a review of Ōkami
a videogame developed by clover studio
and published by capcom
for the nintendo wii and the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system
text by Hamish Todd

2.5 stars

Bottom line: Ōkami is “the most beautiful game ever made.”

Okami is so beautiful enough that you can be content to just run around the landscapes with the character, turning every so often (with a wide turning circle, so you don’t have to slow down). We’ll say that we’ve never booted up the game just to run around aimlessly. But that’s A Thing: a game that can make you want to just play around with it, without dangling any cutscenes, numbers, or torn out internal organs in front of you. Hideki Kamiya recently admitted/boasted that the prototype for Okami was simply a wolf running through a forest (boasted because it was bold and beautiful, admitted because it probably makes him a pretentious furry). He added that it was extremely boring to play. But that didn’t stop him from spending three years of his genius life on it.

In moments of weakness, we wonder whether this is the ultimate goal of video games: to make themselves appealing without having assets that have to be so goddamn functional; without having to give the player a “goal” to “achieve”. Tales of Tales’ Fatale (***1/2) had no goal, and it was one of the best video games of 2009, guys, because it was a video game. Actually, we say that that game does have a goal: the goal is enjoy it. If you didn’t enjoy it, well, you lost. Try harder next time, and don’t blame the developer for your own shortcomings. Games just don’t have a way to check and respond to player input in the way Fatale needs them to, not yet. Everything that is good is challenging to its audience, at least on some malnourished little level. Have we just declared that everything is a game? Whatever. Fatale is a beautiful, expressive environment, and you interface with it through a video simulation. And it has three and a half stars from Actionbutton.net now, so it must be a video game.

Clover made a lot of their wolf-forest prototype. You can switch the environments between day and night, though you have to be patient if you want to see it in twilight. Every location has a memorable personality. Even the most traditional visual theme gets very personal treatment (the only difference between “traditional” and “derivative” is, of course, whether or not we like it). In the best of the cave levels, for example, the stalactites have the unrealistically garish coloration of the most inspiring primary school classrooms. You can smell those stalactites — you can smell their cold, acidic presence.

The story structure revolves cleverly around the environments: Feudal Japan has been overridden with black smoke full of evil demons, you must go and find a magic tree in each level/location (they are levels, and they are locations), and give it a jolt, which causes natural goodness to sweep across the landscape, eradicating the smoke. It’s satisfying to watch the FMV of flowery waves engulfing the area, but that’s not the point. The point is that the environments are characters, and in doing this you are helping them. With the smoke around, they’re ugly — with your help, they become beautiful.

They make up exciting setpieces, too: a sunken ship, an overgrown chasm, a steamy lagoon. We’re going to use our favorite of these as a slow segue into our complaints. It’s this sequence where you’re shrunk to the size of an ant, which is cool. There are massive (tiny) spiders, animal burroughs, gardens; you might say it shows us the real life beauty to be found all around us, if, like us, you genuinely own a goatee and a beret. It makes an actual change to gameplay, too. It happens in a way that lacks common sense and is so shallow that we don’t want to describe it. But it is spirited, it makes the theme into something you have to pay attention to.
The climax of this sequence involves entering a human being. It probably took quite a lot of work to make sensible aesthetics of this: a lot of textures, a lot of concept art, a lot of grey hairs and shouting — yet you’re only in there for one tiny boss fight. You can hang around if you want (you will want). We think they intended it to be longer, and perhaps lost interest because they had a billion other ideas and were busy men.

Our complaints start with something that was set up, but failed, to make getting shrunk more exciting. There’s this fairy-resembling motherhecker who spends the whole of the game on the end of your nose. He’s meant to be the voice of the player when you approach something you don’t understand, and a comic relief because he’s a midget. See, your character can’t talk. The motherhecker in question here talks as if gameplay is an awkward silence between the two of you. So we get shrunk down to his level; if the character had had some enigma, this could have been badass. It is not.



Take any character in Okami, and if we spent the amount of time with them that we do with him, we’d want to drown them, too. They take that confidently dull approach to characterization and fake involvement that gamers just seem to be fine with.

And so there’s all the rest of the stuff. The combat, which is mashy on the PS2, waggly on the wii, and shallow as gold leaf on both. The RPG elements, which are so tacked-on and thoughtless that we went through half the game without realizing they were there. The fetch quests, which, as always, must have seemed to the developers like the only way to get us impatient gamers to look at anything, to get that most cynically-generated feeling of “exploration”.

