It seems a shame that the release of such a beautiful game as Okami should be overshadowed by the closure of Clover Studio, the small Capcom-owned studio which created it. Yet, almost a year after the game's release in Japan and five months after Clover's closure, it's finally hitting the UK and, boy, are we glad. So if, like Amaterasu in Japanese legend, you've been hiding in a cave for the last year, let us explain. Simply put, Okami is one of the last great PS2 games.
Mixing myth with a unique graphical style, that of brush and ink art known as sumi-e, it tells the story of peaceful land cursed by the reappearance of the eight-headed demon Orochi. A once beautiful landscape of lakes and fields, rivers and konohana trees bursting with cherry blossom has become a dark wasteland. The tiny village of Kamiki stands no hope of surviving the destruction but for the power of Sakuya-hime, the enchanting spirit of the konohana tree. After sealing the village and its inhabitants in a mystical peach, Sakuya uses the last of her strength to summon the great sun goddess Amaterasu into the statue of the legendary white wolf Shiranui who, together with the hero Izanagi, had saved the village a hundred years previously during Orochi's last rampage.
As you've probably guessed by now, you take the role of Amaterasu but what's a hero's journey without an amusing side-kick? Ratchet has Clank, Jak has Daxter and Amaterasu has Issun, a tiny little wandering artist with a hat made from a leaf, a sharp tongue and even sharper calligraphy brush. He has spent an extended period of time living in the hem of Sakuya's kimono but has also wandered the land of Nippon, making him an excellent guide. He also serves as Amaterasu's mentor and teaches her how to use the Celestial Brush and its numerous techniques.
Given that the graphics of Okami are modelled on scrolls drawn with a calligraphy brush and ink, the Celestial Brush is the perfect complement. Touching the R1 button turns the screen into a canvas and a combination of the triangle button and the right analogue stick allow for strokes to be artfully drawn on the environment, creating gusts of wind that cause trees to explode into bloom and even the sun and moon to appear at will. In turn, using the brush will allow Amaterasu to help unhappy mortals without revealing her godhead, she can fix bridges and waterwheels, help Granny Orange dry her washing, track down Fuse-hime's eight canine companions or take a break and enjoy a little fishing with little Kokori in Agata Forest. Completing these tasks earns praise which can be used to add an extra ink well or life bar which will help Amaterasu prepare for the final battle. But as the game goes on, the end of it becomes less important; it's all about being in the moment. Something which is no more perfectly demonstrated than by the simple act of feeding the wildlife of Nippon.
The point of the game itself is thus threefold: for Amaterasu to relearn her lost Celestial Brush techniques, to gain enough praise from mortals to increase her power and to restore the world. But it is only when she knows all the techniques that Amaterasu and Issun have a hope of facing Orochi. These are gained by stumbling across constellations that are missing stars; once these are restored, the constellation deities descend and bestow a new skill upon Amaterasu.
Now, while some of these deities - who are based on the animals in the Chinese zodiac - are noble, most are comical and this adds a great touch to a game which could easily be much too serious. For example, the hanagami are a trio of monkeys with cymbals and equally amusing personalities who give Amaterasu abilities relating to plants and flowers, and engage in slapstick. Then there is Nuregami, a snake who can't get out of his glass bottle and the boar deity Bakugami who is trying to stay on top of a bomb. My favourites, though, are not a humorous, they're simply well designed: Yumigami, a moon-rabbit who pounds rice into cakes called mochi, who gives Amaterasu the ability to turn day into night; and a sheep deity (yes, a sheep) named Kasugami who bestows the ability to make enemies confused and drunk.
But the Celestial Brush is not Amaterasu's only line of defence against the minions of Orochi. Once again dipping into the wellspring of Japanese myth, the goddess uses three sacred items as weapons: a string of beads, a shield-like mirror and a sword. Based on the regalia of Japan which was believed by Emperors to have once belonged to Amaterasu herself, these weapons can be equipped two at a time in a number of combinations. The Rosary allows for a whiplash effect on enemies, while the sword can slice and dice and the shield blocks incoming attacks or allows Amaterasu to use ink bullets.
Nippon is a beautiful land based not just on ancient Japan but with touches from the rest of the world including Arctic caverns, lush green fields, a warm tropical beach and a bustling capital city. Mortals see Amaterasu as nothing more than a plain white wolf but what would Okami be without a range of supernatural creatures? There are angelic spirits, monsters, mermaids and beings from the Moon. One such being is the prophet Ushiwaka who serves as a mini-boss to test Amaterasu's strength in battle and upon defeat offers subtle hints on quests to come. With his flute-cum-light saber, he makes an interesting adversary but he's not the only amusing figure. Onigiri-sensei is a wacky dojo master who will teach Amaterasu new abilities and give practical lessons using a scene not all that removed from Viewtiful Joe.
The controls are easy to use and intuitive, not that you'll pay them too much heed. It's too easy to be swept up in the little graphical touches like the train of flowers which spring up in Amaterasu's wake. She does seem a little sluggish once she starts running and the sheer speed does hamper control just a little, but that is easily forgiven, as is the occasionally sluggish frame rate. Sadly the camera controls are a little bit clunky and hard to use but this doesn't tarnish what is otherwise a masterpiece.
Certain parts of Nippon, like Ryoshima Coast and Shinshu Fields, serve as hubs linking to smaller towns and dungeons. Gaining new brush strokes often allows progression to the next level but mini-games like fishing or the innovative dig-em-up are very different - they add freshness to a tired and over used format. Each area of the game has its own theme and the music is a crucial part of the gameplay that is thick with Japanese instruments. It is easy on the ear but also oddly atmospheric and doesn't distract from the gameplay, instead perfectly composed to complement it.
Okami is often mentioned in the same mouthful as Zelda and, like Nintendo's franchise, Okami doesn't have proper vocals, preferring instead to let text-based conversations convey the story - and there is a lot of text in this tale. However, this is intentional on Clover Studio's part, designed to make gamers focus on the story, the items gathered and to prolong the gaming experience. Amaterasu herself doesn't speak, leaving Issun to be her mouthpiece with all his sarcasm and wit, yet that doesn't mean that Amaterasu is devoid of character, far from it. She is in fact the source of a lot of the comic elements in the cut scenes.
The game disc is jam packed with extras which are unlocked upon completion of the game. This includes artwork, a gallery, music player (which will delight all fans unable to get their hands on the Japan-only five-disc soundtrack), a video theatre, invincibility mode, a video log and various new weapons. Some PAL exclusive content would have been nice, but it wasn't to be.
The game itself is so vast that playing through once might take you over a hundred hours and it is well worth playing through repeatedly. The world is so lush, visually stunning and complete within itself that you just want to lose yourself in it. There's so much more to see, lost beads and Clover Studio clovers to find, animals to feed, gods to meet and a world to restore. Fans of Japanese culture will also find more references than it seems possible to put in a game and this all adds up to create an incredible gaming experience.