Okami – an Ink Painting Come to Life
Every now and then, you come across that game. You know the one I’m talking about. You’ve been interested in it for years, and it seems right up your alley. In my case, you might even own the game, and it has been rotting on your shelf for about 4 years.
But you keep telling yourself that you’ll eventually get to it because you’re too busy with other games. That cycle continues on and on until you finally decide to break it. Well, do you want to know one of the perks of this site for me?
Because I like to talk about interesting games and keep things fairly fresh, I will sometimes play a game I wouldn’t have played as soon to talk about. This means I could finally break the curse of that dusty game on my shelf. Ironic since the game is all about breaking curses.
That game is Okami. I have been interested in this game for so long. You have no idea. To start, I’ve known of its existence for about 6 or so years, and I’ve owned it for right around 4. It was one of the first games I ever saw on YouTube, and I have just heard endless praise.
Okami was made by Clover Studios, a company you may know for making Viewtiful Joe, of all things. That shows that, if nothing else, they know how to make something unique and stylish.
I’ll be real. I have wanted to play this game for so, so, so long. It’s been on my list forever. But now we need to ask the question. Was it worth all the hype I’ve heard, and you’ve probably heard as well for all these years? Is it actually this masterpiece that so many claim it to be? That’s something I’ve wondered.
I won’t lie, yes, yes it is. But let’s discuss just why that is.
Okami or Okami?
Starting off, the name “Okami” is actually a pun. It makes not one lick of sense in English clearly, but it’s actually quite clever in Japanese. The word “Okami” in Japanese means different things, at least depending on what kanji you use to make it up.
One of them is simply “wolf.” You play as a wolf. That’s pretty self-explanatory. It doesn’t take a linguist to discern that. The next meaning is “great god,” or “great deity.” That not quite as obvious without knowing the story. So let’s discuss that, shall we?
The story begins with a retelling of an old legend. 100 years in the past, the land of Nippon was ravaged by the horrible 8-headed snake demon Orochi. To save his beloved maiden that was to be a sacrifice to the monster, Nagi – a swordsman of Kamiki village – set out to slay Orochi with the help of the divine white wolf Shiranui.
With their forces combined, Orochi is slain and sealed with the legendary blade Tsukuyomi, peace is brought to Nippon once again, but at the cost of Shiranui’s life. Their feats in saving the land immortalized Nagi and Shiranui as the protectors of Kamiki village, and its inhabitants have worshipped them for generations.
In the present, someone unknown pulls Tsukuyomi from its resting spot, releasing Orochi’s evil all across Nippon once again. With the help of Sakuya – the guardian deity of Kamiki village – the statue erected in honor of Shiranui roars to life with the spirit of the sun goddess and mother to all, Amaterasu.
Sakuya called her from the heavens to save the land of Nippon from the curse brought forth by Orochi. Accompanied by the inch-high artist Issun that was hiding in a slightly questionable place on Sakuya, the odd duo set forth to return the world to its normal state, restoring the people’s faith in the gods along the way.
Now you probably get an idea of what that “Great Deity” part means. Okami is about a wolf that is a great deity – the greatest deity of all according to Japanese lore. It’s about an okami that is an okami. Clever.
This game absolutely bleeds Japan from every single facet of it. Just the fact that Amaterasu is the main character should show you that. The story is but one of the ways this game exudes Japanese culture.
If you know a little bit about Japanese folklore, you’ll probably recognize parts of this tale. Mainly the character of Yamata no Orochi. Those who know the tale will spot a few differences. Firstly, that Orochi wasn’t slain by Nagi, but instead by Amaterasu’s estranged brother Susano.
However, this Susano isn’t exactly the one from the myth. He still slays Orochi to save Kushinada-Hime, or Kushi in this case because the prior is far too difficult for our English minds to comprehend. The difference is that Susano is a mortal in this story and has no real connection to Amaterasu.
