a review of ÅŒkami
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
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.