We’ve made no secret of our immense love for Okami, the latter-day PS2 adventure that perfectly copied Zelda’s best traits and slathered them with one-of-a-kind watercolor graphics. For years we begged the world to take notice and turn Okami’s unique world into a successful franchise, and at long last, a sequel has finally arrived. But instead of expanding the premise and building on what made the original so alluring, Okamiden essentially repurposes the first game for the DS audience. The result is a well-meaning but compromised version of a gorgeous, captivating world.
Like the original, Okamiden puts you in control of a weakened wolf deity who, once powered up, can use magical brush strokes to purify and heal the poisoned land. But this time it’s not Amaterasu who’s saving the day – enter Chibiterasu, Ammy’s adorable son who arrives just as Nippon begins to crumble. Like his mother, Chibi gains Celestial Brush techniques that damage enemies, summon sunlight and control the elements, each of which is activated by tapping L or R and literally drawing on the DS screen. This aspect is obviously well suited for DS, as the stylus gives you a tactile sensation missing from both the PS2 and Wii versions of Okami.
The powers themselves are a mixed bag. You’re using the same moves gained in the first game, so there’s little fresh or exciting about them, but Okamiden does a good job of giving you these powers early on. Compare that to Zelda or Metroid, which usually take hours upon hours to award familiar powers we’ve been using for decades. Still, we would’ve liked some kind of progression, like combining brush powers for new effects or at least a new wave of Chibi-specific moves that separated him from his mother. There are a couple of additions, but largely we’re dealing with repeats.
But it’s not all old material – Chibi isn’t quite as capable as Ammy, so he has to rely on a series of friends to help him exorcise the myriad demons clogging Nippon’s plains, skies and towns. In keeping with the adult-child motif, each partner is also a young version of an existing Okami character, be they direct descendants, servants or strongly suggested offspring. As the primary addition to Okamiden, these partners play a huge role both in gameplay and story.
Each partner has their own special battle ability, like slashing one enemy with a sword or playing musical notes to damage enemies all around. Seeing as Chibi’s own battle options are depressingly direct (Y-Y-Y-Y, brush slash, repeat) the partner moves help add a little spice to the combat.
Even then though, they’re not so clever or interesting that they made combat especially fun; some enemies require a bit more strategy to beat, and the towering bosses are even more elaborate, but by and large the fights became something we tried to avoid as often as possible, primarily because you gain more goodies for healing sick trees and fetching people’s missing belongings than you do for tackling every single enemy on the map. Okami’s about healing and helping, not endlessly fighting.
Far more useful are the helper’s out-of-battle abilities, where they hop off Chibi’s back and walk wherever you trace a line. One girl can see invisible platforms, another can emanate water from her body and douse flames, for example. Just like Zelda builds dungeons around the item you find in their depths, Okamiden structures its levels around the helper on your back, so you definitely put them to good use.
Once we start talking about dungeons though, Okamiden’s flaws start to break through. Even though they’re obviously (and admittedly) inspired by Zelda, no puzzle, room or area of Okamiden is truly challenging. Need to get through a door? Use the key that’s in the treasure chest 10 feet away. Wall of ice blocking your path? Blow some fire to melt the obstacle. Time after time you have to engage in these non-puzzles that simply drag out the experience instead of create memorable dungeons. Certain Zelda (and Okami) areas were so pretty and well thought out we had no qualms about playing them two or three times; Okamiden’s are comparatively basic.
This begs the question, should Okamiden have been a handheld Okami, or something else more suited to the DS’ limitations? Look at Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks – they’re nothing like the console versions, but are unmistakably “Zelda” even if you don’t care for the complete touch screen controls. They’re re-imagined, DS-tailored games that play to system’s strengths.
Merely converting the lush PS2 world onto the less powerful DS feels like the wrong approach at times; several areas suffer from slowdown and choppy visuals, and oftentimes you’ll see aspects of the environment suddenly pop up when you’re five feet away. Watching this inspired world stutter and jerk around is both unfortunate and disappointing. Furthermore, using a d-pad to navigate a 3D world has never been a good solution, and it’s as annoying as ever in Okamiden.
Each of those issues (draw distance, slowdown, control) could have been solved with the 3DS – increased power and an analog slider mean better, smoother graphics and more responsive controls. We’re not going to get hung up on “what Okamiden could have been,” it’s just hard to ignore these issues when they pile up and start tugging on a game that would have looked and played better on PSP or 3DS. Yes yes, the DS has in the install base, but sometimes you should build a better house in a less populated area instead of cramming a compromised home into a crowded suburb.
Our last major complaint is the storytelling – not the story itself, which is cute and genuinely interesting, but how it’s conveyed. Minutes upon minutes are spent watching enormous cutscenes that display text at the slowest speed imaginable. Oh, you can skip these, but you’re skipping the entire cutscene and will undoubtedly miss plot points and clues explaining where to go next.
Meanwhile, some dialog scenes let you mash the A button and speed through the text. Why couldn’t this be the case throughout? We repeatedly had to close the DS mid-cutscene because we were trying to play Okamiden like a portable game – you know, on planes, trains, buses and cars. If you’re planning on sitting still for the duration, this isn’t an issue, but again, Okamiden should have taken the DS’ strengths and expectations into consideration.
At its core, Okamiden is a successful, shrunken-down Okami, but it’s trapped on a system that can’t entirely pull it off. The art style, music and mechanics, while lifted from the earlier game, are still captivating and worthy of exploration, though we couldn’t shake the feeling this story would have soared higher on another platform.
Mar 15, 2011