High definition visuals are exactly what Okami needed.
The original PlayStation 2 release was and is still gorgeous; time hasn’t harmed it in the slightest. But the move to current-gen consoles breathes new life into Okami. Developer Hexa Drive took an already strong foundation and fortified it to the point of flawlessness. Okami HD is easily the definitive version of Okami and one of the best remasters yet.
Not just on virtue of its visuals, but also because it holds up. Okami puts you in the role of the sun goddess Amaterasu (in the form of a wolf) as she travels around Japan purging the evils that have overrun it. You move between the farthest corners of Nippon — from its sunny planes and seaside vistas to its tranquil forests and northern tundra — fighting demons and rejuvenating the land through the power of the Celestial Brush.
A key part of Amaterasu’s arsenal, the Celestial Brush allows her to manipulate the environment through specified brush strokes. Filling in a broken bridge will rebuild it, for instance, while drawing a circle over a tree will make it bloom. A horizontal line will unleash a powerful sword strike on foes and environments alike, and lines spreading from elemental sources (fire, water, lightning) will allow Amaterasu to harness it’s power. All important techniques, as they’ll be used plenty throughout the long journey Okami imparts.
The world has been left in a desolate state due a deadly curse that engulfs the land. A thick, dark red aura signals the presence of curse zones, turning anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in its grasp into stone. The only way to dispel it is by revitalizing the guardian saplings — massive cherry blossom trees imbued with divine energy — in each area with a quick swish of the brush.
And then the magic happens.
Okami‘s visual splendor is often the focal point of the praise languished upon it, and with good reason. The aesthetic, reminiscent of a Japanese watercolor painting, lends the game its identity. Okami’s carefully crafted visuals instill the feeling of a painting come to life, a sense strengthened by the subtle rice paper filter (or not-so-subtle, if you want; you can control how visible it is). It’s the scenes of cursed zones being dispelled, however, that the game’s beauty truly springs forth.
As the sapling blooms, it begins to glow. After a few seconds, a bright, divine light bursts from the tree, pushing back the curse as life returns to the area. It ends with a brief overview of the newly restored land, the scene sparkling brilliantly as the area returns to its natural state: Trees and plants spout once more, swaying in the wind; animals prowl about, structures reappear instantly, and people go about their business. These cutscenes never cease to awe, acting as the perfect introduction to each locale, and a fine reward as well. Seeing these events unfold in HD adds to the to the spectacle. Colors are brighter, the picture crisper, the scenes smoother (they occasionally hitched up on the PS2); all thanks to the increased resolution.
Restoring the world also has practical uses. Every plot of land you purify, every tree you bloom nets you praise, which can be used to enhance Amaterasu’s attributes, like health, ink pots (each use of the Celestial Brush uses at least one pot), the size of her purse, etc. Feeding animals and completing side-quests grants praise as well, often in large amounts.
Exploration makes up most of Okami. Moving about the fields and planes of Nippon is relaxing and enjoyable. The sights never cease to please, while the NPCs dotted about usually have something interesting or chuckle-worthy to say. Each area has a fair amount of secrets to find and activities to partake in, along with plenty of enemies to fight. Many points of interest require you use brush techniques you acquire later in the game, leading to a fair amount of backtracking, but travel is so brisk it’s hard dislike it.
The music and its comforting tone helps. Performed on traditional Japanese instruments, the music delivers a perfect final touch on the atmosphere. Uplifting beats of flutes and drums invoke a sense of adventure as you dash through the fields as the tempo rises and falls, while high, steady notes instill a sense of mystery in gloomy areas. The whole soundtrack feels so in-place that it’s not hard to imagine each track being generated by in-game NPCs somewhere.
Okami‘s few dungeons are where most of the puzzle solving occurs. Though, they aren’t so much puzzles as they are minor obstacles, such as doors or blocks of ice, to sidestep. The problem is that the game never attempts to move past those pedestrian puzzles. It’s almost always the same set throughout, seldom introducing anything new or noteworthy, challenging or interesting. That your pint-sized companion, Issun (think Navi but with actual character), often spells out solutions for you via very heavy hints doesn’t help either.
Combat occurs regularly, but can be avoided easily. Large scrolls represent demons in the field. Coming into contact with one initiates battle, manifesting an arena around you. Spars rarely challenge — enemies seldom go on the offensive and stun easy, too — the fun lying in the fluidity of the combat. Slaying foes is quick and fulfilling; the variety of weapons to use – mirrors, rosaries (whips), swords — in concert with the brush techniques keeps combat lively and interesting. Each weapon type can be equipped as a main- or sub-weapon, their effects and uses changing based on how they’re armed. Mirrors act as shields when assigned the sub-weapon role, while rosaries become a sort of gun; swords remain the same – letting you charge strikes for additional punch – regardless.
Amaterasu can make quick work of foes on virtue of agility. She’s able to quickly switch between enemies by being within striking distance. Attacks become easier to chain, then, as you could land a full combo only to move to another target and do the same before finishing both off with a swift stroke of the brush. Mastery of the combat systems make fights much faster and enjoyable, which the mechanics make real easy to do.
Hexa Drive has done a fantastic job of bringing Okami onto the PlayStation 3. Bit of a shame, though that, all these years later, and Okami is only now starting to see great success. Success that the original team will never see.
There’s a line after the credits: “This story contains the hopes and dreams of many fine people.” Always took that to mean Okami was a very personal project for Clover Studio. And here it is, being re-released for the second time. Saddens me to think their efforts go unrewarded. But at least Okami will now be immortalized in the best form available, their work known.