Okami is an amazing game. In some sense, it’s quite derivative: it’s working well within the Zelda genre (complete with sonic homages to its predecessor), so it’s not as novel as some recent games, but there’s more than enough new presentation in the game to keep me happy, combined with a thorough rethinking and improvement upon the genre’s conventions.

You play a wolf. You’re also a god, with powers derived from brush strokes. In Zelda terms, the brush strokes replace stuff like bombs or the hookshot; you can use them in the world to solve puzzles as well as in battle. They’ve also worked this into the art style, making the whole game look like it it was done as brush paintings. Which is really pretty, and the most interesting presentation twist that I’ve seen since Jet Grind Radio. Not that I want other games to start directly imitating it, but I do want other games to think more about how they could adopt a distinctive presentation style that works well in the context of the game.

Acquiring brush strokes is one way to level up; another is to increase your health, magic (number of times you can paint in a row without resting), etc. In Zelda, you improved those by acquiring specific objects. In Okami, however, you do that by making things happy. For example, one of your early brush strokes lets you bloom things; after that, when you see a withered plant, you can bloom it, and you’ll get some points. Or you’ll run into animals; you can feed them, and get points from that, too. And you can do errands for people to get points. Basically, you go around making the world a nicer place, in a much broader sense than traditional errand-based methods. (And, as you run through the world, grass and flowers temporarily appear in your footsteps!) Honestly, one of my favorite parts of the game is when, soon after entering a new area, I’ve removed the initial blight from the area (typically by finding my way to a big tree and blooming it); then I get to wander around blooming flowers, feeding animals, meeting people, and just getting to see what’s new. A very humane way to design a game.

(Maybe it’s too nice, actually: entering a new area is always lots of fun in any game like this, because of the inherent novelty. So maybe adding extra enjoyment on top of that is the wrong thing to do, in terms of making the game more enjoyable overall? I’ll have to think about that for a while; not clear to me how they could have spread out the pleasures more in this game. And new areas do take some time to unfold, so it’s not like you have one big high followed by a long letdown.)

And there are still more ways to level up – you can get new weapons (three different variants, each with different levels), learn new moves (my favorite one is when you learn to pee on your enemies; maybe if I’d earned enough money to learn Brown Rage, that would have been my new favorite). Nothing stunning, but I do like the range of leveling up mechanisms, along with the different rhythms at which they take place.

So that’s leveling up. Another genre convention: the town / overworld / dungeon split has been around at least since (early in) the Apple ][ days. (It was certaintly present in the original Ultima; any good examples from before 1981?) Which has its virtues – cities give you concentrated plot, dungeons give a rhythm of accomplishments to the game (typically coupled somehow with progessive unlocking), and the overworld ties it all together.

You can still see that in Okami, but the boundaries are very blurred indeed. You start off in a town. (Well, you start off in a miniscule mini-dungeon without any monsters, if you want to get picky, and then move to a town.) After a bit, you move to an overworld. (Except there’s another, slightly larger but still quite small, dungeon right near the start.) But, as overworlds go, it’s full of people – there’s a bomb guy, a potter, a dojo, a priest, a merchant. There are some monsters, but you can avoid them if you’re in the mood; it’s all relatively compact, so you’re not going through league after league of boring areas.) After doing some stuff, you go back to the village, take part in a festival, go to another part of the overworld. And there are several people there, too, along with a relatively classic dungeon. (But even the most classic dungeons are more about progressing through a relatively short sequence of areas and less about going through a long gauntlet of monsters.)

And then you get to another overworld area. It’s similar to the others; there’s also one classic town off of it, plus another smaller town. I could go on, but you probably have the idea by now: towns and overworld interpenetrate, overworlds are destinations rather than simply areas to traverse on your way from town to town or dungeon, and the extremes of dungeons are muted. (Side note: Jim and I were just having a conversation about how, in Japan, you don’t have the same sort of wilderness as in the US, and there’s been much longer continuous habitation in forest/mountain areas; I wonder if this game is perceived in Japan as trying to explicitly build a really Japanese game?) Some dungeons are very un-dungeon-like indeed: the most important dungeon in the first part of the game, in fact, is a monster’s castle that you sneak into with an amusingly bad disguise, and then have to do tasks for the head monster’s chef. So very little fighting, lots of problem solving, and in many ways it feels more like a town than a dungeon. (Just a town that happens to belong to the bad guys!)

