Nothing I say can do this game justice.
You have to play for yourself.
I was excited to find Epic Mickey on sale yesterday, and it got me thinking about video games. Gaming and I go way back: I grew up with a Nintendo ES, and I was pretty darn good at playing it. However, I never upgraded my console from the original system, and by the time I went off to college I considered video games a thing of my past. But then my sister got a Nintendo Wii a few years ago, so I figured why not give it a shot. Well, I loved it. And, to my surprise, after nearly a decade of being out of the video game loop, I was still really good at it. I cherish my memories of playing Super Mario Brothers and Tetris on our old console, but I will be forever grateful to the Wii for finally introducing me to single-person action adventure gaming, and by extension, my current favourite video game ever, Okami.
If you’re familiar with Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, you may think that Okami sounds like a knock-off version of the same story. (No worries if you do, I used to think the same before I played it.) To be fair, there are some definite similarities: the protagonist is a wolf who travels the land fighting evil with a little green magical being at its side giving advice and comical insults on a regular basis. But after that, the stories differ vastly. The wolf in question is an incarnation of the sun goddess Amaterasu, and she is called forth to defend Nippon (Japan) from an evil demon named Orochi. However, because she has been gone so long she needs to regain her powers, namely those of the Celestial Brush, which allow her (and you) to freeze the action onscreen and draw a variety of symbols to unleash fire, water, wind, and a host of other elemental magics. The little green guy at her side is Issun, a traveling artist who would like to gain the brush techniques for himself, so he hitches a ride and helps out in his own (frequently obnoxious) ways.
There are tons of reasons why this game is so splendid. The artwork is fantastic and far surpasses any other game I’ve played. Many scenes are presented in the style of woodcut watercolour sumi-e, or Japanese ink drawings, and allowing the player to paint on the screen helps bring you into that world. The characters are as endearing and interesting as any you’d find in a really well-written anime, let alone a video game. You can talk with the same character numerous times and have different conversations on each visit, and even minor side characters have full backstories to engage you even further. Then there’s the music. Oh, the music. The Okami soundtrack is one of my favourites of all time (and I own over three hundred soundtrack albums). It utilizes traditional Japanese instruments in very dramatic pieces that help convey all the emotion of this epic fantasy.
At its heart Okami is a masterpiece of engaging storytelling. The overview of the plot that I mentioned above was just the tip of the tip of the iceberg. There are gods and demons and magical beings in spades here, but each is unique and carries a mystery to unravel (including my bishōnen boy Waka). Some of it is based on Japanese folklore, some on Japanese myths and Shinto legends, and other aspects are completely original to the game. As always I won’t say too much so as not to spoil any surprises (and this game is full of those) but the richness of the world presented in Okami is truly awe-inspiring. The gist goes beyond good versus evil, it gets downright spiritual: you’re saving the environment, saving the creatures of the earth, and saving yourself in the process. There are some scenes so intense that I actually cry whenever I play, as well as feel heart-pounding dread in anticipation of some of the more frightful battles. And just when you think you have this story nailed down, everything changes! And that happens again and again. It is truly masterful.
Five years ago I recall listening to others talk about video games in hushed and holy tones with some skepticism. I’ve always been all for doing whatever makes you happy (as long as it doesn’t hurt or maim anything) but I just didn’t get what made gaming so special. Now I know. There’s a reverence for nature, cultural tradition, and spirituality in Okami that is unlike anything else I’ve encountered, and being able to play a character in that story is incredible.