Review: Okamiden (DS)

A celestial pup worthy of your praise

Back in 2008, a two year old PS2 ‘game of the year’ was ported to the Wii amid much critical acclaim. Okami, an epic adventure boasting a glorious art style, was perfectly suited to the Wii’s capabilities, and Capcom has once again embraced a Nintendo console for a follow-up adventure on the DS. With such lofty precedent, it is a major challenge for Okamiden to meet expectations and match the Okami experience. Does this daring title demonstrate godly prowess, or fail to inspire faith?

The storyline in Okamiden is set nine months after the events of Okami. Amaterasu, the hero of the first game, is now residing in the Celestial Plains after banishing evil from the lands of Nippon. Unfortunately, demons do not sleep, and Nippon is once again engulfed with a mysterious evil. The burden of banishing this evil falls to Chibiterasu, the son of Amaterasu. As a young celestial pup he sets off on his journey, initially assisted by some old friends from Okami, to rid the world of demons, gain praise and develop his powers.

It has to be said: Chibiterasu is exceptionally cute. It is important to observe this cuteness, as the appearance and behaviour of this pup is a perfect analogy for the design approach of this title. It is immediately clear that this adventure has a different vibe and focus from its predecessor, and the artistic design of the hero has a major impact on the experience. You'll likely be enchanted by Chibiterasu, and as the tale progresses this fondness grows. In addition, throughout the adventure you have the assistance of different partners, all children, who ride along on your back and use their unique skills to assist you. Each partner brings a different dynamic to the relationship, as well as their own nicknames for Chibiterasu, and this can lead to some of the wittiest moments in the game.

The overall theme of ridding evil from the world is carried over from Okami, but this does not detract from the enjoyment of the storyline. The writing, cut-scenes and many interactions with other characters are brilliantly executed. At times the story is beautifully moving, which is an achievement of note for the writers.

The gameplay of this title has a few varying styles that utilise the DS in different ways. The majority of the game is played in a 3D over-world, produced with impressive scale. The biggest issue is the use of the d-pad for moving in a fully 3D world. It can be awkward on occasions but the movements of Chibiterasu, as well as some invisible walls built into the environment, have been designed in order for it to be workable. There is no denying, however, that an analogue input would be preferable.

The next style of gameplay is for set-piece battles, either with small groups of demons or one of the game’s epic boss battles. Movement is the same as in the wider world, but you are restricted within a small battle area. Standard attacks are executed with a simple tap of the Y button, while you jump with B and dodge with A. These controls are simple to pick up. Another variation in gameplay is found in temple areas where the camera will move to an elevated position. It is at this stage that you utilise your partners and their unique abilities to activate switches, collect treasures and so on. You direct them with the stylus and it works very well, in much the same way as the Link/Zelda teamwork in The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks .

A key component of the gameplay, and one that distinguishes this franchise from others, is the use of the ‘celestial brush’. This godly power can bring out the sun, reinvigorate the bloom of a cherry blossom or slash items and enemies, and has a number of other functions vital to progress in the game. You simply tap a shoulder button and the scene fades to parchment and transfers to the touch screen. It is as simple as drawing the correct shape to employ all sorts of godly magic, an intuitive feature and a wonderfully tactile experience. On rare occasions the game will be overly picky — for example if you’ve failed to close a circle fully — but these occurrences are few and far between.

One issue that does affect the controls is the camera. The game offers a limited amount of control with arrows on the touch screen that allow you to move the camera. It can be awkward, particularly in a battle, to try and move the camera by tapping an arrow while trying to avoid attacks. In addition, these arrows are not always available, in which case you have to accept the view that the game is giving you. This is probably a reflection of the challenges of bringing a full 3D adventure to the humble DS hardware, but all the same the camera will cause players some trouble. It is reasonably competent for most of the game, and while we did take some unnecessary hits due to unfortunate camera angles, we never experienced a game over screen due to this issue.

As hinted at by the camera control, there is the sense that Okamiden was really pushing the limitations of the DS hardware. These limitations, however, accentuate the exceptional achievement of the visuals; they are truly some of the best to be found on the handheld. Although the world of Nippon is split up into smaller areas, there is still a sense of a genuine world to explore. It is beautifully rendered and designed to look like a painting in motion. Unlike Okami, the visuals in this title look like a watercolour as painted by a young artist, perfectly matching the theme of youthful adventure. The Japanese mythology shines through in the impressive visuals, and the screen-filling boss battles are a particular highlight. This grand scale does lead to some drops in frame rate, but these generally occur at non-crucial moments when you’re exploring temples or large areas. The gameplay still holds up, and important sequences such as boss fights run smoothly.

The sound design maintains the standard of the visuals. The music is well crafted, varied, and best enjoyed with headphones. Dialogue is limited to reading text, with some general non-specific noises from characters in place of voice acting, just like the game's home console big brother.

Conclusion

Okamiden is an epic adventure in every sense: well written storyline, a huge over-world and gorgeous visuals and sound. It is an experience that, even if rushed through, will take more than 15 hours to complete. If you take your time and explore, which we recommend, you can add many more hours to that play time. That’s not to say that moving this franchise to the DS is without problems: there are occasional frame rate drops, some awkward D-Pad controls and a camera that doesn’t always cooperate. However, this is an exceptional achievement and, potentially, a fitting swan-song for the DS. It will enchant both adults and children alike with its cute hero and heart-warming story, and deserves a chance to be enjoyed. If you liked Okami, or are a fan of Zelda-style adventure games, you owe it to yourself to experience Okamiden.

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