This starts to bring to light an aspect of Okami’s story. The way it changes things. It is very much rooted in Japanese mythos. Certain things will happen in similar ways, certain items and names may show up from time to time, and characters from the myths will appear as well.
As I said, Susano, Kushinada, Amaterasu, and Orochi all show up. We even see certain characters from folktales like Kaguya-Hime, Urashima, and Otohime. Benkei even shows up along with Waka. Some quests even involve other more obscure members of Japanese folktales and mythos.
Most of their character designs feature little hints and nods to their respective tales in one way or another. The girl below, Kaguya, being my favorite example of this. Of course, she has bamboo in her design! Why wouldn’t she?
I knew exactly who she was when I first saw her because that’s one of the Japanese folktales I had some prior knowledge of. Her design is quite cool, honestly, the more I think about it. I think it really honors the tale without looking out of place. The fact a bamboo girl doesn’t look out of place should give you an idea of what you’ll encounter.
Suppose I had to describe Okami in one word. It would be, to nobody’s surprise, “Japanese.” It’s the best word. This game’s story takes you through Japanese culture. You, as Amaterasu, get to experience not only various famous myths but famous stories as well.
It’s a story made up of various other stories, with its own plot thrown in to wrap it all together. If you love Japanese mythology or just mythology in general, I think this game is worth a play purely for that. There is so much love for the culture poured into it. You just can’t help but smile. I couldn’t, at least.
But in trying to tie it all together, some liberties need to be taken. Certain characters, like Susano, may be altered to work better. Some characters may have new personalities simply because their source material didn’t have much of one. Kushi is a fantastic example of that. I’ll leave a link at the end to a phenomenal article covering that in more detail.
But for the few things they do change, like how Amaterasu is a freaking wolf, how Susano is a human, or how Urashima is being bullied instead of a turtle now, to name a few, Okami does a fantastic job at staying relatively faithful to the source material of many of the myths.
Most changes are done to flesh things out or rework them. The essence of what those tales mean and their importance are still present, and you’ll encounter so many of them throughout your journey. Once again showing the outstanding love Okami has for its culture.
It manages to tell a unique plot, full of lovable wacky characters and all types of hijinx those characters get it to, yet it respects the legacy of the stories that came before it. And I think that’s a really cool thing.
I said it before, and I will say it again. This game bleeds Japanese. If you are even the smallest amount interested in some of the rich tales the country has to offer, Okami is definitely worth a play.
However! I bet you didn’t see one of those coming, did you? Believe it or not, I actually don’t have all good things to say about the plot. Okami’s biggest problem plotwise is the pacing. It’s really odd. For most of the game, really.
One moment, you’ll be running around a field cleansing it of curses, the next, you’ll suddenly be collecting dogs in a village. You may get interrupted to fish and dig underground at random times. It’s a tad bit all over the place, really.
For as much as I sing its praises for including so many folktales, it comes with the problem that the game’s plot itself isn’t too fascinating, at least not until the end. For the first chunk of the game, the entire plot is just go adventure and find a way to kill Orochi. That’s it. The next arc, and really the last, is to go explore the lands doing the same thing and fight some other baddies.
The plot, when it’s not tied to mythos of folktales, is just go do some things and look for constellations, which I’ll talk about in more detail soon. Honestly, I was bored at the beginning of the game. After the first part of the game, which took me about eight hours, I think, is when the story really picks up.
Prior to that point, it’s fairly mediocre. After that point, we start to really experience what the game has to offer. We meet characters really fast. We start to do a variety of things, including, but not limited to, climbing a tower thousands of feet into the air, riding on an orca in the ocean looking for a whirlpool, exploring a sunken ship.
Don’t forget shrinking down to Issun’s size and crawling into a little village or going down the emperor’s throat to clear out the demon possessing him. The game just gets wild after that slow start, and it’s wonderful.
Still, this never gets rid of the game’s biggest problem. It has Zelda syndrome. It’s not surprising. Hideki Kamiya – Okami’s director – is a giant Legend of Zelda fan. So am I, but he took it to heart.
This game is painfully linear. There is very little room for exploration. Besides the occasional quest, you stick to the beaten path, and that’s it. You get to a new area and see many ways to go, but they’re locked behind powers you need to acquire to do them, like Zelda.
Think the dungeons in LoZ, but if it was an entire game world that also had dungeons in them. Because of this, Okami feels very similar to a Zelda game in its progression, which is why the (pretty fair) comparison is always made.
If you don’t like that formula, Okami may feel slow, but if you don’t mind it, Okami does it fairly well. At least on par – though some think better – than Zelda does.
Paint Your Way
This Zelda-esque design isn’t only present in the story progression. It’s very present in the gameplay. Okami is split between a few different wide-open areas that have various places you can travel to from them. Think of them as like the hub world for that particular location.
A good way to think of the world is like one giant Zelda dungeon. Even though you have many places you can go to in theory, the game sets barriers all around, preventing you from really traveling off the beaten path.
In Zelda, those paths unlock after you acquire a certain item allowing you more mobility or giving you access to skills you’ve never had before. In Okami, the game works very much the same. But instead of a dungeon item, you collect brush techniques, which you get from various constellations.
The main goal of the game, besides purifying Nippon, is to find the 13 brush techniques scattered around the land. Each time you learn one from their respective gods, Amaterasu gains a new power of some sort.
You use these powers by painting shapes on the screen with the celestial brush. This is more or less the goddess’s tail dipped in ink. The celestial brush is by far the biggest thing that makes Okami unique.
When you press whatever the brush button is on your respective version of the game, time stops, allowing Ammy to dip her tail in wherever she gets that ink and hands control over to the player. Depending on what shapes you draw and how you draw them, you’ll be able to activate one of the brush techniques.
If you draw a circle in the sky, you can make it daytime. A crescent makes it night. You can bend fire and water by drawing lines from them. You can create gusts of wind, control electricity. You can grapple around with vines.
The powers themselves are pretty ok. There’s a lot of them, and they allow the player to interact with the world in cool ways, such as letting you climb up certain walls or blow objects around with wind and light innocent polar bears on fire and the like.
I have very mixed opinions on the celestial brush as a whole. Because the powers are cool, but many of them are too similar in what they do as well as being too similar in the way you use them.
For instance, manipulating water, fire, electricity, ice, all of that sounds really interesting, but the game doesn’t use it that way. Most of the time, the puzzles are as simple as drawing water to fire, or fire to ice, etc. It makes the different elements feel more like skins rather than separate powers.
Some of them are quite unique. Using wind and making cherry bombs are some of the best, but many of the brush techniques just involve drawing a line from one thing to another thing. Meaning you can only use the powers when you’re supposed to, keeping with the linear nature of the game.
It takes a concept that could be wonderfully unique, and provide tons of great exploration opportunities, and instead reduce them to nothing more than reskins of each other to pass certain roadblocks the lovable sun goddess will come across.
It’s unfortunate that this is so because the celestial brush is just fuming with potential. And there are certain times where you see a taste of it. There’s a point in the game where you can draw whatever you want on a mask that actually shows on the character model. I had fun with that, as you could probably guess.
Little things like this add to the sense of freedom you feel. It’s just that you don’t feel that too often. The concept of the celestial brush is creative by nature. It’s painting. It allows you to become an artist and create what you want. But because of the ways the power works, it instead often stimies the freedom you have.
And I can’t get away with talking about the celestial brush without discussing the controls. I played the Wii version, so I had the sensor bar to control the brush. I thought it felt fantastic. It controls beautifully on the Wii.
The problem is, the brush techniques are super finicky. If you even paint one thing slightly wrong, it won’t work. If you draw something from the wrong angle, it won’t work. You are required to draw things perfectly, which again takes away from the sense of freedom that the gameplay should encourage.
This becomes an even bigger problem when many techniques are similar shapes. You may be trying to cause a tree to bloom but end up doing nothing instead. You may try for a cherry bomb, but slow down time. It becomes quite frustrating, especially in a boss fight where you’re short on time, for example.
The biggest issue is that Okami expects perfection from the player. It expects you to take your time and draw things exactly as it wants, yet that doesn’t fit the gameplay. You use these techniques in battle and as you’re platforming around.
You use them in stressful situations where you don’t want to slow down to draw this circle correctly. It breaks the flow of the game when you have to keep drawing the same thing over and over again. It’s so sad because it flows so nicely when it works.
I have never experienced anything in my life as satisfying as fighting a boss with my weapon, dodging their attacks, and then pulling a power slash off in mid-air with the brush. It flows in such a fun, unique way. It just doesn’t work half the time. But when it does work, it’s nearly perfect.
However, the celestial brush is wonderful for one main reason, and that doesn’t have anything to do with the gameplay. It has to do with how well it incorporates that gameplay into the world.
Play With Art
If you couldn’t tell from some of the images I’ve shown you, let me clarify: Okami is gorgeous. It is just stunning in every way. The entire game is styled with this incredible cel-shaded look that, mixed with the Japanese inspiration and art, makes for a game that looks straight out of a fairy tale.
The story of the game is like experiencing a Japanese folktale, as I said before. The art of the game makes you feel like you are right there, playing a character in the tale. The art is actually styled after a Japanese art form called Sumi-e, or Japanese ink painting. That’s probably easier to remember.
These absolutely beautiful works of art are about as Japanese as you can get, once again, showing that Okami might as well be synonymous with the culture.
But what’s especially beautiful about Okami’s art isn’t even the way it looks; it’s the way you get to interact with it. The way you get to take part in creating it. If you look at the image above, it may look familiar. Every time you break out the celestial brush, a similar screen is brought up.
By drawing the various brush techniques, you are, in a way, making your own paintings. Those paintings then alter the world by lighting fires, blowing wind, creating bombs, etc. You get to alter the game world by creating works of art in the same style as the game.
It’s a very clever concept, and one I’ve never really seen before. Okami’s art, in general, is very unique, perhaps because of how Japanese it is. Everything in Okami’s art is done with purpose, and by doing that, they manage to craft something so distinct.
There’s actually a bit of a fascinating story behind it as well. Originally, Okami was meant to look realistic. They were going for a much more graphically impressive game. You can even find old images of want the game once looked like online.
However, because of the limitations of the PS2, they had to go for a more cel-shaded style. They ended up really liking it, and what originally was a compromise became the thing that influenced much of the game.
From that cel-shaded style, the celestial brush was born, and from that, everything that is Okami came shortly after. It’s a testament to why I’ll always stand by art style over graphics. Graphics get outdated with time. A good art style is timeless, just like Okami itself.
The Art of Music
Let’s see how well you’ve been paying attention thus far. What word do you think I’ll use to describe this game’s music. I’ll give you three guesses. Yes, that’s right, I will once again say how Japanese it is. Many of the songs take inspiration from gagaku and other kinds of classical Japanese music styles.
Many of the songs sound quite haunting, to be honest, which perhaps is fitting considering that early Japanese music was, with many of them being slow and atmospheric mixed with taiko drums, biwa, and other traditional instruments, making for songs that quite honestly make you feel uneasy. The occasional Buddist chanting didn’t help with that.
Tracks like that do exist in Okami, and they’re great. Still, this isn’t all Okami has to offer. This game has some of the most peaceful and serene music I’ve ever heard in my life. Some pieces are just so beautiful – so calming – they’ll leave you speechless.
And this wasn’t an accident. Masami Ueda (a name you might recognize from the Resident Evil games) went into Okami with the idea of creating a “healing” game. He wanted songs that felt “healing.”
Now I’m no expert on music, and I don’t know how you make something like that possible, but I’ll tell you, Okami did just that. The tracks really do have a healing quality to them. They can relax you. They calm you down. They can take your stress away.
How you can have such a specific goal and manage to accomplish it so well, I don’t know. It’s a sign of a professional, I suppose. I could mention many songs that I loved from this game, but I’ll leave you with just one.
Go listen to Reset. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard in my life. I put it right up on my very strict list with the Xenoblade Chronicles theme, Lost my Pieces from Toradora, and To Zanarkand from FFX.
When I first heard Reset, I began to cry. I didn’t know why. Nothing was even happening in the game. The emotions were just pulled out of me – emotions I didn’t even know I had. I needed to hear that song, even if I didn’t understand that quite yet. If that’s not “healing,” I don’t know what is.
Reset is beautiful. It, like many of the things in Okami, is a work of art. I implore every single one of you to give it a listen. I promise you will not regret it. Maybe it can help heal you too.
One of a Kind
Okami is one of those games that isn’t perfect. There are quite a few problems with it, to be honest. The controls being a big one. It has such a nice concept, but it just doesn’t work half the time. It’s possible it works better on other systems, but from what I’ve heard, that’s not true.
With a little more tweaking and allowing the player some level of freedom with what they can draw, it would have opened up the combat and the other aspects of the game a lot and would have stopped them from being frustrating.
Another problem is that the game gets a tad bit repetitive with some of its objectives. It’s also quite linear. Okami is far from being without problems. Still, it’s worshiped as being one of the best games ever made regardless of those problems.
And I can’t say I disagree. Even though I didn’t like certain portions, and it annoyed me every now and then, Okami was just wonderful. It’s one of the most creative video games I have ever played in my life. It almost transcends what a game is in a way.
It’s a love letter to a very rich culture. It’s a love letter to Japan and everything that is made by Japan. It’s made by Japan to show the world the love its creators had for their culture. I don’t think Okami is remembered necessarily because it’s a great game. It is, but I think it’s deeper than that.
You could have had the exact same outline for the game, meaning the brush, the combat, the techniques, everything, but if you took away even one aspect of it, I think it wouldn’t be remembered. Okami is remembered because of every aspect of it, not just one.
It’s remembered not only for the unique gameplay but how that gameplay compliments the world. It’s not remembered just for its Japanese art but for how that art tells its story. It’s remembered for the beautiful amalgamation that it is.
Okami managed to just get everything right in the presentation department, and I don’t just mean visuals. Sure, the gameplay is a little questionable at times, but everything else is just nearly flawless.
The music? Outstanding! The art? Breathtaking. The story? Sweet, epic, and very rich in culture. The game just got so many things right that you can forgive the few times it doesn’t. It’s truly one of a kind. It really, really is.
There was a point when I was playing Okami, and I just stopped and thought to myself, “I will never play another game like this.” And I believe I’m right. I will never play another game like Okami.
I didn’t even like it at first. I thought it was slow, and it didn’t grab my attention. But when it did, it just never let go. I started to see just what I was looking at. And I just fell in love with it.
Okami just works. There’s nothing much more to say than that. Almost everything just works. It all just makes sense. It’s like it was meant to be, even though Okami was only this way as a plan B, really. Maybe the PS2’s hardware limitations were some of Amaterasu’s divine intervention. Who knows?
I’ll leave you with something that Masami Ueda said. It sums up what Okami is better than I ever could.
“Had the protagonist been a human not a wolf? Had the sumi-e-inspired artwork been replaced with a realistic visual style? Such a game might have been ignored and a title called Okami wouldn’t have even existed. Once again, a number of small miracles led to the production of Okami. I think I was lucky for being able to become involved in this.”
And we are all lucky to have experienced the little miracle that is Okami as well.
Thank you very much for reading
What do you think makes a game a masterpiece? Why do you think that Okami is still remembered all these years later? Let me know!
This is the great article I was referring to https://withaterriblefate.com/2018/02/08/how-okami-transformed-the-meaning-of-characters-like-amaterasu/
It really digs into some of the differences between Okami and the source material for many of the myths.