Ōkami HD Impressions—Folklore on Fire

Hungry like the wolf: Ōkami HD’s painterly landscapes and artistic combat awaken an inner appetite for mythological exploration that still strikes true eleven years after the original.

Game: Ōkami HD

Developer: CAPCOM Co., Ltd.

Publisher:  CAPCOM Co., Ltd.

Reviewed: PlayStation 4

One moment I’ll never forget is sitting inside a Japanese taxi, curiously fixated on this sign plastered against the back of the seat. Loosely translated, it said: your destiny is in the palm of your hand, effort will make flowers bloom. I wasn’t aware at the time, but these elegant words cloaked a sage warning about the destruction that so easily takes root when balance is lost.

Even in the flowing, mythical world of Capcom’s Ōkami¹ (lit. wolf, or great god), the fragility of century-old traditions is conspicuous; spiritual shields that were once considered to be impenetrable have been cracked, almighty gods tremble meekly before cursed vortexes, cries of jubilation are devoured by despair. The canvas of yin and yang is brutally torn. Only sun goddess Amaterasu, disguised in the shape of an ivory wolf, is able to restore the illustrious land of Nippon to its former resplendent glory—and thus a remarkable odyssey of exploration and rejuvenation begins.

By virtue of their humanity, most characters in Ōkami cannot perceive Amaterasu’s true form—a recurrent theme that juxtaposes godliness with mortality². They instead see a willowy canine, completely lacking the majestic reservoir of divine abilities we are lucky enough to witness and control. Trekking across beautiful, simmering fields—and there’s a painful amount of trekking in this game—you’ll run into malevolent creatures bound by wavering portals called ‘demon scrolls’.

Armed with a reflector, holy rosaries, and a very special paintbrush, you’re comfortably equipped for satisfying rounds of artistically-driven combat that throw you into a literal ring of fire with imps, ogres and savage monkeys for a mythological smackdown. Fending off these demonic creatures with brute force is easy, even for fighting novices, and Ōkami knows it. That’s why it introduces one of the most brilliantly conceived calligraphy mechanics I’ve ever seen, dressing up the typical stash of attacks with a bonus layer of creativity.

Using Amaterasu’s celestial brush to sever enemies clean across the waist (power slash) while the screen transforms into a stagnant relief is a thing that’s simply unheard of in action adventure games. To make it such a central component of Ōkami‘s gameplay in a way that feels neither forced nor out of place deserves major credit. As anyone who has spent time memorising kanji knows, practising brush strokes requires effort, and a dedication to precision.

It’s the same story with whipping up a range of different patterns—hoops, crescents, swirls, infinity symbols—in Ōkami, yet in a digital space, the trade off for pulling off these ideograms with relative inaccuracy is inconsistency. This is most salient during quick time events or when writing more complex symbols, and is mildly irritating, although not as irksome as the camera system.

Typically, I play with a regular camera, but instantly felt disoriented with Ōkami‘s pre-loaded setup. The controls were backward, and strangely enough, it was necessary to invert both x and y axes in the deeply buried options menu to make things comfortable. With that hurdle over, my attention gratefully turned towards the lush, cel shaded blankets of sky, earth and water, outlined by thick, languid, painterly brushstrokes that transform the world into a gigantic, beautiful painting, animated by every push of the joystick. It looks astonishing in HD, unleashing its full force in widescreen television, even if it does still become slightly blurry when you execute quick movements.

Environments mimic Wind Waker‘s minimalism, but detour firmly away from caricatures, embodying an ethereal calmness that stuns in silence. But of course, the original soundtrack is equally impressive. From the meditative, alluring ambience of Agata Forest, to Shinshu Field’s grand ensemble of flute, drum and shamisen, Ōkami‘s classical Japanese soundscape has authentic magnetism that uses every last ounce of its power to spirit you away to another world. Energising pentatonic melodies urge Amaterasu on as she leaps and dashes, temporarily able to increase top speed so we don’t grow too weary of the colossal amount of backtracking, and closer towards her destiny.

To survive, Amaterasu must maintain a steady level of solar energy, which is basically equivalent to HP. Over the course of the game, you can increase it (along with ink levels, an ‘astral pouch’ that gives you a one off revive, and a purse) in a unique way, though the general difficulty level is fair as it is. What ties all these parameters together (and increases their value) is praise (幸), a measure of ‘godliness’ which Ōkami rewards you with after successful combat. But it also seizes the opportunity to adopt a more naturalist route by compensating you whenever you feed animals or reinvigorate fallen saplings, which signals a sense of awareness and pleasing dedication to the rejuvenation theme.

Healing, as Ōkami convincingly proves, is something that requires effort. And though the main quest sees Amaterasu saving gods who have been diluted into nothing, side quests—stray bead collection, monster hit lists, mastering new techniques at Onigiri-Sensei’s dōjō—will keep your mind intrigued, cleverly disguising a linear game with non-linear framework. This doesn’t stop the occasional lulls, but much like the Zelda series, mischievous NPCs fill most gaps with mature, heartfelt storylines if you’re willing enough to listen.

Animated GIF

Celestial brush in action: The Vine technique draws a path between Amaterasu and Konohana blossoms, slingshotting her in the specified direction

As long as sunlight exists, and lifegiving streams of water dampen the soil, flowers will bloom. And yet, when there is no effort—when the sun stops shining its photosynthetic rays, or we become too complacent about guaranteed rainfall and discard our watering kettle—the cycle breaks, a reminder of our duty to uphold tradition and a warning of the chaos that ensues when we don’t. Much of Ōkami‘s narrative seems to echo these thoughts, encouraging us to work hard and cherish the things we have, no matter how unbreakable they may seem. Chaim Potok said that something that is yours forever is never precious. I think he was right.

The rebirth of Ōkami‘s exotic tunes and artistic combat system is a welcome sight on PC and current gen consoles. Fans of the original will feel thoroughly spoiled with the remastered version, and for anyone fond of Japanese mythology, there’s no better way to finish the year.

Ōkami is out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. It requires an offering of $19.99 USD. A definite recommendation for your library.   

Full Disclosure: A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for purposes of this review.

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Notes

1. Depending on which combination of kanji characters is used, ‘Ōkami’ can mean either ‘wolf’ (狼) or ‘great god’ (大神).

2. The relationship between gods and humans frequently portrays the latter as ignorant to divine assistance, always given invisibly, which enables the fulfilment of goals and achievements. It provides an interesting reflection on the nature of egoism and cautions against inflating oneself, for there are always things that are greater, wiser, and more capable, even if we cannot see nor understand them.