I can still remember how I felt when I watched the very first trailer for Ōkami all the way back in 2004. I was immediately in awe of the art style, intrigued by the lupine main character, and dazzled by the accompanying music. I knew then and there that the game would be something special, but I wasn’t confident that it would reach Western shores, so I tried to temper my expectations. When the game did get a Western release I was ecstatic, and it ended up being everything I had hoped it would be. I was equally pleased to see it ported to the Wii and overjoyed when it got an HD remaster on PS3. Now, the HD version of Ōkami has found a home on PS4, Xbox One, and PC, inviting old fans and new players alike to dive into an engrossing, thoroughly Japanese tale about a sun goddess who just wants to be a good doggo.
Ōkami takes place in ancient Nippon (AKA Japan) during a time when people have started to forget about the gods that live in nature all around them. When the dreaded eight-headed serpent Orochi is accidentally released, cursing the land and its people, sun goddess Amaterasu awakens in the form of a white wolf and sets out on a quest to vanquish the demon. She is accompanied in this endeavor by the bug-like Issun, a wandering artist who (in true Zelda fashion) serves as Amaterasu’s voice. The two meet a colorful cast of characters along the way, and players will find them wonderfully endearing thanks to their stylistic designs and excellent writing. Many denizens of Nippon are named after well-known literary characters from Japanese folklore, and key aspects of their stories or physical designs are allusions to those very legends. Little elements, such as Kushi’s comb-like hair or the astronaut helmet Kaguya wears, may be lost on players with no knowledge of these stories, but it can be fun to look them up and see where the inspiration came from. I certainly didn’t recognize every reference, but those that I did made me smile.
The story is definitely on the long side, lasting over 40 hours for players who want to do everything, and while this may be fatiguing for some, I welcomed the length — although the final arc is perhaps a little underdeveloped compared to the rest. The conclusion is utterly heartfelt and brings together all the disparate threads encountered over the game in such a great way that it is near impossible not to feel a little sad that the journey — at least, this journey — is over.
And what a journey it is! From small beginnings in the humble village of Kamiki to the capital city Sei-an (a pun on Heian-kyō, one of the old names for Kyōto) and the frigid north, you’ll find yourself running around beautiful stylistic environments, defeating demons and restoring life to the land using 13 different celestial brush techniques. This is the primary mechanic of the game and the one that sets it apart from most other games in the genre. With the press of a button, the world around you turns into a black and white canvas, and another button allows you to draw symbols on objects, enemies, and even the world at large. Finding these brush techniques and learning how to use them to navigate the world, solve puzzles, and fight monsters is a great deal of fun. New brush techniques usually allow you to reach previously inaccessible areas or find hidden items, so acquiring these skills progressively expands the world and what you can do within it. It’s a great system that makes revisiting old areas worthwhile and rewards both exploration and experimentation.
Combat is a relatively simple affair, and while it does grow more complex with the addition of more dangerous enemies, the basics remain…well, basic. Running into demon scrolls seals you off in a small circular section of the map with a handful of enemies. You can use your brush techniques to help you, such as drawing a gust of wind to blow out the flames on an enemy’s body, but mostly what you’re going to be doing is attacking with your divine instruments. These come in three varieties: reflectors, beads, and glaives. The cool thing about the weapon system is that you can equip a primary and secondary weapon at the same time, and the way each weapon behaves changes depending on how you have it equipped. Reflectors, for instance, are used to slash back and forth quickly when equipped as a main weapon, but as a secondary weapon, they can be used to block attacks when deployed at just the right moment. This provides for a certain amount of strategy when approaching combat, and players will want to experiment to find the combinations that work best for them. Battles are usually over in a flash — which is good in a long game like this — and there are a wide variety of monsters with various weaknesses to take on, but the basic combat cycle is fairly static once you learn what weapons you like and how to deal with enemies.
The one real glaring issue with the gameplay in Ōkami is the camera control. On the console versions, it is terribly floaty and can be a huge pain to deal with, particularly when you need the camera to face in a particular way to use your brush techniques. This is remedied for the most part on the PC version, where mouse control of the camera is far more precise, though I did experience a few performance hiccups while playing on my desktop that I did not with the PS4 version, so there are definitely trade-offs no matter how you choose to play.
One thing about Ōkami that is not a compromise is the visuals. They look absolutely stunning in HD, with bright colors and thick, ink-like lines that are reminiscent of traditional Japanese art, such as ukiyo-e and sumi-e respectively. There’s also a kind of pop-up style to certain inanimate objects, such as trees, that makes them always appear flat before you. Combined with a filter (which you can disable if you prefer) that makes the screen appear as if it were textured paper and the use of simple lined backgrounds to denote the presence of things like distant mountains, the visual engine at work here is nothing short of fantastic, even after 11 years and two console generations.
On the audio side of things, the soundtrack is incredibly strong. The music is replete with traditional Japanese instruments that enhance the game’s visuals and story, but even if you’ve never heard a shamisen or koto before, you’ll find something to love about this soundtrack very quickly. The tracks that play during the endgame sequence in particular remain some of my favorite pieces of video game music, although it’s a shame that the vocal theme, “Reset,” has been removed from the credits. Character voices, on the other hand, fall into the your-mileage-may-vary category. They’re not real voices but rather little sound bites that are repeated in different ways to simulate a sort of gibberish speech. Depending on your tolerance for such things, you may find the voices endearing or be tempted to hit the mute button. Luckily, there is an option to disable the voices entirely should you find you cannot stand them.
I’ve been gushing pretty much since the beginning of this review, but Ōkami really is worth all the praise. This HD remake brings all the beauty and fun of the original to several new platforms, and while there are a few issues (such as the camera and the annoying voices), the strength of the overall package makes it easier to ignore them in favor of all the things the game does right. Whether you’re a fan of the original PS2 version or someone who has never played the game before, Ōkami HD is absolutely worth adding to your library.