Okamiden review: A pint-sized, simplified extra cute helping of Okami

When Okami debuted on the PS2, it garnered plenty of critical acclaim and eventually saw a version released for the Wii in 2008. Though it couldn’t quite rack up the impressive sales figures of a Zelda release (and actually holds a Guinness World Record as the “least commercially successful winner of a game of the year award”), reviews universally praised the gameplay, music and stunning visual style.

Despite Okami’s disappointing commercial performance, on March 17 Capcom released Okamiden, a direct sequel to the beloved cult classic – this time on the Nintendo DS. Does it live up to the grandeur and breathtaking aesthetics of the original Okami? And can the accuracy of the stylus compensate for the graphical downgrade? In this review, I’ll sum up the gameplay, graphics/audio, controls, and story of Okamiden to help provide an answer to those questions.

The first thing you’ll notice about Okamiden is that in comparison to its predecessor, everything about the game seems to have been pared down to appeal to a younger audience. Instead of the majestic Amaterasu, the protagonist is Chibiterasu, her insanely adorable (yet slower and less powerful) puppy son. Whereas Okami featured a large selection of primary and secondary weapons, there is only a handful of weapons to select from in Okamiden and there is no secondary weapon function. You can no longer decide how to distribute the praise you’ve accumulated and whether to buy more energy, ink pots, or whatever else with it — when you fill your praise meter, you automatically get a new energy unit or ink pot (the game alternates between them and you have no say in the matter). Gone is the Astral Pouch from Okami which provided instant revival if you fell in battle, which won’t be happening very often anyway if you select the new beginner’s “Greenhorn” mode when starting up a new game of Okamiden. While Okami featured an almost overwhelming amount of sidequests and items for you to hunt down (including fish to catch, animals to feed, brush techniques and weapon upgrades to buy, 100 stray beads to find, valuable treasures to collect, and so on), Okamiden features a considerably smaller assortment of distractions to extend the gameplay. Most of the challenges, puzzles and battles feel derivative from things we’ve already seen in Okami, but with less variety and without much of any sense of urgency. Finally, even including virtually every sidequest, I was able to wrap up Okamiden in about 23 hours, which is comparable to other action-adventure Zelda-esque DS titles in length, but falls quite a bit short of the hefty amount of hours I logged before beating the final boss in Okami (without even bothering to complete around half of Okami’s sidequests).

So what does this all mean? Even though it’s a sequel and the story picks up 9 months after the events of Okami, Okamiden seems to be catering to newcomers, both to the world of Okami and possibly action-adventure games in general. It also bears mentioning that there are quite a few reused environments from Okami which reappear in Okamiden, such as Kamiki Village, Shinshu Field, Hana Valley, Ryoshima Coast, Sei’an City, and so on. Those who never played Okami won’t know any better, but for those of us who did, nostalgia may give way to a tired sense of deja vu fairly quickly. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not worth the time of veteran gamers and Okami fanatics, but you will probably want to at least consider ratcheting up the difficulty to “Old Hand” when starting your game so the battles don’t feel like such a familiar cakewalk.

Many gamers felt that the concept of Okami was much more suited for the Wii than the PS2, since moving the Wii remote seemed like a more accurate representation of using the Celestial Brush, an integral element that is central to battle and adventuring in the game. However, since Okami relied on use of the pointer and the Wii sensor bar, sometimes it was difficult to draw accurately in the game, and personally I felt that Okami was very unforgiving at times about whether you had drawn a “good enough” circle or acceptable horizontal stroke. And sometimes the sensor bar would just seem to tweak out and not want to think I was pointing at the screen at all.

Enter Okamiden. As the series’ first DS outing, the touch screen and stylus seem like an absolutely perfect fit for a game revolving around the use of celestial brush strokes to perform critical actions mid-battle. And I am happy to report that after playing through Okamiden, it feels as though the game’s detection and accurate interpretation of my intended brush stroke is vastly improved. No more did I have to suffer through six or seven failed attempts to use “Bloom” on the game’s many cherry trees, as I often found to be the case in Okami.

However, that is not to say that the celestial brush is not without its flaws. Because of the decreased size of the screen and lowered resolution, sometimes it was difficult to pinpoint the starting point of my brush (thankfully, the developers seem to have picked up on this, providing a way to cancel any current brush strokes by pressing B). This would get very frustrating in the middle of an intense battle when time was of the essence and the game just didn’t seem to think I was drawing my line from the right point, especially as the newly introduced brush timer approached zero. It drives me crazy when an otherwise good game is complicated by occasionally unresponsive controls, but I would still rate Okamiden’s overall implementation of the Celestial Brush less frustrating and more manageable than Okami’s. It also didn’t hurt that I got the Celestial Brush stylus as a preorder bonus, enjoyed the feel of it a little more than the standard DS stylus, and found it to be a refreshingly simple way to increase the immersion factor of a game.

As for the non-brush control elements, the Wii’s analog control stick was sorely missed as I ran around a 3D landscape with the D-pad, but overall it didn’t hinder my ability to play the game effectively. Using the touchscreen in the game menus was a nice feature as well, and the shoulder button access to the Celestial Brush felt natural (though some of the longer, more involved battles will see you juggling between the shoulder buttons, touch screen, and main buttons fairly often).

I can’t emphasize enough how strikingly beautiful Okami’s art style was. Playing through the gorgeous cel-shaded world of Okami was like experiencing a living painting. Twilight Princess was released for Wii around the same time, and even though I preferred the gameplay of Zelda over Okami, I felt that Okami’s stunning rendition of the Japanese Ukiyo-e style really blew even the dreamily stylized Twilight realm imagery of Zelda out of the water. Combined with the outstanding soundtrack, a backdrop of equally impressive Japanese-styled arrangements, Okami can be enjoyed on a visceral level by gamers and casual observers alike. Given the importance of sheer sensory impact in Okami, how could the comparably underpowered DS deliver in this department?

Okamiden’s musical scores and sound effects still sound fantastic, especially when played with headphones. Some of the dungeon music got a little grating, but the vast majority of the music was strictly a positive contribution to the game experience. This, this and this are a few of my favorite examples of the aural treats you can look forward to enjoying as you journey through the game. I would definitely cite both Okami and Okamiden as examples of games whose music is very likely to be enjoyed in other contexts by non-gamers because of its catchy, cultural appeal.

Unfortunately, it goes without saying that with less power under the hood, the visuals don’t hold up quite as well as their Wii counterparts. The game still looks pretty good considering what it has to live up to and the constraints it’s working in, but after Okami’s art direction and groundbreaking execution showed us what it’s like to be thoroughly spoiled in the graphics department, it’s hard to accept anything less. Also, as I mentioned in the Controls summary above, there are times when the lower resolution does cause problems as it’s harder to make out precisely what is going on. There was one key point in the game where I got stuck for an embarrassingly long time because I thought I had reached a dead end, when in fact the stairs off to the side were just not obvious to me whatsoever because of graphical limitations, which I don’t recall ever being the case in Okami.

Again, the game preserves the charming style of the original, and the painfully cute animations, facial expressions, and sound effects created for Chibiterasu really melted my heart more than once. But part of me still craves the fierce, unrelenting artistic flair and mature style of the original Okami. Suffice to say you won’t find any bloodbaths depicted in the cinematic art scrolls of Okamiden as you occasionally did in Okami, nor will you find as many buxom maidens nearly busting out of their kimonos, and  Okamiden’s rating of “E10+” vs. Okami’s rating of “T for Teen” reflects that change in tone.

As mentioned, Okamiden’s story picks up 9 months after the end of Okami. The story isn’t quite as grand and sweeping in scope as Okami’s, and not just because of the decreased length of the game. Chibi gets a new partner about every few hours or so, which means that whatever ongoing attachment you had to your current partner will essentially be excised in favor of a newcomer several times, so it’s hard to create an enduring dynamic between the characters. Also, some may consider this nitpicking, but Okami’s in-game text suffered from numerous spelling and grammatical errors, and Okamiden continues that tradition to a really embarrassing extent. It’s like they didn’t bother having anyone give it one last once-over with spellcheck before shipping it out, and as a result it has more typos than any professionally published game I’ve ever played in my life. While the numerous typographical errors don’t affect the gameplay, they are distracting and tend to detract from the overall polish of the game.

On top of that, I felt that the dialogue in Okami was one of its weakest aspects, and the same can be said of Okamiden. Compared to competent offerings in Zelda, the dialogue and much of the writing in general is really juvenile. If they were going for a light-hearted or whimsical feel by having characters use words like “hella” and talk about “busty babes”, I’m sorry to say it merely came across as a silly, significant departure from the meticulous, skillful and creative interpretation of Japanese mythology through art and music that the rest of the game is known for. Perhaps some may appreciate that Okami and Okamiden exhibit a much more carefree, cavalier style of writing than the frequently serious and somewhat dark themes found in Zelda, but the characters’ dialogue felt so inconsistent with the ancient traditional Japanese backgrounds it was set within, and combined with a really unforgivable amount of textual typos, this Okami fan found it more than a little tiresome.

Finally, Okamiden has a lot of long cutscenes. They can be skipped with the Select button, but then you won’t really know what’s going on. The cutscenes feature plenty of dialogue, and I found myself wishing I could just press A to continue the dialogue when I was done reading rather than waiting for the game to display it at its slow, nonadjustable pace. Watch a few of the cutscenes and you’ll see what I mean. It’s not that all of the cutscenes are bad, but a fair chunk of them were overlong and just took forever to display all of the dialogue.

Should you get Okamiden? Fans of the original are likely to get some enjoyment out of this title, but you’ll want to keep the game’s reduced length and difficulty level in mind when considering whether to pick it up. Veteran gamers will probably not find as much challenge or depth as Okami had to offer, and overall I don’t feel that the increased accuracy of the brush on the touch screen was worth the tradeoff of decreased graphical power and other resource limitations by confining this sequel to the DS platform — this series would be better served by a system that can comfortably handle all the content and graphical effects that its developers can throw at it. But if you can overlook  all that and focus on Chibi’s cuteness, there’s some fun to be had here.

– Great visuals for the DS, and another outstanding soundtrack on par with the original Okami
– The ridiculously cute Chibiterasu will appeal to fans and newcomers alike
– The touchscreen and stylus improve the accuracy of the Celestial Brush
– There are now two difficulty levels to choose from – Greenhorn or Old Hand
– The DS just doesn’t have the horsepower to recreate the stunning visuals of Okami on the same level, and this can make it harder to discern in-game detail at times
– Only one save slot
– Okamiden is much easier, shorter and simpler in its game mechanic than Okami, and most of the gameplay is derivative from concepts we’ve already seen in Okami
– If you enjoyed the depth of Okami’s battle system, the maturity of the story themes and the sheer amount of collectables, you may feel Okamiden to be lacking in its simplicity and abruptness
– Obnoxious spelling/grammar errors and bland, low quality dialogue litter the cutscenes and menus

Score: 7.9/10

Web developer living in Olympia, WA.