Much of what you collect does nothing. Some of the collectibles, the most useless ones, in fact, will briefly pause the game when you pick them up. We get spasms when this happens, though we can’t stop picking them up. They’re there. You’re meant to pick them up. There are better ways to make people pay attention to their surroundings! It’s not easy. It’s not something that could have been tacked onto Okami after the environment artists had finished doing their thing. It’s actually structuring gameplay around what you can see. Space Giraffe, Devil’s Tuning Fork, Ikaruga. At the time, all they had was that last one. Ikaruga is beautiful. You could remove all the meshes, boil it down to the bare minimum of information needed to play the game, and it still would be. There’s a beauty that is appropriate to video games; damn if we have all the answers, but 2D objects that rotate to face us might have something to do with it. It also probably involves programming.

Then there’s the painting mechanic. It’s a wonderful verb: “paint things on the screen that spring into chunky, 3D existence”, up there with “rewind time” and “electrocute water”. But the nouns are unimaginative, and the adjectives are simplistic. The adverbs are businesslike. It is not enough to program something impressive. We’re not here to spectate the cool stuff that you can let us do. We want to be challenged — we want level design that makes our power almost, but not completely, useless.

One last thing: we here at Actionbutton.net are severely creeped out by the painters who seem to feel obligated to put their work into the context of a video game. Stop this! Have some pride! It’s nice to walk around a beautiful environment, of course it is. But don’t simplify inappropriately, or you’re no better than the animators of Quick Time Events. Okami makes our eyes water when we think about its scenery, so we’ve given it those stars. But it is gaming’s sexy &^#$# of a daughter — it threw its life and its looks away, not out of spite or even selfishness. It just didn’t know any better.

–Hamish Todd


19 Responses to okami

  1. I’ve been a fan of non-photorealistic rendering since before it was cool, but I gave up playing Ōkami because of the goddamn flea—and not just for the shallow characterization. Pet peeve of mine: If the game wants to order me to do things, then at least give me an authority figure I can respect, not a cute embodiment of Developer’s Will that will offhandedly “suggest” the unavoidable next goal . Dragon Quest and Katamari Kings, yes. Zelda fairy and Boktai sunflower, no.

    In Ōkami I’m the rad wolf avatar of Oohiru Menomuchi Friggin Amaterasu Oomikami HERSELF and I have to obey orders from a FLEA.

    (I don’t care it’s a gnome, I thought it was a flea ok.)

    If someone figured a way to hack the game and eliminate the flea, I’d play it.

    > as if gameplay is an awkward silence

    It occurs to me that Ōkami would be much better as a no-dialogue, zero-text videogame.

  2. Pingback: Okami’s audio dilemma | split/screen co-op

  3. I’m a little confused by the last paragraph of the review. I don’t understand the criticism of the 2 games mentioned:

    As far as I can tell-
    -Miner Distraction- a simplistic platformer with nice background art.
    -Small Worlds-I remember this game when it got some indie awards- I thought it was pretty experimental but had unique artstyle and technology, and a nice, dark mood.

  4. Maybe I’m nitpicking, but do &^#$#s really throw their lives away? And if the &^#$# in question is sexy, has that &^#$# already thrown his/her looks away? Solving this dilemma is more challenging than playing Okami.

    I feel like, if this game had some Pixar-branded license at its core, for example, instead of a classically-painted-ish wolf, it would be derided for being a simplistic Children’s Videogame.

    Okami is not so much an un-challenging and unrewarding videogame as it is an unnecessarily complicated screen saver. Or it’s an Activity Book for people who are terrified of pencils and black-and-white newsprint-quality pages and word searches.

  5. Much of what you collect does nothing. Some of the collectibles, the most useless ones, in fact, will briefly pause the game when you pick them up. We get spasms when this happens, though we can’t stop picking them up. They’re there. You’re meant to pick them up.

    You should play Donkey Kong 64 so we don’t have to read your terrible parody reviews ever again.

    Just kidding, I laughed my ass off.

  6. Hey hey, I’m the reviewer, glad you all liked it.

    @whatsarobot: &^#$#s do not necessarily throw their lives away. There’s a certain literary convention I feel as though I’ve seen wherein sexy &^#$#s get easily manipulated, though.

    @stickershock – What I’m talking about is the fact that the guys who made those games are ostensibly great artists. I feel that there was no good reason for them to have made games, is the thing. Those backgrounds could just have been blogged, and then we’d be able to examine them to our leisure.

    Instead, they were implanted into platformers; very bad platformers! Miner Distraction has zero interest in being good as a platformer, though it is still a nice piece of work because of its beauty. You get quite a lot of freeware games like this. I compare them to Quick Time Events because they have lost sight of what makes videogames interesting, and use player interaction only symbolically; as a means of slightly increasing the amount of involvement the player feels.

