Saturday, December 22, 2012

GOT 'IM - Okami

The tenth game on my 2012 was a fun romp indeed.  I beat it over three weeks ago, but I guess it's better late than never when it comes to playing and blogging about PS2 games from six years ago.  Welcome to the super-Japanese-open-action-adventure styles of Okami. 

First, as usual, some personal history going into the backog.  I've technically owned Okami for around 4 years or so on the PS2, but when I heard earlier this year that it was receiving an HD re-release on the PS3, I decided to take advantage of the new version's features (basically just trophies, disc-free content, visuals that fit an HD TV better, and playing with a wireless PS3 controller).  It was an extra twenty bucks on a game I already owned, but Okami ended up being so good that I don't regret the second transaction one bit. 

Okami's story, characters, themes, art style, music, and even parts of its gameplay are heavily steeped in Japanese folklore.  My knowledge of Japanese myth isn't much compared to my lifelong obsession with Greek, Egyptian, and Norse myth, but I've read a few non-academic books on the subject and I saw references and major themes themes drawn from that tradition throughout the entirety of Okami.  All of the major story beats in Okami borrow heavily from people, places, and situations in Japanese myth.  The first arc of Okami (there are three major story arcs followed by a final boss) is a funky spin on the Yamata-no-Orochi myth, but with its own plot arrangement and borrowed pieces from other stories here and there. 

Okami is the story of the sun god, Amaterasu, who enters the body of a wolf statue in Kamiki village to save the village from reenacting the tyranny of the dreaded monster Orochi, who was sealed away 100 years prior to the events of Okami (the statue commemorates the story of Shiranui, a white wolf that helped save Kamiki back then).  Amaterasu encounters a bug-sized man named Issun, a self-described "wandering artist", and together Ammy and Issun travel all over the land of Nippon, righting wrongs and quelling the forces of evil.  Amaterasu is chief among the gods of Nippon, the other twelve of which have been sealed away for 100-odd years.  As she locates her fellow gods, Ammy learns new techniques.

But what kind of techniques does a sun god in the form of a white wolf learn?  Well, Ammy wields the powers of the Celestial Brush, and she can manipulate the forces of nature (and some other, more wierdly-specific forces) by drawing designs with a disembodied brush.  Each of the thirteen gods (including Amaterasu) is based on an animal of the Chinese Zodiac, and to earn their techniques Ammy must find where their powers were sealed and then trace each of their constellations in the night sky with the brush.  You find all of the gods in the course of the storyline normally, plus you can enhance a few of their powers by finding secret areas.  Once you have a good number of brush skills learned, Ammy can turn night into day or vice versa, make withered flowers and trees bloom with pink cherry blossoms, summon blasts of wind in any direction, or manipulate sources of fire, water, lightning, or ice. And that's just a sample. 

These powers are all governed by drawing in a paused cut-scene, and the drawing is less-complicated and more well-implemented than I originally thought it would be.  The game is pretty good at determining the differences between its different drawn symbols and its occasional hiccups (mostly accidentally registering a loop when I meant to draw a circle) weren't deal-breakers. You collect ink pots that serve as a limit for how much you can draw at one time, but buying ink pots with Praise is nice and easy to do and they refill fast enough that it's only a major limiting factor when you're spamming brush techniques hard.  One thing that impressed me was the consistent use of powers.  In the final few areas, I was still finding uses for pretty much every ability I had found since the first stage.  There isn't any power that is used in one dungeon and then lies forgotten for the rest of the game (looking at you, Zelda).  And yes, some powers are basically keys for special doors (still see you there, Zelda), but they're implemented creatively enough to impress me.

So aside from pausing the game to dramatically draw designs with the controller, Ammy has a few additional tricks up her sleeve.  Combat in Okami is Ammy walking around an open area (more on those soon) and initiating battle by coming into contact with a scroll (a floating, burning Japanese seal).  After contact, a circular fighting ring spreads out, the environment darkens, and the scroll reveals itself to be a Japanese myth-influenced demon of some kind (there are maybe 30 or 40 in the game).  Amaterasu has three weapons that she uses to slay these demons: reflectors that act like floating shields that bash the enemy; rosaries, which are beaded chains that whip and lash at enemies; and glaives, which are basically swords.  I have no idea why they called them reflectors, rosaries, and glaives instead of mirrors/shields, chains/beads, or swords, but there ya go.

The three weapon types each have progressively-stronger weapons that you can purchase or find as the game progresses.  You equip two weapons at a time (one as your main weapon, one as a sub-weapon), and combat is a simple, two-button affair with a combo button, a sub-weapon button, a jump, and dash/extra button.  The shoulder buttons activate Celestial Brush mode or help with dodges.  I used either two glaives or main glaive + sub reflector for the entire game after obtaining the first glaive - I was okay with their range and speed, loved the charges and damage.  In addition to attacking with weapons, Ammy has some doggy tricks like shoulder dash/tackles, urinating on enemies, and double jumps (of course double jumps). You can learn new techniques by spending money or Demon Fangs (treasures dropped by enemies for defeating them with their weakness) at dojos or shops. 

So Ammy has 13+ brush powers, three types of weapons, plus a bunch of normal running and jumping techniques.  Now let's talk about environments - Okami has three major plot arcs, as I mentioned before, and each arc is self-contained in part of Nippon, a fictionalized version of Japan.  Each arc has two or three large maps in it full of hidden objects, smaller dungeon-esque areas to explore, and natives who all could use Ammy's help for one reason or another.  The environments all look great, and are puncuated by six or seven villages.  I hate to keep comparing Okami to Zelda, but this is a lot like Zelda, except the areas are a little more disjointed than Hyrule Field. And they're gorgeous.  In case you wanted the scenery even more beautiful, the player can use Ammy's powers to restore the green and pink of the local foliage, transform corrupted areas into springs and groves, or even feed local wildlife to earn Praise.

Why capitalize Praise?  Since Ammy is a goddess, her powers peak when her image is being worshipped by the world's denizens.  Ammy earns Praise by performing the above actions (buying food to give to friendly animals is a sidequest of sorts), or by helping out people with specific requests.  Those sidequests range from regular fetch-quests to catching pickpockets to racing mail couriers to designing kimono emblems to all kinds of other.  Good variety of sidequests.  Ammy spends Praise like other games might use experience points, allowing her to upgrade health, ink pots, and wallet size.

I mentioned the three big story arcs and several open areas, but only alluded to dungeons.  Okami's dungeons are much less interesting and elaborate than Zelda dungeons, with a few of them little more than 20-minute tests / demonstrations for a recently acquired Celestial Brush technique.  There are three large dungeons (one at the end of the each story arc) that are quite impressive in scope and design, but dungeons are just a natural part of Okami, while they're a major, iconic feature in Zelda.  Zelda does dungeons better, but Okami's dungeons are perfectly okay. 

Boss battles are also perfectly okay, and a few of them are as good as anything Zelda has to offer.  I'm sorry to keep comparing Okami to Zelda, but most of you have played Zelda games (sorry, David) and it's a very easy comparison to make.  Each boss battle is a huge encounter that heavily features Ammy's most recently-acquired brush techniques (of course it does), but also keeps older skills important, with the final boss requiring Ammy to use all thirteen skills in approximate succession.  Okami's bosses are huge, cool, varied, and occasionally require your entire arsenal of items, skills, and strategies.  There are only six or seven, though, I wanted more.  That's a pretty good indicator that they're pretty good. 

So there's combat, big environments, gorgeous visuals, brush techniques, sidequests, interesting combat, that's Okami's gameplay in a nutshell.  Now, I mentioned that the story is all about Japanese myth.  Truth.  But I didn't mention how melodramatic, funny, or even poignant it is.  There are comedy beats, big twists and turns, major character deaths, and emotional moments that all really surprised me.  Okami's large cast of characters is quite well-constructed, and I got quite attached to them by game's end.  Even a little sad, since a few of the memorable ones pass away over the course of the story.  Good on you, Okami, for making me care.  Of particular note is Issun, Ammy's sarcastic, flirtatious, and hilarious voice proxy.  He does most of the talking for Ammy, who is very doglike in her silence, movements, and predilection for being easily distracted.  They're an amusing pair, Issun and Ammy. 

So in 2012 I've played two Zelda games and Okami, and I think Okami might be the best of them.  It unashamedly follows Zelda's formula, but its visuals are so beautiful, its action is so interesting, and even its story and characters are so likeable that I wanted to keep playing after I finished!  Okami may be a Zelda clone at heart, but its unique premise, interesting visuals, and excellent overall package make it one of the very best games I've played this year. 

Games Beaten: 2012 Edition
1. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
2. Radiant Historia
3. Mass Effect
4. Mass Effect 2
5. Breath of Death VII: The Beginning (Hard mode)
6. Grandia II
7. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness - Episode 2
8. Mass Effect 3
9. Journey
10. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
11. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
12. Star Ocean: Second Evolution
13. Red Dead Redemption
14. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3
15. Persona 3 FES
16. Final Fantasy XII
17. DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue
18. Super Mario Galaxy
19. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
20. Fire Emblem: Fuuin no Tsurugi
21. Torchlight II
22. Rogue Galaxy 
23. Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana
24. Okami

Targets: 10/12


I have two games left on the docket for 2012, Valkyria Chronicles and Demon's Souls.  I'm starting to think that beating Demon's Souls in under three weeks is a pipe dream - that game is really huge and really tough.  I'm going to go all-in on Valkyria Chronicles and hope for the best.  Sorry, Demon's Souls, there's always next year. 

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