.Note: The following review and the resulting score reflects our opinion of this new port of Okami and not of the original game, which kicks ass.
Here’s a fact that should not be new information at this point — Okami is one of the greatest video games of all time. Though the game flopped commercially when first released on the PS2 way back in 2006, its critical reception was nothing short of stellar. Hailed as PlayStation’s answer to The Legend of Zelda, Okami earned its acclaim thanks in no small part to its distinct Japanese Sumi-e art style and unique gameplay mechanics that came together in a melding of form and function that is rarely seen in gaming.
Okami’s story starts with the tale of an evil eight-headed dragon named Orochi, who terrorises the small farming village, Kamiki, and demands the sacrifice of its maidens. A brave warrior named Nagi and a white wolf Shiranui put an end to Orochi’s evil and seal him in a nearby cave. Fast forward 100 years and Orochi returns to terrorise the village again, prompting the village’s guardian spirit Sakuya to call on the sun god Amaterasu, a reincarnation of the original white wolf and this game’s protagonist, to set things right. Amaterasu (or Ammy) teams up with a bug-sized wandering artist named Issun and a warrior named Susano and sets out to recreate the events of a century ago and take down Orochi once more. Okami’s story deftly mixes many influences and figures from Japanese folklore and imbues them with a light-hearted whimsy and humour that makes the whole thing captivating from beginning to end. Pacing is the real winner here, with the plot taking wild turns just when it seems like things are closing out, before the full scope of the game is revealed.
“Video games aren’t art”
All of this takes place in the semi-open world of Nippon (Japan), across a multitude of villages, plains, temples and seas, each with their own stories to tell and adventures to discover. Okami plays out much like a typical action RPG with quests to take on and enemies to be fought — but the core gimmick is in Ammy’s ability to interact with the world via her ‘celestial brush’, allowing her to paint objects and phenomena right into the environment. This is done in-game by holding a button to flatten out the current view onto page and painting key symbols onto the scene. Each of the dozen-or-so symbols represents a godlike power and is earned over the course of the game, allowing Ammy and Co. to solve previously impossible problems or reach new areas as the game progresses. Drawing a circle in the sky to summon the sun might activate a solar mechanism opening a sacred cave for example, while drawing the symbol for wind could help a village by setting their windmill in motion. All of these things contribute to the overall state of the world in Okami, and seeing the environment change and shift positively as a result of your work is thoroughly rewarding as well as being just as visually captivating now as it was twelve years ago.
It’s fortunate then that Okami’s gorgeous artistic style holds up as well as it does, because Capcom have seemingly made zero effort to update anything in this release aside from an increased resolution. While the game now supports 4K, and looks absolutely lovely in doing so, there are numerous callbacks to its PS2 roots that drag down the overall presentation. Textures from a decade ago still haunt the game, resulting in some seriously distracting environmental detail, particularly on the ground, but luckily Okami’s intentionally soft look mitigates this somewhat. The worst offense is the horrible object pop-in that has not been fixed in any of the now four times that this game has been released. All manner of objects, people, flora and fauna in the game remain completely invisible until Amaterasu gets within tail-swinging distance before they finally appear, resulting in a lot of unnecessary pacing back and forth through each area just to make sure nothing is missed. It was no doubt a necessary evil back in 2006, but Capcom surely could have done something to rectify it by now. Okami HD happens to be the exact same port released on the PS3 back in 2012, albeit with the option to play in the original 4:3 aspect ratio, something that would appeal only to absolute purists.
Considering that this is the fourth time that Capcom have re-released Okami, this barebones approach speaks volumes to the company’s willingness to cash in on the game’s cult status without any desire to expand upon or further the franchise outside of the very average NDS spin-off, Okamiden. Okami is a masterwork of art, sound and gameplay that earned its following by quietly pushing the boundaries of its platform and genre, so seeing it relegated to a cheap port job to me feels akin to seeing a licensed print of the Mona Lisa hanging in the bathroom of a ‘hip’ Melbourne café. It deserves better. Still, it’s hard not to be excited that this shining example of the peak of creativity in the PS2 era is once again playable on modern platforms and ready for a whole new player base to discover just what makes it so great. High-end console and PC owners are in for a treat too, because the game does look stunning in 4K, despite the aforementioned holdovers. Plus, the soundtrack is still as beautiful and enchanting as ever. New and curious players should absolutely throw down the $25 required to download and experience this gem for the first time, but seasoned fans who’ve already devoted countless hours to multiple playthroughs in the past may struggle to justify buying this one yet again.
It’s disappointing that so little has been done to update Okami for a modern audience, because if any game deserves the royal treatment it’s this one. It’s great that Capcom are making the game available to its widest new audience yet across three major platforms, and at a very reasonable price point, because it’s a game that deserves as many new fans as it can muster. I can’t help but expect that Okami die-hards will be disappointed though, because not only is Okami HD a perfect example of a bare-minimum port, it’s a sobering reminder that there’s probably never going to be a real sequel.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro