|Release: March 15, 2011|
|Screen Resolution: N/A|
by Steve Haske
It's almost impossible to talk about Capcom in the mid-2000s without mentioning Clover Studios. The company was doing well enough on its own, putting out commercial smashes like Resident Evil 4 while also producing cult classics like Killer 7. There was something particularly special about Clover, but the internal development team only made a handful of highly original games before Capcom ultimately shuttered it. Arguably, Clover's crown jewel was Okami, Hideki Kamiya's aesthetically ethereal homage to both Japanese mythology as well as Zelda. For many of those who have played Okami, it still ranks as one of the best games this side of Shadow of the Colossus, and few would say that its stunning visuals—the game looks like a moving Japanese watercolor-style painting brought to life—have aged badly. In fact, it's still arguably one of the most gorgeous games ever created.
Capitalizing on the Zelda formula, you played Ameratsu, the sun-goddess of traditional Shinto folklore, who took the form of a white wolf. Aside from playing as a four legged-beast, Okami was interesting because Ameratsu used a so-called celestial brush, which took care of everything from combat to using magic and conjuring items, which was accomplished by actually painting traditional Japanese calligraphy on the screen while complementing the overall aesthetic tone and experience. Despite the game's overwhelmingly positive critical reception, though, Okami never caught on at retailers, and, even after a re-release two years later on the Wii, still suffered such low sales that the thought of a sequel was all but impossible—particularly since Clover had since folded and Kamiya had gone on to other projects.
Okamiden is indeed a sequel, more or less, to the original game, but it's not exactly one you might expect. Taking place shortly after the events of Okami, Okamiden doesn't star Ameratsu, but instead her pup, Chibiteratsu. And (assumedly) because Chibiterasu is himself a wolf pup, the traditional sumi-e world of Okami has been appropriately re-proportioned to a super-deformed style ("chibi" means little in Japanese). Basically, Okamiden is what Okami would look like if the game was turned into a Saturday morning cartoon show while somehow managing to retain the style of the original.
That may not be a bad thing—despite its cutesy style, the developers seem to have kept Okami's core game tenants intact, while adding some new design elements as well. For starters, Chibiteratsu is accompanied by Kuni, the child of Susano from the original game. Kuni rides Chibiteratsu around, helping the wolf pup solve puzzles and other tasks when the two occasionally become separated. The gameplay should feel familiar to anyone who's played the original, however, as Okamiden employs both a similar 3D exploratory element as well as a Zelda-esque design. Of course, with the celestial brush now controlled by the stylus, Okamiden may actually best its progenitor in the control department.
Much like mom, Chibiteratsu uses the celestial brush to perform miracles, which may entail anything from conjuring bombs to open passageways or just vanquishing a stunned enemy. While gameplay is usually presented in the top screen, activating the brush freeze-frames the on-screen action in the style of a Japanese woodblock print before shuffling it down to the touch screen for celestial brushstrokes. The top screen is replaced by an inkwell, which gradually empties as you make your brushwork across the screen—it's a subtle effect, but a pretty neat one. Chibiteratsu can also attack enemies straight on, but the celestial brush is generally still necessary to finish at least some of your foes off. The brush also has other uses outside of exploration and combat: at one point early in the game, wolf pup and boy have to infiltrate a demon market by creating masks to wear that look like monsters, giving you the freedom to use the brush and draw whatever kind of face you want on your mask. That sure beats, say, using the DSi camera to import your face into the game.
Chibiteratsu can also separate himself from Kuni in order to solve some of Okamiden's puzzles. When the two are not with each other, you can use your brush to guide Kuni along whatever path you draw for him, and he'll pick up items on his way there. It's an interesting extension to Okami's original mechanics, and hopefully it will prove to be one that creates some well-designed scenarios in the final game.
Although you may not be able to tell from screenshots (like the original game, you have to see this one in motion to really appreciate it), Okamiden's lower poly-count characters and environments on the comparatively underpowered DS actually have little impact on the game's overall aesthetics. Yes, the game is a cuter re-envisioning of Okami's world of myth and gods, but Capcom has actually done a respectable job in keeping a very similar visual feel. It's impressive the developers were able to squeeze as much atmosphere out of a DS cart, and this goes for the music as well. Okami was steeped in a sweeping traditional Japanese score, which Okamiden, for its part, manages to emulate, if on a smaller scale, quite admirably. The only real sticking point here is whether or not fans will accept Okami's world in chibi form—and admittedly it does take some getting used to—although that's more of a matter of taste than anything else. The jury is still out on whether or not Okamiden's new keepers will be able to retain the spirit and soul of the original game, but for now, things seem to be shaping up promisingly. Okamiden hits March 2011.
CCC Freelance Writer