Thursday, 6 November 2008

How Ōkami stole my heart

Before anyone freaks out, I am talking about Ōkami the video game, specifically the Wii version.

In previous articles, I've professed my love for Beyond Good & Evil. I am a big fan of Zelda-like action-adventure games, and BG&E was for a long time my favourite of the genre that wasn't a Zelda game itself. However, things change.

Now don't get me wrong. I still think BG&E is an exceptional game. It had a great cinematographic story, interesting characters that it made me care about (and a female main character that wasn't a superficial sex bomb), and an art direction that reminded me of the French science-fiction comic books of my youth. Interesting game mechanics, good voice acting and an unusual setting made it all the better. Of course, it wasn't perfect. It was far too short, and the stealth sections, although they made sense for the story (Jade is a journalist, not a soldier), just didn't do it for me. It could also have benefited from a better difficulty curve (the difficulty in that game was just erratic). But still, even with all the warts, BG&E was the best Zelda-like game I had ever played (that wasn't a Zelda game of course).

That is, until I discovered Ōkami. When I first heard about the game, it had just been released on the Playstation 2, and was being hailed as the best Zelda-like game for the PS2. Intrigued, I checked reviews and screenshots of the game, and fell in love with its style. The graphic style was expressive and really managed to emulate the style of Japanese ink and wash painting, the Celestial Brush gameplay technique (which consists of drawing various shapes on the screen to interact with the environment and perform miracles) really caught my attention, and the storyline (a mix of various Japanese legends, centred mostly around Amaterasu, the Japanese Sun goddess, who is also the protagonist of the game) captured my imagination. Hey, I am a sucker for traditional Japanese legends and style! In any case, Ōkami looked like a perfect match for my taste in games, and I actually said at that time that it was the only reason I ever regretted not buying a PS2.

The game, unfortunately, failed to catch the attention of most gamers. It was released only a few months before the Playstation 3 was released, and was not advertised in any way. Like Beyond Good & Evil, it was acclaimed by the game press, but was a commercial failure. Still, as the Nintendo Wii was approaching release, voices began to be heard among the game community asking for a sequel of Ōkami built for it, or at least a port. The Celestial Brush gameplay mechanic seemed like a natural fit for the Wii's motion controls (specifically the way the Wii remote can be used as a pointing device), and people felt that a Zelda-like action-adventure game would have a better chance of success on a Nintendo platform. Myself, I was not optimistic (at that time, no sequel of BG&E had yet been announced, and the general feeling was that it didn't matter how many people would petition for it, game companies wouldn't risk making a sequel, or even a port, of a game that hadn't been a commercial success), but I still decided to add my voice to the others. After all, there's no harm in trying! So imagine my joy when Capcom announced that they were porting Ōkami to the Wii!

So when Ōkami was released here in the Netherlands, I bought it nearly immediately. That was back in June, and last weekend I finally saw the end of the game. I have spent nearly 70 hours in the game (I'm a leisurely gamer. I only have time to play in short bursts, and even then I like to take my time in the game itself), and I've enjoyed every last minute of it! Ōkami is not only as good as I had imagined, it's better! Just to give you a taste of why I am so enthusiastic about the game:

  • Ōkami is long, but never boring. Moreover, it has lots of replay value (despite the time I've taken, I still haven't finished all the side-quests, and I look forward to replay the game).
  • The art direction is fantastic, and looks even better in motion and wide-screen. The environments are varied and lavish, and interact beautifully with the protagonist's divine powers. And seeing Amaterasu run around in those environments, followed by a trail of blossoming flowers, is just gorgeous.
  • The Celestial Brush's motion controls work really well and make it really fun to use Amaterasu's divine powers. I'm a big fan of gesture control (ever since the Opera browser introduced mouse gestures, which I'm still using now with the Firefox browser), and as a gameplay mechanic it works really well, and the Wii remote is indeed particularly fit for this kind of interface. The shape recognition can be a bit finicky (especially as you accumulate more Brush techniques with similar gestures), but it's just a minor gripe (and I'm known for having a particularly unsteady hand).
  • The storyline is just fantastic! Seriously, the writers have managed to take various bits and pieces of Japanese mythology and make them fit into an original, fresh storyline that keeps surprising you. You don't need to know Japanese mythology to appreciate the storyline, but knowing some of it makes you realise the attention for detail the writers had.
  • The characters are interesting, and well-fleshed out. And the game makes you care a lot for them. Hey, I'll stay vague in order not to give anyone any spoilers, but the game managed to make me care for a piece of paper! That's how good the writing is.
  • The music and sound effects are gorgeous. Based on traditional Japanese music and instruments, they flow naturally and set up the atmosphere beautifully.
  • And yes, before someone asks me, yes, Ōkami made me shed a tear. More than once, even.

So, dear Beyond Good & Evil, I know you brought me a lot, but you're no longer my favourite. Ōkami is my new sweetheart, and I feel like we are going to be together for a long time. Now let's petition for a sequel...

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