Some games tend to cast a shadow so immense and fuliginous that few other developers attempt to enter its genre. The Legend of Zelda franchise is a textbook example of this phenomenon, drawing in multiple imitators during its 2D era (Neutopia, Golden Axe Warrior, Beyond Oasis) but scaring most off after the risky transition to the third dimension. Clover Studio's Okami is something I've seen bravely compared to the Hylian hero's legacy, though often as "it does what Zelda does, but better!" Because of my adoration for Viewtiful Joe I bought Okami when it was new, but (shamefully) only got around to finishing it this year. I enjoyed the whimsical wolf god's journey through the shimmering land of Nippon, but the claims of superiority to Zelda's original structure are definitely exaggerated—if anything, it and Zelda share similar pitfalls.
I'd prefer this entry not to be a direct competition between the two titles, so I'll dispense with the Zelda comparisons for now. Okami's greatest strength is the sense of culture it brings with it. This isn't just evident in foreground of mythology & music, but is crystalized in the entire aesthetic package; I would argue that if the game was made anywhere other than Japan, it would not have retained its unique, pleasant flavor. The cultural perspective Okami exhibits is part of the reason why I find inveterately foreign studios both challenging and refreshing, as the exposure to a new kind of world can be very enlightening.
Clover's Nippon is one that is awe-strikingly beautiful, rich with cherry blossoms and eccentric characters. The most vivid aspect of the game is the art style, its raw ink brush smatterings present on every object and character—even repeated asset feels special with this filter! Though there are only several adventure fields in the game, each one is just the right size and has the perfect tune to accompany it as you traverse across grassy knolls and sandy shores. And speaking of tunes, Okami's majestical soundtrack is almost indelibly tied to the visuals, the composers doing an amazing job with recurring themes and tugging at the heartstrings during the final act (it reminded me a touch of Journey's momentous finale due to the impact of the music alone).
Though the game implements traditional japanese folklore into its story, I was more intrigued by its representation in the art. I looked forward to how each enemy was rendered on the bestiary scroll, as well as in-game during a battle. Every foe felt eerie and captivating—the Red & Blue Ogre, Great Tengu, and Igloo Turtle were among my favorites. Bosses were exceptionally well done too, with the Spider Queen and Blight looking truly menacing with a pinch of melancholy, and Orochi's hideous presence bleeding into the bestiary parchment made him that much more terrifying.
Fighting all of these mythical creatures, however, was an entirely different matter.
You see, where I feel that Okami falters is in its pacing and somewhat in the combat. The battle system in the game is serviceable—fulfilling its purpose without any flourish, though oddly underwhelming for a Kamiya title. During the beginning the combat is unfortunately rote and dull, opening up only halfway through the game when you acquire multiple weapon types, a dodge, and more enemy variety to play around with. However the game can be quickly thrown out of balance the moment you pull out any glaive weapon, as the celestial broadswords can swiftly dispatch any monstrosity in your path. I had to actually restrain myself from using it during the final boss fight when I realized that a single combo could reduce his health by a third; I desired the story's climax to resemble at least somewhat of a struggle.
But while the combat is something I could learn to enjoy, the pacing was not. Orochi is built up as the main antagonist in the game but is slain a third of the way through the story—after that, you more or less wend around until you bump into Yami. Again, I enjoyed the story and found the final battle to be the most emotionally powerful encounter Clover or Platinum has ever produced (yes, even more than Bayonetta and The Wonderful 101), but with regards to building Yami up, almost no consideration was shown here. Nine-tails was the most frightening villain in the game and even she takes a backseat to Orochi after her limelight dwindles, the hydra stealing unnecessary amounts of screen time for being such a simple enemy. I get that the appeal of Yami is that he's an condensed, unknowable form of evil, but the aimlessness after Act I just made the game feel so much longer than it wound up being.
The stilted pacing doesn't merely affect just the plot either. Entering combat requires loading so you're not entirely incentivized to fight foes your way from point A to B, the mermaid coin pools are too rare and the item that lets you travel between save points is locked behind item grinding, and dungeons are entirely linear affairs with no diversions or options to explore, which fails to differentiate them from the rest of the linear game (other than in setting). And lastly, there's so much dialogue that it puts Skyward Sword's incessant nagging to shame. It's demeaning to have an NPC tell me where to go for reason X, and then Issun to repeat the same thing back, and when I arrive I'm told that I'm there for reason X. This is especially irksome whenever the slow dialogue takes over, as it just extends certain scenes out well beyond their bearable limit. The dojo was just about where I had enough of the copious amounts of text, as I timed one trip to it to take nearly 20 minutes just to learn additional combos and the ability to do damage when I maneuver (things which require no tutorial whatsoever!) The little things like mashing "A" through treasures obtained or "Start" every time I fed an animal wore me down by the end, and I can only be thankful the game didn't ask me to go on another fetch quest before it was over (though it did force me to fight Orochi for a third time).
I didn't ever dread playing Okami—I found a lot of it to be fun!—but I wasn't sad when it was over. The game doesn't "overstay its welcome" as much as it "understates its objectives", lasting a good while but failing to outwardly convince the player to remain invested. It's a shame too since the wondrous world is so full of color and quirkiness, each of its enemies a sight to behold. I was glad that I stuck around to experience Clover's hodgepodge of ancient japanese myths, though I'm unsure if there will ever be a second playthrough in the future. Either way, Okami's visual charm will remain as radiant as the sun.
Images obtained from: okami-game.com, vgblogger.com, destuctoid.com, shadowpuppeteer.com