When Hideki Kamiya’s Okami released over 11 years ago it was heralded as a masterclass RPG with unmistakable style and gorgeous visuals inspired by Japanese watercolor scrolls. It was hard not to compare it to the Legend of Zelda series, as they share similarities in quest structure and world design, but Okami was innovative enough in both gameplay and visuals to become an instant classic all its own. Finding its way onto modern consoles for its third re-release since the 2006 original, Okami HD still delights with its graceful take on Japanese folklore.
Taking control of the titular Okami (named Amaterasu), players complete quests in standard RPG style, cleansing the land of a curse of darkness that threatens all life, particularly that of the Guardian Saplings; special trees which, when healed, cleanse the curse in an insanely gratifying “purification” of the land. Any one of these cutscenes would be right at home in one of those “Most Satisfying Video In the World” compilations, as flowers, water, and color wash violently through the previously monotone landscape. Using the Celestial Brush, Amaterasu paints bombs, bridges, and even suns to aid the player in puzzle solving and combat. It’s here that Okami truly found itself over a decade ago, in the blending of its beauty and core gameplay into a single cohesive mechanic that’s both fun to use and innovated on the genre. Even 11 years later, Okami HD is just fun to play.
Amaterasu (or Ammy, as your loudmouthed companion Issun calls you) moves fluidly, gaining speed gradually in what I can only describe as a wolf god with automatic transmission. At the final speed, flowers sprout behind her in a much more aesthetically pleasing version of other platformers’ use of dust clouds. Wall-jumping feels a little strange at first, but quickly becomes second nature. Unlike some older titles, controls here are responsive and fluid. Nothing about the core gameplay feels even slightly archaic, and I wholeheartedly believe that a game with these controls released in this day and age would be praised for its efforts.
The combat begins as standard beat-em-up fare until enemies lose their hue, at which point a single line can be drawn through them to slice them satisfactorily in twain. Other abilities include cherry bombs, gusts of wind, and fire spells, all with their own unique symbols that must be drawn with the Celestial Brush. The one feature that sets this version apart from its PS3 predecessor is the option to use the touch pad for the Celestial Brush. It’s a little odd using your left thumb to draw (if you’re right handed like I am) but anything that gives the player more options is a welcome addition.
Very occasionally the Celestial Brush mechanics can be a source of annoyance; the game can feel like it’s demanding small works of art in order to accomplish simple tasks. This is especially frustrating during unskippable cutscenes which rely on drawing during key points; mess up once and you’ll be doing it all again. However, this is outweighed by the Brush mechanics in both combat and exploration. Making the sun shine to grow platforms, or blowing up crowds with your cherry bombs make it all feel worth it.
Okami‘s story isn’t anything to write home about, but the style and earnestness with which it’s presented is enough to engage the player almost immediately (once they make it through the overly-long introductory cutscene). The dialogue is well-written, but the characters themselves are what give the narrative so much soul. From the cowardly and overly-cocky warrior Susano to the Dojo owner Onigiri-Sensei (whose head flips upside down when it’s time to get serious), almost all the characters are memorable if only for their quirks. As mentioned, some of the early exposition is a little heavy-handed, but the inspiration taken from Japanese folklore keep it all from feeling too trite.
The thing about Okami that has always appealed to me isn’t just it’s thick-lined style or gorgeous palette, but the fact that every little aspect of the game world has such distinct flavor. Even simple padlocks which dwell in dungeons are one-eyed beasts with giant tongues that taunt and lick at Amaturasu as she approaches. The Blockhead enemies that guard entryways and shortcuts are a wonderful subversion to standard puzzle-solving. The gameplay also strongly reflects the Celestial Brush mechanics, often asking the player to fill in bridges or even draw fishing lines in a minigame that’s way more fun than it has any right to be. It’s a masterclass in design, a title with so much confidence I could just about see Hideki Kamiya’s grin reflected through the screen.
Since Okami HD is technically a port, let’s talk about performance. One would expect a game released over a decade ago to not only look gorgeous (Okami HD certainly does) but also run at a smooth framerate. The PS3 version ran at a locked 30 FPS, even though it’s assumed the console could easily have handled 60. The PS4 version? Also 30 FPS. Not for lack of power though, but because according to Capcom themselves: “We actually experimented with 60FPS and uncapped frame rate mode, but unfortunately it breaks the game logic, collision detection and animation speed in certain areas of the game.” What this means is that 30 FPS is so hard-baked into the game’s central code that the effort of achieving 60 FPS just may not be worth the trouble. It might be unfashionable of me to say so, but for a game like Okami, with all its style and post processing filters, 30 FPS is not a deal breaker. Now I don’t think a lower FPS means a more “cinematic” experience, but when the game itself is so simple and appealing to the eye, the frame rate being what it is (especially for good reason) can be forgiven.
Fans of the original title or its re-releases may be left wanting after Okami HD for PS4. As far as I can tell, it’s the same game as the previous version on PlayStation 3 (it even shares a trophy list). Still 30 fps, still 1080p, still gorgeous, and most importantly still affordable at a $20 price point. For those of us who haven’t had the chance to experience Okami in high definition glory, this is a very easy recommendation. When a game ages this well it’s hard to fault it for being more of the same, especially with an art style that rivals even the most visually stunning titles released today. Okami HD belongs in every passionate gamer’s library, and with this re-release it’s available to almost everyone (sorry, Switch owners). No other game makes the player feel as directly connected to not only their character, but the world itself. Breathing life back into a land that truly feels worth protecting is an emotionally gratifying experience that’s hard to describe. For that reason, among many others, Okami will always remain a classic.
This review is based on the PlayStaion 4 version of the game, which was provided to us by Capcom. Okami HD is also available on Xbox One and PC.