At a time when many video games are striving to deliver ever-more-lifelike graphics, a new game exclusive to the PlayStation 2 is taking its visual style in an entirely different and, in its own way, more ambitious direction.
It's called "Okami," and rather than dedicate its pretty pixels to replicating the appearance of reality, it has aimed instead to create the look and feel of a traditional Japanese watercolor painting. Developed by Clover Studio and published by Capcom, both based in Osaka, "Okami" is an epic Japanese fairy tale as told in an action-adventure game.
Take one look at the game and immediately you realize this is a feast for the eyes. "Okami's" visual ambitions are reminiscent of "ICO," a game released in the early days of the PS2. That adventure title also strived to be something of a living painting, taking its visual cues from the Impressionists.
But more than just mimic the look of a painting, "Okami's" brilliance comes in the way it incorporates elements of Japanese brush stroke into the gameplay itself.
After 100 years of peace, the many-headed monster Orochi has again been unleashed on the world and laid it to a darkened waste. To set things right and bring life back to a barren land, you take on the role of a white wolf who's really a female sun god named Amaterasu. (Okami means wolf in Japanese.)
Amaterasu must not only vanquish her enemies — and this white wolf can definitely fight — but also re-learn how to master the Celestial Brush. Press the R1 button on your controller and the world freezes into painted still life. Utilizing various buttons and the analog stick, you can then paint a bridge where you need it or, with a stroke of black ink, cut down enemies on the attack. Painting on the game canvas is an integral part to puzzle solving and fighting throughout – chop down tress, split rocks, put out fires, turn night into day. But most importantly, think creatively when using your magic brush and ink.
Meanwhile, Amaterasu is grace in motion as you run her through this world – the controls are easy to master and comfortable in the hand. And the illustrative rewards to your actions are a real treat. As the white wolf speeds across the landscape, her paws leave a trail of blooming foliage in her wake. When she destroys her enemies, rather than fall into a heap of dead flesh they burst into blossoming flowers. Triumph against the darkness and watch as this scarred world becomes a beatific land of brilliant colors.
As visually stunning as the game is, it's not without its flaws. For instance, it's clear that story is important here and, in fact, the narrative is both deep and intriguing. However, it feels like it takes an eternity to wade through the dialog boxes that deliver this ongoing tale. The introduction to the fable itself seemed to last an eon and then some.
Meanwhile Issun – the bug-sized character who assists you – prattles on endlessly until you want to scream "just let me play the game!" Additionally, some of the side challenges may cause you to scratch your head, wondering what they have to do with anything.
Flaws aside, "Okami" remains a solid title with ambitions that are impressive and inspiring to behold.
Those who believe video games are nothing more than digitized blood sport and cultural flimflam would do well to take a look at "Okami" – a piece of work that suggests games can and sometimes do visit the realm of legitimate art.