeons are immersive and full of clever puzzles there are few places in the game outside of a couple of tough boss encounters that should test the mettle of most dedicated players. The biggest thing missing from the game is undoubtedly full analogue control as moving through 3D environments with the D Pad is clunky and the camera can be very jerky. The story doesn’t have anything like the sweep of the original and little of the narrative will truly stick in the mind but it still manages to throw up some unexpected tear-jerker moments.
Okamiden is never less than engaging and many of the joys of the original return intact but it does not offer an overall experience to compare. Flaws in the presentation and occasional bugs keep the game back from the sort of quality you’ll find in the two Zelda titles on DS but it is still a highly enjoyable title with a minimum of fifteen hours of gameplay and two difficulty levels to keep you playing. Fans of the original and newbies alike should definitely give this 2011 release a look and maybe, just maybe we’ll get a third game. After all, just imagine what HD visuals and touch screen controls could give an Okami game on Wii U.
Presentation – 7
The beauty of the mythology comes across loud and clear but why didn’t anyone proofread the script?
Design – 7
Everything visual is a triumph but the game world itself feels a little claustrophobic and simplistic.
Gameplay – 8
The Celestial Brush finds its most natural home here but combat is otherwise a little shallow.
Graphics – 9
Downright gorgeous for a DS title but the limited tech confesses many a frayed edge.
Sound – 8
The vivacious music and comedic voice cues return in good health and sound excellent through miniature speakers.
Difficulty – 6
Other than a couple of difficulty spikes in boss fights progress and completion never feels in any doubt.
Longevity – 7
A robust fifteen plus hours is healthy for a DS title but there could be more depth in optional content to keep us going.
If various aspects of design and presentation had been tightened up Okamiden might have been one of the jewels in the DS crown. As it is this shrunk-down sequel is still a worthy title.