Nowadays, Platinum Games is one of the most respected names in gaming when it comes to action titles, but long before the studio was founded, many of its staff members were part of a Capcom subsidiary called Clover Studio. Clover made its name on producing interesting new IP instead of sequels, and its magnum opus was the seminal Okami, originally released on the PlayStation 2 in 2006. Fast forward many years (and ports) later and here we are in 2018, where the Switch port of Okami HD marks the first time the action adventure has been available 'on the go'.
The story of Okami opens with a nearly twenty-minute cutscene which sets the stage for this close-to-40-hour adventure, detailing the story of how a warrior and a wolf battled an evil dragon to save a town from its curse and bring peace to the land of Nippon. Since then, 100 years have passed, and after a mysterious figure comes along and frees the dragon from its captivity, the goddess Amaterasu is called to bring down the beast again.
While it may be a rather tired tale of an ancient dark evil coming to scourge the land simply because it's evil and that's what evil does, this narrative nonetheless does a solid job of motivating your quest, and the game continues to raise the stakes far further than one would initially expect, which comes as a pleasant surprise. It’s rather like the 'ending' of Kid Icarus: Uprising; defeating the main villain is not the end of the story outright, but merely the end of one story arc and the introduction of a bigger one. Some may feel like this pads out the tale too much, but the new threats encountered seldom feel unnecessary, and the extra runtime allows for the worldbuilding and lore to be continually deepened.
Gameplay could most closely be described as a take on the traditional formula of Zelda games, with a heavier focus on hack ‘n’ slash combat (remember, this game was the brainchild of the one and only Hideki Kamiya). As you travel the land on your holy quest to fight back the darkness, you’ll come across new Celestial Brush techniques that open up new traversal and combat abilities for Amaterasu, which both act as the key for progressing further and the means of finding new upgrades and secrets in previous areas.
So far, so similar, but the main gimmick here is the Celestial Brush, a smart piece of game design which changes the way that you approach and think about environments and puzzles. At the press of a button, the screen takes on a flatter appearance and an inkbrush is superimposed over the image. Drawing different shapes on the image can bend reality and cause various effects to take place when you return the image to normal, like causing dead trees to bloom with flowers or creating a vine that can sort of work like a grappling hook. It’s such a simple and easy-to-use concept, but it feels wholly unique and goes a long way towards giving Okami its distinct identity.
Though traditional ‘dungeons’ are few and far between, they feature many of the puzzle solving elements that Zelda fans will be familiar with, most notably the 'lock-and-key' style of using a recently acquired ability to overcome new enemies and puzzles. Puzzles admittedly feel rather simple and easy to figure out — we hardly encountered any that required truly serious thought — but there’s something about drawing things into the game world that never fails to feel fresh or interesting, especially once you have a deeper toolset. Fortunately, these dungeons are seldom forgettable in their overall design, with standouts being a sunken ship and a level that shrinks Amaterasu down to the size of an insect.
Throughout your exploits in dungeons and the various sidequests that you do for village members and other NPCs, you’ll acquire 'Praise' for your achievements, which acts as the experience system of Okami. Praise can be invested into different stats, like your wallet space or how often you can use the Celestial Brush in combat, and while the low difficulty of the game does trivialize this progression somewhat, it still helps to make the player feel empowered. The real sense of progression is found in the dojo, where you can pay a sensei to teach you new moves that widen your combat opportunities considerably. Either way, there’s seldom a point in this game where you’re unable to buy, upgrade, or find something new that makes Amaterasu a little leaner and meaner, which makes for a pacing that rarely stumbles.
Combat is handled in a semi-segmented way, with the majority of the enemies being visible in the overworld as you travel; running up to them calls up a shadow wall arena around Amaterasu, trapping her in with all the enemies that subsequently spawn. Battles are graded on two main factors — your speed and your damage — and your performance is rewarded with an equal amount of cash for spending at shops or the dojo. It’s fairly standard hack ‘n’ slash fare, although being able to cut enemies with the Celestial Brush does allow for some cool wrinkles to be introduced.
Amaterasu eventually has a deep arsenal of weapons to use, but it feels a little bit wasted on the enemies, which put up about as much fight as a stick of butter left to sit in the summer sun. There are far too many instances of enemies preferring to sit around and wait for you to finish mauling their comrades before coming for you, and when they do attack, it’s a mere slap that hardly seems to sting. This gulf in power is only made more evident when you factor in the uses of consumable items, granting you boons like temporary invincibility or a screen-clearing strike. Perhaps that’s the point of combat; making you feel like a mighty god tearing your way through pathetic creatures that are beneath you, but it would’ve been nice if more enemies (bosses aside) would put up something approaching a notable resistance.
Though combat seldom demands you explore it, Okami does feature a complex equipment system that can have a significant effect on the way that you approach battles. Over the course of the adventure, Amaterasu will acquire several new weapons which can be equipped in either the main weapon slot or sub-slot, with different effects being triggered depending on where something is set. For example, the rosary beads act as a whip-like weapon when used in the main slot, but turn into a projectile attack when equipped in the sub-slot. This makes for a battle system that caters to any playstyle and encourages experimentation, and while the game seldom challenges you to adapt your tactics to new threats, it’s still great fun to try new weapons and see what different combinations can achieve.
We’d be remiss to not talk about the gorgeous art style employed by Okami, arguably its single most defining feature. The oriental influences are evident from the get-go, as the whole world is made to look like a piece of painted Japanese ink wash art. The look is simplistic but enormously unique, with brush strokes virtually everywhere and little details like swirly lines to represent waves in a river making every still shot of the game look like a painting in its own right. It’s a bit obvious in places that this was a PlayStation 2 game to begin with, but the simple geometry and level design is made timeless by this visually distinct look which never fails to astound. We never tire of watching long trails of flowers spring up in the wake of Amaterasu’s run, or witnessing a gust of wind manifest itself as a squiggly line in the sky; Okami features one of the most memorable art styles in gaming, and it’s a visual treat from stem to stern.
This is similarly matched by the heavily oriental-themed soundtrack, which revels in flutes and stringed instruments. Even during the more intense action sequences, there’s a certain kind of peaceful and serene tone to the music that infuses the amazing visuals with a heightened air of mysticism, and this makes for an experience that you won’t want to miss. Though none of this music could be adequately described as catchy, it perfectly matches the visuals and pace of the game.
Naturally, Okami looks fantastic on the TV screen, and we’re pleased to report that it looks equally incredible on the Switch’s humble own display. As this isn’t a terribly intensive game, we also didn’t detect any noticeable slowdown or performance issues when playing on the go, which will come as a relief to those of you that play more out of the house. To be frank, it may be the best way to experience Okami, as you can utilize the touch screen to control the Celestial Brush if you wish, along with the motion controls in either Joy-Con. That’s really all that the Switch version has to offer over the many other ports, but portable play and a wealth of intuitive controls options are two huge plus points for an already incredible game.
If you haven’t already gathered, Okami HD is an utterly fantastic piece of software, and we feel you’d be doing yourself a disservice to pass on it. For a mere twenty bucks, you can have access to a 40-hour adventure that emulates Zelda wonderfully, adds in plenty of memorable mechanics, features one of the most memorable art styles in gaming, and is completely playable on the go, to boot. Though it may be showing its age a bit visually and its combat is sometimes a little on the easy side, Okami is an important, fun, and notable landmark in gaming history — and one of the easiest recommendations we can make for your Switch library.