When Okami was in its infancy, it sported a fairly realistic look with lupine protagonist Amaterasu (the Shinto sun goddess, if you're curious) romping around a forest. It looked good for what it was, but nothing particularly made it stand out aside from its premise. But some bright lad over at Clover Studios got the idea to give it an aesthetic overhaul and five minutes into the game you'll know why – it's friggin' gorgeous! The game has a lot to do with Japanese mythology, so the traditional painting style would fit right in and, hey, they already had their paws wet with cel-shading Viewtiful Joe.
Okami is literally saturated with details and runs (a few exceptions aside) without a hitch. Done completely in the sumi-e style of Japanese painting, shadows are heavy and many elements of the world are visualized (curling wisps streak across the sky representing wind, for instance). Mountains in the far distance appear as minimalist entities floating in the heavens. Even entrances to new areas have gigantic nameplates hanging above them on the overworld.
This is all part of Okami's theme of creating a living world and there's no shortage of activity, whether speaking in terms of the game's visuals or mechanics which often go hand-in-hand anyway. It's hard to talk about the story, because just when you think it's over, you're probably only a third of the way through the game and I wouldn't want to spoil anything for you dear readers. However, it doesn't hurt to familiarize you with the prologue you'll spend the first five or so minutes reading upon starting up a new game: one hundred years ago the eight-headed dragon Orochi was slain by the hero Nagi with a liberal amount of help from a mystical wolf which the villagers called Shiranui (i.e. Amaterasu). Orochi's essence was sealed away and Nagi moved on with his life, but Shiranui was dealt a fatal blow and a statue was eventually erected in her honor. Zip forward in time, a century later, and someone has broken the seal on Orochi's tomb, releasing a curse upon the world which is slowly drinking away all the life within it. With little energy remaining, the wood spirit Sakuya, who dwells within the tree over Shiranui's statue, reawakens Amaterasu in a last ditch effort to save the world and restore its beauty.
In order to do this, Amaterasu will need to make use of her 13 Celestial Brush techniques to replenish the areas which have grown dull and lifeless, choked by Orochi's dark influence. Of course, you won't have most of them straight at the beginning – most you will get from dungeons which use them prominently in their puzzle design. The puzzle design, by the way, is fantastic and often times quite clever. It's never too complicated to leave you stuck in one area for long periods of time, but just tough enough to make you feel like you've really accomplished something.
In fact, the game is quite good at that in general. Your Celestial Brush powers affect the world in a way only those of a goddess possible could. Controlling the elements, changing day to night (and vice versa), conjuring explosions out of thin air and rejuvenating cursed plants are all in a day's work for Amaterasu. The results are typically breathtaking, especially when lifting the curse on a new area causes life to cascade across the countryside in a spectacular cut scene.
In less godly capacity, many of Amaterasu's powers can be used to heal smaller areas which garner tribute (Okami's version of experience points which can then be used to upgrade Amaterasu's capacity) and in combat – it's often crucial in boss battles, but many can be taken advantage of in a regular fight, too.
If the Celestial Brush wasn't versatile enough, Clover has stuffed Okami to the brim with additional content and it's honestly too much to go over in great detail in a single review (not to mention a nightmare to organize!). Amaterasu has 15 or so different weapons to choose from (split into several different categories – reflecting mirror, rosary beads, and ceremonial sword – based on the three classic treasures of Japan's royal family) which all behave differently. Placing the same weapon in the Main or Sub slot will cause it to work in different capacities, effectively doubling your combat options. Tack on up to three Holy Artifacts and enhance Ammy's abilities even further.
Like the Zelda games (and Okami is comparable, if not better than them), you can spend hours simply exploring the world and unlocking hidden areas or engaging with NPCs that offer a fine variety of side quests and mini-games to participate in, most of which reward you with tribute or an item of some sort. Okami is split into three large acts that can take upwards of 30 hours to complete, but if you find yourself entranced by all the extras, a completionist could easily double that. It's about as long and meaty of a game as you're likely to find and every inch of it is satisfying.
Sure, there are a few small problems – literally! Amaterasu's chatty and diminutive tag-a-long Issun can be annoying at the outset, though he does become quite likable by the end of the game. Also, the overall game is a tad too easy. There are a couple tough boss fights later on, but the overwhelming number of options and upgrades you're afforded mean that you'll rarely tax yourself in combat. Sadly, there's no way to up the difficulty, even during a second play through where you retain most of your enhancements. This may frustrate some gamers who like the challenge, but it actually comes as a boon to the vast majority – Okami is satisfying enough in its current incarnation that excessive difficulty would ruin the great flow and pacing of the game. Clover even included a nifty dash feature that increases Amaterasu's running speed over time so that players can traverse large expanses quickly. Mermaid pools found later on also allow quick transport all over the game world.
So, Okami is an ace when it comes to gameplay, but what about the rest? The aesthetics are among the most pleasing you've ever encountered in a video game. Just glancing at screen shots is enough to let you know that, but it absolutely comes alive in motion! From the bristling cherry blossom trees to the constant river of flower buds trailing behind Amaterasu's form, it's simply pretty to watch. The music is no different. It's almost all traditional Japanese music, but still rich and varied and more than epic enough to fit a quest of this magnitude. If there's one itchy spot, it's control, but only in specific situations. For one, you can't lock on to specific enemies in battle and Amaterasu's quadrupedal movement is a bit different from that of the two-legged humans most games feature as protagonists. There's also the actual use of the Celestial Brush techniques – camera positioning does matter and a few of the powers have strokes that may be tough to pull off consistently at first. Practice makes perfect, though, and the developers give a rather large threshold for what is acceptable and what is not. Almost all of these issues are ones that resolve themselves with experience and playing time and can hardly be called a knock against the game.
With Clover studios having been dismantled and absorbed back into Capcom proper in the past few days, Okami will likely stand as their greatest and most fulfilling experience. It's more than that, though – it's simply one of the best games of the generation and I'd even wager to put it up with some of the best of all time. Few have attempted to copy the Zelda formula and even fewer have succeeded. Okami may be the only one to top Zelda at what it does best and that's a feat well-deserving of your praise and hard-earned dollars. Don't let Okami's esoteric "Japaneseness" ward you off – many Japanese didn't necessarily "get" the mythical references, either. That doesn't prevent the story and characters from being completely charming and a sly sense of humor mixes in perfectly with the dramatic moments. Okami is a game that pulls no punches and lands a knock-out blow with every thrust of its fists. The style of the game is not just superficial, friends, it's a bonafide work of art in its own right.