It can give hope, open minds, change lives and alter the course of history. It can even resurrect an old game for the third time, despite the two previous iterations being critical successes but commercial flops. Can Capcom's faith in Okami HD bring an ancient god new life and teach an old dog new tricks?
Okami, developed by the now defunct Clover Studios, was originally launched in 2006 for the Playstation 2, before being ported to the Wii, complete with new Wiimote functionality, in 2008. Despite charming the hearts and minds of critics, both releases experienced only moderate sales. However, with this high definition reissue exclusively for the Playstation Network, Okami may have finally gone to a good home.
Okami HD is, all at once, graceful and delicate as a cherry blossom, as warming as a gulp of good sake and as boisterous and bursting with adventure as a playful pup. You play as Amaterasu, the Shinto sun goddess and mother of the universe, assuming the form of a snow-white wolf. You've awoken from a 100-year slumber to rid the land of Nippon of the curse brought upon it by Orochi - a fearsome, eight-headed, maiden-eating beast - restoring colour, beauty and tranquility to the world as you go. You're aided on your quest by the small statured but big mouthed Issun, a wandering artist, and Susano, descendant of a former hero who helped you seal away Orochi a century before.
It's a classical story, one that borrows heavily from Japanese Shinto fables and folklore, and it exudes a simplicity and a timelessness that makes you feel as though it could almost have been handed down over the ages, told and retold eternally.
This very traditional approach also applies to Okami's visuals, which despite now being six years old, are still wholly unique and exquisitely beautiful. Historic Nippon is depicted in a vivid, cel-shaded art style reminiscent of Japanese sumi-e watercolour paintings. The world and the characters within it create a rich, vivacious tapestry of colour and form, where a simple bold brushstroke in the sky can comfortably signify a distant mountain range, where life returns to parched areas in a joyous tidal wave of fresh flowers and fruit, and where at night, fire quietly dances in swirling plumes of red and gold.
It's this beguiling hand-drawn style that in turn makes the gameplay really flow. As a god, the world is your canvas, and the Celestial Brush is the most powerful tool in your arsenal. With it, Amaterasu can wield her divine power over this mystical watercolour world and momentarily stop time to ink symbols onto a heavenly contextual parchment. There are thirteen so-called brushstrokes to learn in all, and the effects of these range from slashing at foes, to conjuring the elements or causing the sun or moon to rise obediently in the sky. Though it may sound it on paper, the brush mechanic is far from a gimmick; it's critical to both Okami's narrative and to every aspect of its gameplay, tying it all together with a simple, satisfying elegance.
As a whole, the combat isn't all that difficult. Okami's emphasis is squarely on big-hearted adventure, but that's not to say that the fighting here can't be fun and inventive. Amaterasu will earn different weapons, or Divine Instruments, as she progresses through the story, and many have distinctive benefits. The Celestial Brush also comes into play during combat; enemies have specific weaknesses to exploit, and there are bonuses awarded for flashy fighting and floral finishers. Many big bosses require an extra layer of puzzle-solving to overcome, but even then they rarely frustrate, with Issun on hand to provide hints if you stay stumped for too long. In fact, the most grating mechanic during battles is the camera, which is rarely, if ever, where you want it to be.
The combat may never be too challenging, but Nippon is a huge world just brimming with possibilities, and there are as many tasks to occupy yourself with here as there are stars in the sky. Performing small kindnesses, like feeding the wildlife, bringing an offering to a long forgotten shrine or helping a stranger find their lost lucky teacup will earn you praise - a necessary accomplishment for both good gods and good dogs. There are also mini-games to try your paw at - where else would digging up turnips whilst avoiding a wallop from an angry housewife seem like a plausible thing for a deity to do?
As a god, your powers are understated but unsurprisingly formidable. Most of the human characters you meet, however, are unable to see your true nature, believing you to be just a regular old wolf, albeit an unusually friendly one. It's a rather sweet dynamic to walk so unassumingly among the people your nature it is to rule and to serve, whilst they unknowingly pat you on the head, whisper their greatest fears and desires into your furry ear or just sneak you tasty treats whilst they think no-one is watching. You're seeing the world through the eyes of a god, and it's full of childlike wonder and tiny gestures of love more meaningful because of their humility.
In this way, Amaterasu is a wonderful character. Where needed, she is in turns gentle and ferocious, answering the diverse prayers of the people she meets. Mute save for whines and whimpers and full of animal cunning and curiosity, she's complimented well with Issun, an arrogant inch-high artist who tags along on the quest. It's for purely selfish reasons at first, but of course he eventually ends up learning valuable life lessons and saving the day for everyone. Other memorable characters include the thirteen brush gods, each representing an animal of the Chinese Zodiac, and each holding on to a splinter of Amaterasu's power until her return. They're an irresistible blend of the ethereal and the absurd; their interactions with Amaterasu producing some rather charming and often silly cutscenes.
A high definition repackaging hasn't done much else for Okami outside of the requisite graphical upscale. The crisper lines and colours make an already great-looking game even better, and the brand new trophy set will satisfy treasure hunters. The only other new inclusion is the optional Playstation Move functionality. Honestly though, the Playstation controller offers better precision for your brushstrokes and is less cumbersome to use overall. This PSN release's biggest boon is simply making Okami both visible and accessible to a new audience, and those that may have missed it the first two times around.
Like the best myths and legends, Okami is a story that's destined to be told and retold time and time again. Though it isn't quite perfect, Okami HD may be the best version of that story yet. Its mix of action, platforming, puzzle-solving and adventure is a little too slowly paced at times, and with an epic runtime of 30 hours plus, the game could almost be accused of being just too big. With a world and lore as compelling and rich as this though, you're quick to forgive Okami when it rambles a little. You have faith that even when you hit a few minor snags along the road, the pilgrimage you make is still inherently worthwhile.
Okami HD rewards that faith and is simply, in a word, divine.