This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Okami is an action RPG for the PS2 in which you play Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun, who has incarnated as a white wolf to battle the evil eight-headed dragon, Orochi, and save the village he threatens. And it’s stunningly beautiful. The game is presented in a cel-shaded style which is meant to make everything look like traditional Japanese artwork, and by and large it succeeds. In terms of gameplay, the game is very much set up as a tribute to Zelda – you wander around the map, fight monsters, collect items, and solve puzzles in order to progress.
The major innovation of the game is the Celestial Brush. By hitting a button at any time during the game, you can instantly render the current scene (with the action paused) as an ink drawing, and you can draw on it to make things happen. (For example, if you draw a circle in the sky the Sun comes out). As the game progresses you learn more and more brush techniques with a huge variety of effects. The amount of work they’ve put into this aspect of the game is impressive: if you have the brush technique for controlling water, for example, you can use it with any water source you find in the game, whether you’re trying to do something serious or just splash a nearby character with it. As clever as it is, the brush is occasionally too clever – when you have a lot of techniques it can sometimes be difficult to get the effect you desire, and the “make the wind blow” brush stroke is so fuzzily defined it’s difficult to do consistently – and is similar enough to other brushstrokes that you can make the wind blow by accident a lot.
The advancement system is excellent: since you’re a divine being, you’re expected to behave like one, making the flowers grow, feeding the animals, and helping the people you encounter. Whenever you do something nice for someone – even if that someone is just “nature in general” – their gratitude becomes Praise, which you can use to get more ink pots (which you need to use your Celestial Brush technique), health points, or space in your purse for cash. Unlike a lot of computer RPGs these days, the designers didn’t bother to include an “evil option”: the game is essentially linear, although it has a decent number of side quests, and you only get rewarded for being a nice and helpful doggy. You can be as mean as you like to people, setting them on fire and so forth, but you’ll never make enemies of them, and you can still earn just as much Praise when you help them out. This doesn’t actually feel limiting at all, because it’s clear from the start that this is how the game is set up; wanting to take an evil route in Okami would be like wanting to play a version of Tetris where you don’t have to line up the bricks.
There are a few aspects of the game – like Issun, your constantly yattering companion, and the random science fiction elements (or strictly speaking, science fantasy elements – they’ve got an SF aesthetic but they are well and truly rooted in fantasy) that start turning up partway through the game, which at the time look pointless and irritating, but by the end of the game make absolute sense – but of course, just because they make sense and feel good when you finish the game doesn’t mean I wasn’t irritated when they first appeared. Issun, in particular, is singularly useless until you get close to the end: he talks all the time and gives advice when it’s entirely obvious what you need to do, and remains silent when the maddeningly difficult puzzles show up.
But that’s splitting hairs. Okami is the best action RPG I have ever seen, and at this point it’s likely to be the best action RPG ever to be released for the PS2.