I will always favor unique art styles over realistic graphics, and Okami is a testament to how well a game can hold up if the developers simply add some style. 2006 was a year into the Xbox 360 and saw the release of both the PS3 and the Nintendo Wii. Plenty of great games were released in the early years of these new consoles, pushing graphical boundaries. If we talk about Gears of War or Oblivion these days, it certainly isn’t for the then-impressive graphics. Yet Okami on an even older console has maintained its position as one of the most beautiful games ever made.
The visual design is made to evoke classical Japanese ink wash and Ukiyo-e paintings, using cel-shading to emphasize the effects. This goes beyond a mere visual quirk, as the narrative features figures from Shintoism and Japanese legends. This is simply one of those games where I’d find myself in awe, stopping to look around at the little visual details.
Even major gameplay mechanics revolve around this artistry. The player can freeze time to control a Celestial Brush. This can interact with the world in certain ways, from offering different methods of attacking enemies to revitalizing wild life. There are many gods to find to receive new powers for the brush. While plenty of games have unique styles, Okami is one of the few which seamlessly integrates the design as part of the gameplay experience.
As an actual game, Okami plays much like a Legend of Zelda clone. Which, it’s rather strange to realize, but there are very few major games which have outright copied the 3D Zelda formula despite its many influences. Due to this, Okami still feels like a fresh experience – with a new Zelda only being released every few years, there’s plenty of room for imitation. Okami very much captures the idea of a wide world to explore with several major dungeons being central to plot progression. In fact, Okami was released the same year as The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, which also happened to feature a (temporary) wolf protagonist. This is a prime example of when a copy matches the quality of the original – in fact, it was Twilight Princess which felt too derivative of its own series.
The combat is quite involved – it’s easy to tell this is from the same director as Devil May Cry and Bayonetta. Battles lock Amaterasu into a temporary arena with enemies. The game has several weapons to unlock, which mixed with the brush mechanics make some truly unique encounters. It’s not quite on the level of a full-fledged action game, but it settles into its own niche.
But the true selling point is exploring this beautiful world. There are so many little things to do, and like Zelda with its heart containers, exploration is rewarded with outright improvements which can make the central game easier. Each location has its own charm, and there’s a playful nature to much of the experience. Part of this is that Ammy is literally in wolf form, meaning she can’t speak. The Navi-like Issun does all the talking for her, who is just as annoying but in a more intentionally comedic form.
Okami is a great example of exploring familiar ground in a new way. This is a Zelda clone, but like the many actual Zelda games, it does just enough different to be its own unique entity. From controlling a wolf to its focus on painting not just as an art style but as an element of gameplay, there is no game quite like this. That’s the bizarre truth about Okami – it is easy to name the conceptual influences, but the combination of all those pieces has proven inimitable.