It is no catharsis to use a Nintendo DS stylus to restore beauty to the ravaged mythical Japan of Okamiden, not while the real Japan stands bruised by natural disaster. Recent events, however, have transformed the simple video game adventures of Okamiden's spirited wolf cub into an unintentional tribute to a nation's magnificence.
It is a relative trifle that Okamiden, the latest big game released for the DS, is a flawed project. It is a remake masquerading as a sequel, one which insufficiently recreates its predecessor's strengths and corrects too few of its mistakes.
Okamiden is the 2011 sequel to Okami, a 2006 PlayStation 2 game often praised as one of the history's most beautiful video games. Okami looked like brushstrokes on parchment and starred Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun manifest as a majestic yet fierce white wolf. The game played like a Nintendo Zelda, letting a player run Amaterasu across fields and through villages, chatting — thanks to the help of a wolf's best friends — with townspeople, fighting demons, sniffing through caves, gaining and mastering new abilities while making people happy. Zelda games usually are about saving the girl; Okami was about helping Japanese people and the Japanese land, using game-pausing brushstrokes to slash menaces, fix bridges, puff wind and, most significantly, restore the lushness of the landscape by adding cherry blossoms to barren trees.
Okamiden is all of that again, a borderline remake that stars Amaterasu's offspring, Chibiterasu, who meets many of the same people, traveling through most of the same lands, gaining and using mostly the same powers with the new addition of a rotating cast of child riders who offer a new twist and the weight of their emotional baggage.
Okami was a beauty, so fans of good graphics should play at least one game in this series. But if you did that already, the big question is going to be how the game translates to the DS, a stylus-enabled system that, horsepower notwithstanding, would seem to be ideal for the brushstrokes of this series.
The Accidental Timeliness Okamiden takes place in an indeterminate Japan of the past, amid a rural patch of seaside villages and fields. Its people farm, fish, pray, stage plays and make sake. As the game begins, their world has been wrecked. Their hearts are heavy, their hands helpless. Someone mentions the effects of an earthquake. A village visited in the first Okami lies flooded. It is impossible to play Okamiden — impossible to, as you see in the video atop this review, begin to mend a village obliterated by waves — without thinking about the real Japan, where an earthquake and tsunami have cost upwards of 10,000 people their lives. In that context, it doesn't feel useful to play Okamiden, because obviously it isn't. The main act of Chibiterasu, however, is to undo all this damage, and in doing so, one brushstroke at a time, the impossible feels possible. The game stands as a good-hearted reminder about the capability of recovery.
The Beauty Remains The Nintendo DS doesn't have the muscle of the PlayStation 2 or the Wii, for which Okami was remade, but it nevertheless can draw an Okamiden game that still looks more moving storybook than video game. Old, mythical Japan is still a gorgeous place, and the population of animals, spirits and creatively-dressed townsfolk again create a scene that looks unlike and better than most of the drearier sights popular in modern video games.
Zelda Lite, Good For The First Time Having played in excess of 35 hours of the first Okami, through its conclusion, I could merely imagine the experience of an Okami series first-timer, a person who I imagined would have a pleasant time running Chibiterasu through his Zelda-like adventures. The Okami games have never been as clever in their construction, never as brain-tickling in their many dungeon-exploring challenges, as Nintendo's iconic line of Links, but they are a solid substitute. One of these Okamis is good for you.
Neither Sequel Nor Remake While Okamiden is not called Okami 2, that is what I expected it to be. The game occurs nine months after its predecessor and stars a new hero. It is, however, mostly a retread of the first game. Not only does young Chibi go to the same places Amaterasu did, but he gains mostly the same abilities and is required to accomplish many of the same challenges. The game acknowledges its predecessor, filling its character's mouths with chatter about the events of the first game and the changes in the world in the nine months hence. The charm of those changes, however, is outweighed by the disappointment an experienced Okami player like me felt accurately predicting where I would go next and which powers would be added to my arsenal. The first new power for Chibi is introduced in the game's first hour; the second new one, following the restoration of many old ones, emerged past the ninth. I've never played a game so repetitious of its predecessor that wasn't a remake and I fail to understand who would find such repetition interesting other than my five-year-old self who could tolerate playing Super Mario Bros 2 for the 200th time. Only in the game's final hours does the game forge its own path, too little, too late.
Traits Some Would Call Flaws Okami's beauty was worth recreating in Okamiden. Its excessive length, padded by an abundance of enemy encounters, pointlessly repeated boss battles, uninteresting collection quests, and an overstuffing of cut-scenes is not. I disliked one stretch of Okamiden, about halfway through the game, because it consists of a string of cut-scenes — and a tiny bit of walking — that last a full 17 minutes. I disliked more that those 17 minutes were not an exception.
Pointless Partners Okamiden's chief distinguishing characteristic is the cast of child heroes who take turns acting as Chibiterasu's companion. First the boy Kuni, then a mermaid and, later an even more eclectic bunch take their turn using Chibi as their steed. Their personalities are distinct if trite. One's a mercurial flirt; another an unconfident over-eater. All are good about exiting the scene before they've overstayed their narrative welcome, but all are also gameplay burdens. The main new idea in Okamiden is that it might be fun to have a wolf confront an uncrossable gap, dismount its rider, require the player to draw a line that will guide that rider across the gap, have that rider then either collect treasure and be guided back to the wolf, or have that wolf be drawn across with the help of a magical vine. Repeat the aforementioned about 100 times, though it was barely fun the first time. Like much of the Okami series, Zelda games did this before and better; but usually in the Okami games, the imitation isn't simply bad. In this case, it is.
Stylus as Brush With your virtual brush, you paint gales of wind, lines of fire and cracks through boulders, among many other things. You do all this at any time, should you have learned the requisite powers, with a single button press that pauses the game. The system worked well with a PS2 controller and turns out to not be improved by the DS' stylus. It feels, like so much of Okamiden, like a mere repeat rather than an advance or improvement.
Late in Okamiden a character asks, "Who wants to wind up a copy? A soulless copy?" Okamiden has heart. It beats powerfully as a visual tribute to a Japan we all wish could be so easily healed by wolf and brushstroke in a mere 20 hours. It can't escape the knock, though, that it is a copy, a carbon pressing of itself, enjoyed well if you are patient and a series first-timer but likely trying the patience of those who loved the freshness of Okami and dreamed that its successor would not feel so stale.
Okamiden was developed and published by Capcom for the Nintendo DS, released on March 15. Retails for $30. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through the game in just over 20 hours, one of the longer stretches of deja vu in my life, before giving the game a few minutes more in its "new game plus" second playthrough.