So, just as the leveling up system proceeds according to a more complex, subtler rhythm than is the norm, your journey through the various areas also proceeds according to a more complex, subtler rhythm. Rest assured, however, the game has a strong plot. Not Square RPG all-dominating melodrama or anything, but it’s there. (Arguably, the variations in external rhythms actually increases the plot’s strength: the game can’t get away with leaning on typical game conventions to mask the paucity of the plot.) You care about the world, it gets threatened periodically, it is punctuated at pleasant intervals by higher-drama tasks.

Which brings me to another one of my traditional pet peeves – boss battles. (And game difficulty in general.) They are the traditional way to cap off a high-drama task; this game is no exception. (Though the traditional boss battle / dungeon link is weakened – not all dungeonish areas have boss battles, not all boss battles are in dungeons.) The boss monsters are pleasantly varied, and not particularly hard – you have to do a bit of thinking to figure out their weakness (which is almost always linked to your newest brush stroke), but you can almost always make it through boss battles without dying. And, if you do die, the next time you’ll have that boss’s info in your monster book, so you’ll have hints about its weaknesses. Over the years, I’ve gotten to like hard games less and less – difficulty is no substitute for solid game design – and I’m quite comfortable with this game’s difficulty level. (I wouldn’t have minded if I’d died a few more times, actually.)

Even games that get most bosses right can fall sorely flat on the final boss: I am thoroughly sick of final bosses that are much harder than any of their predecessors and that, the first two times you kill them, resurrect themselves in new, tougher forms. (With no save spots, of course; in the worst case, you can spend most of an hour just hacking back through to the place where you were killed last time.)

The final boss in Okami isn’t entirely divorced from that tradition. The final dungeon actually consists solely of boss fights: it starts by forcing you to fight five of the previous bosses. Which turns out to be surprisingly pleasant: the fights are well-enough designed, you’re powerful and knowledgeable enough to make them pretty fast and easy, and you can save between bosses (which also replenishes your health), should you so desire.

And then there’s the final boss. Who is intelligently multi-staged: you start off by losing all of your brush strokes, and over the course of fighting him, you regain your brush strokes; every four or so brush strokes, he (or she – the main character is female, and for all I know the final boss is as well) changes in order to be more suitable to fight with your current bag of techniques. One of my favorite fights of the game.

And then, after killing him, he resurrects in another form. Sigh – they were doing so well, and then blew it! Actually, it wasn’t so bad – the new form only had a single stage, and while I was glad I had a couple dozen medium bones around for healing purposes, I didn’t come close to dying. (Especially once I started paying attention to when he was most vulnerable.) So, as gratuitous extra bosses go, not so bad. And, actually, there was a quite nice plot reason for the extra boss: it gave them an excuse to have your companion marshal up support for you throughout the land, with lots of pictures of people cheering you on and praying to you. Really rather charming, and it would have been harder to work that in without the boss resurrection.

(Side note: the idea of mass support while fighting the final boss was, of course, used to fabulous effect in Space Channel 5; that final boss had one overly difficult moment, but if you made it past that, you had a cast of thousands dancing with you, chanting out “left right left right chu chu chu” or whatever it was. Honestly, one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in a video game. I suppose it’s been a few months since I’ve done my Dreamcast lament, so I will briefly revisit it here: the Dreamcast was Teh Best Console Evar, why can’t Sega make good games these days?, and I really really really wish they would make Shenmue III.)

So: if you own a PS2, go out and get a copy of Okami. If you don’t, well, buy one and reduce your situation to a previously solved problem. (Not the best console ever, but this isn’t the only great game the console has seen.) It’s not perfect, but the first half is pretty close – honestly, once I’d gotten that far, I was beginning to despair over the likelihood that the new Zelda, which will come out in a mere three weeks, will pale painfully in comparison. The second half doesn’t contain the same revelations as the first half does, but it’s still thoroughly enjoyable and solidly constructed.

What a year and a half Capcom has had. I can’t believe that they’ve always been this solidly good, but clearly I’d vastly underestimated them; I should delve further into their library.

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