Friday, April 15, 2011

Okamiden Review

This review was originally published on

Okamiden is a fitting tribute to the end of the much-beloved Nintendo DS. Arguably the system’s swan-song, the game is an example of what is possible near the end of a device’s lifecycle. Packed inside its cartridge is a sprawling adventure lasting more than twenty hours in a fully realized, beautifully cel-shaded, 3D world. The title is an apt Japanese pun combining the name Okami with the word “Gaiden” meaning side-story. While Okamiden works well as an addendum to the original tale of Amaterasu, make no mistake, it is a worthy sequel all its own. For being on a handheld, nothing about the game feels limited as the move to the DS has been kind to the series. It might not be as long as the original but there’s still plenty of depth with lots to explore in the land of Nippon.

The most striking feature of the game is its ability to maintain the soul of the series by faithfully duplicating its iconic art style, quirky sense of humor, and immeasurable charm. Set a mere nine months after the events of Okami, the child of Amaterasu, Chibiterasu, descends to Earth in order to rid the land of evil. It seems people have, once again, lost faith in the Gods so its up to Chibi along with several partners met along the way, to battle demons and restore peace to the world. While the story may take a few missteps, it is largely an enjoyable experience, driving players forward on the lengthy adventure. It’s filled with unforgettable characters both big and small and takes players on a journey through locales both familiar and strange.

In fact the first few hours may feel a bit too familiar, almost to the game’s detriment, retreading old ground and revisiting many of the same locations from the first Okami. Fans of the original might be overwhelmed by a nagging sense of déjà vu. However, Okamiden does manage to step out of the shadow of its predecessor and soon ventures forth into new territory.

When the first Okami hit the PS2 in 2006, it quickly became a cult classic, garnering a devout fan following but lackluster sales. In 2008, the game was given a second chance when it was ported to the Wii and the game’s brush mechanic was translated to the system’s remote control. However, Okamiden makes the best use of the drawing technique, pairing the DS’s touch screen with the Celestial Brush makes the series feel right at home on Nintendo’s handheld.

Many of the classic brush techniques return. At any time, Chibi can summon the powers of the Celestial Brush by clicking the L or R buttons and drawing on-screen. Cutting through an enemy or obstacle is as easy as drawing a horizontal slash. Cherry bombs can be placed by drawing a circle with a line for a fuse. The mechanic is far more responsive and much easier to pull off than its PS2 and Wii incarnations. However, with the DS comes a loss of analog controls as the system’s d-pad manages Chibi’s movement around the environment. It’s not ideal and, at first, feels downright clunky. Yet over time it’s easy to adapt and isn’t much of a problem. That being said it’s hard not to imagine how much better it would control on a 3DS with the circle pad.

In addition to drawing brush techniques, the touch screen is used to guide Chibi’s pals through various environments by creating a path for them to follow. It’s a nice addition regardless of being previously seen in other games. Yet despite encountering several partners along the way, they mostly come equipped with the same abilities including the guide mechanic. While some can direct water, others fire and lightning, it’s essentially the same thing and would have been nice to see a little more variety. Still, the characters themselves are a great ensemble and lend a layer of depth to the storytelling.

Of course, Chibiterasu and his cohorts run into their share of boss battles and Okamiden manages to create a few memorable encounters thanks to some clever and imaginative enemy design. The boss fights use the various brush techniques to their strengths, sometimes forcing players to juggle between several abilities. However, some of the ordinary combat can feel repetitive.

The game follows the same fighting design as the original, pitting players in self-contained arenas with a number of lesser enemies. Rather than being rewarded with experience points like most RPGs, battles offer money which can be traded in for weapon upgrades, items, and learning new brush techniques. It’s a solid system and works well though it can be exploited from time to time. Many enemies can be bested by repeatedly using the Slash technique, spamming the L or R button without giving them a chance to recover. It’s when the game throws in enemies which are immune to some moves that the combat offers a challenge.

Okamiden is a testament to the quality of games which greet the end of a console. It’s a tribute to the system’s strengths, pushing as much power as possible from the little portable. Throughout the game, it’s easy to feel a sense of awe at what the developers were able to accomplish on Nintendo’s handheld. The story is not perfect, even feeling artificially prolonged as it meanders a bit during the third act and old tropes of Eastern game design such as revisiting all the previous bosses rear their ugly head. But it’s easy to overlook such shortcomings when the experience is filled with charming characters and an engaging narrative wrapped around solid game mechanics and the wonderful Ukiyo-e inspired art.