    In the process of trying to become something like a game, their work loses a lot of power they could have had if they had understood themselves better – this is something we see a lot. There are no shortage of games that would have been better films, and I occasionally look out over some levels and wonder whether their creators would have done better in landscape gardening – I’m not even joking. I saw a play the other night that was pretty obviously meant to be a ballet. It’s sad, but what is sadder is that they are the natural advancements of Okami’s philosophy. See also Odin Sphere and Bioshock.

    Also you should all read that article above, it’s very short and it talks about something I basically forgot: the music. I agree with him, the music is good, and does for traditional japanese music what the Lion King did for traditional African. The mumbling is highly annoying; I wondered whether it was a reference to older games where you got the same soundbite over and over.

  7. This review seems derivative (not traditional) in several places, for example: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2010/1/8/

    I have nothing against interactive painting’s. They’re not good games, oh no, but we have to stop assigning everything we can interact with the term “game”; it leads to pitfalls whereby we assess thing by criteria of something it isn’t, and hence deride otherwise perfectly enjoyable experiences.

    It’s the reason I read Action Button Dot Net’s reviews, where they judge a game “against themselves, and against ourselves”.

    It’s the reason I don’t read Insomnia’s dogmatic reviews, not matter how interesting his essay’s can be.

  8. heck… yeah, that makes sense. I hang my head in shame.

    I’d be absolutely in favour of Okami becoming an “interactive painting”. Okami’s aesthetics are truly astounding partly because they exist as a programmed system that will be beautiful no matter what way you twist it. Like I say, it’s so beautiful that you can be content to just heck around with it. So yeah! They should have dropped the collectibles, combat, puzzles, and the other stuff that makes it a “game”, because they mostly seem to be the things that make it stuff. It is a game though, as is Miner Distraction, and that desire to be a game, or to be like the games of the past (by which I mean Zelda), is holding them back.

    I suspect that if you subtracted the Zelda from Okami you’d get something like Flower, which is kinda interesting.

  9. Speaking of interactive paintings, remember in Chrono Cross, right after you start playing as Lynx?
    His first scenes are drawn like a thick, gloppy, beautiful impressionist painting, and the next few scenes are fantastic Escher-esque illogical architecture. This whole sequence lasts only about 5 minutes.
    I wish they would make a whole game like that!

  10. Y’know, despite its numerous flaws, I absolutely adore Chrono Cross, and I’m pretty sure that scene is a big reason why. The slow music during the impressionist part (before the obnoxious battle music during Escher) is gorgeous, too.

  11. You just made me realize collectibles and simcity type games have something in common–at a certain point you remove all the possibility from the world and then all you’ve got left is starting over.

    It’s like the entertainment version of clear-cutting.

  12. Aw hell naw!

    You don’t get to dismiss Fatale in one paragraph! We want a review dammit! There’s a game (potentially) we can have a properly violent argument about!

  13. i watched someone else play okami instead of playing it myself, which was probably more enjoyable because i could ignore the text and just appreciate everything else.

    really, if they had cut down the amount of dialogue and hand-holding (especially from that obnoxious cretin issun) it would have been a fine, lovely-looking zelda-like with a cute gimmick. instead they buried what potential it had under reams of slow, cloying, irritating verbiage. what a shame.

  14. I played Okami for a couple of hours and was impressed with the graphics, and I think like you enjoyed just running around. I did not like how you could skip through the opening story part, and the characters and story stuff did not seem interesting.

    I wondered if the same engine and art techniques couldn’t be used for a pure action game. Maybe not, as they seem too dreamy and wistful for action, especially violence. (I’m thinking Ninja Gaiden, Tenchu, etc).

    However I do like that dream scene in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, the first part, where the little boy goes wandering off and finds those Japanese people in high garb on the hill side dancing — wish there was a dancing game like that.

    I wonder if El Shaddai will be another Okami?

  15. Glad one of you finally reviewed Okami.

    You’re of course right that the game is friggin’ beautiful. No question there.

    You’re also right that brush powers are seldom used for head-scratching puzzles, and the actual GAME systems are hardly ground-breaking (although I’d argue they’re flawlessly implemented for what they are — e.g., controlling the avatar is pure joy. Plus, on the PS2, the brush-work really WORKS). And Issun is, as Amaterasu makes it very clear she understands, a pest at times. Indeed, if the developers were interested in stroking the egos of hard-core, beret-wearing, ludologists, (or their supposed opposite, the hypertrophic rage-fetishizing American male teen) they took a very wrong tack. But hey, some of us are, some of the time, looking for something ELSE in our games.

    And I think the _game_ part of the game can be more charitably interpreted.The great success of Okami’s gameplay for me was in how it flowed naturally from its non-human protagonist’s perspective. Have you ever spent any time around a dog? They enjoy life in a way humans seldom can. Sure, they can be very purpose-driven when need be, but sometimes they just run and run because it feels good. They do a lot of napping. They’re not particularly concerned w/ a schedule. They also like to wander around and look at stuff. Sometimes they dig stuff up for no apparent reason. Maybe they’re curious what they’ll find. Maybe they just have to obey the inscrutable exhortations of their respective souls. Or maybe, like smoking for people, it’s a reason to be outside. To look at the grass and trees and water and sky. Okami the game is set in a fantastic world, and much of the simple gameplay gets you moving around in it. The game isn’t larded w/ the facile self-referential conceits of a BioShock or the millstone of post-critical purpose that (only partially) drags down a game like Shadow of the Colossus, or the over-reliance on haptics and kinasthetics of something like Gears of War. It’s not clever in a way that flaccidly congratulates the gamer. It’s just really attractive. Like, genuinely uniquely cross-modally attractive. It’s full of lovably animated animals and winsome foliage and almost tactile sound effects and fantastic music. You can interact w/ almost everything w/ your brush. Want to blow wind on those annoying village busy bodies? Oh look, their hats blew off! Make some flowers sprout — wow, the deer sure love that! How will that hawk react to some rain?

    Unlike 99% of other games, there is almost no human-style anxiety in Okami. It’s a dog’s game. You take care of business, and w/ style, but you’re not sweating, throwing your controller at the TV, etc. It doesn’t feel like work (and hey, I like and respect work), but real actual play. Play in the way a dog or a child plays.

    This is all intensified by the beautiful animation of the wolf/dog avatar. Everything she does she does w/ true canine panache. And, like most non-human animals, there’s a hint of nobility to her bearing. And so it stands to reason that, loaded for supernatural bear, she steps up and saves Nippon (albeit not w/out peeing on some demons). And once things start really clicking (by the time you get to Orochi — and oh! the scene that follows his initial defeat. As you wander around the celebrating village, making mischief w/ the drunk villagers, lighting off fireworks that explode in the shape of a wolf, you’re in an extended game moment that is explicitly built not to DO, but just to be. I must have spent half an hour at least in that scene the first time through the game. So much of real life (and many of the more pleasant parts) is just that, relaxing in between goal-driven spurts of activity), but once things start clicking the narrative is sweet (if, again, not particularly clever), and your in-game power starts to feel suitably god-like, and combat becomes not hard, or even rewarding in the way that pulling off a sick dodge/multi-hit counter on super hard difficulty in Bayonetta is rewarding, but FUN, as you bat hilarious enemies around the arena w/ easy brush strokes before each explodes in a shower of flowers.

    I guess my real point is that Okami does what it does (showing you beautiful stuff, giving you a feeling of power w/out inducing tension, letting you progress at your own pace, always showing you something new, but mostly just giving you ample and extended excuse to feel happy w/out feeling cheap about it) far better than any other game I’m aware of. And I think what it does is somewhat rare (in all mediums), and valuable.

  16. Very interesting, but I think that Okami does have rather a lot of human style anxiety. In fact it contains the ultimate human anxiety: money. In a way, it has several different kinds of money.

    You’re right – the mischievousness of some of it is quite clever, quite dog-like. But I maintain that it is, broadly speaking, dull. The game I mentioned, Fatale, is better at showing you beautiful stuff (although it is not perfect at showing you beautiful stuff). Also: though the stuff Okami shows you is more beautiful, Fatale uses its beautiful-stuff-showing to a far, far more cerebral effect. You should get it, it’s £5.

    There, Killahmate, I said something else about Fatale. I just don’t think I’m ready to review it yet – no-one is.

  17. I think I _will_ check out Fatale — I found “The Path” worthwhile at points. And I do enjoy a little cerebration from time to time. But appreciation of beauty and problem solving have separate neurocognitive substrates, so I do worry a bit that “Fatale” will represent a sort of multitasking, and the division of attention will weaken the respective pleasures the eye and the intellect might savor best in isolation.

    And although I can’t agree w/ Okami as “dull” (for the definitional reason that it’s thoroughly engaged me for many an hour), you’re quite right — it would be even better w/out money!

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