14th Aug2018

‘Okami HD’ Review (Nintendo Switch)

by Rupert Harvey

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It feels like Okami hasn’t been so much released as gradually rolled out since its launch on PlayStation 2 in 2006. The Wii version followed a few months later; then the HD update came to last-gen consoles and PC; current-gen consoles last year; and now it has finally made its way to Nintendo Switch. The original was crafted by Clover Team, known for the equally unique Viewtiful Joe (of which a similar HD treatment would be most welcome).

The story goes that one hundred years ago, the wolf Shiranui fought alongside a brave human warrior to defeat the demon Orochi, a multi-headed beast terrorising a village. Peace ensued. But in the present day, the spirit of Orochi is unleashed, corrupting the lands of Nippon. A guardian sprite resurrects the spirit of Shiranui in the form of the wolf Amaterasu. This is you, and it’s your task to return light and lushness to Nippon.

Would that it were so simple. In terms of bang-for-buck, Okami HD is a tasty value proposition: a sprawling odyssey which – spoiler alert – does not end with the defeat of Orochi. No, as the world expands, so too does the scope of your quest, and by the end you are fighting something far loftier in the hierarchy, in an environment which would have been unimaginable forty hours earlier.

Gameplay-wise, Okami HD is a boldly stylised action-adventure in the 3D Zelda style, one which is steeped in Japanese folklore. There’s an impressively fully-fledged mythology to delve into here, which is mostly delivered with simplicity and clarity. The pay-off is that exposition dominates the opening hours. It’s extremely slow to get moving. You’ll spend as much time tapping through dialogue boxes in the first act as you will playing the game.

Suffice to say, getting to the good stuff – and it is really good – takes some patience. The game does lack some modern quality of life factors one might expect (save points are remarkably sparse), and also a certain quality of immersion to which we’ve become accustomed. Zones are sectioned off (much like the pre-Breath of the Wild Zelda games), so there’s nothing seamless about this adventure.

Throughout the zones are oddball characters with side quests, strange hermits willing to flog items and upgrades, dumb sprinting postmen, and dojos where you can learn new fighting skills. The humour is broad and irreverent; I particularly enjoyed the characters’ tendency to nickname you “Chalky” or “Snowball” because “Amaterasu” is too much of a mouthful. Across the lovely landscapes are simple puzzles that require you to use your paintbrush to progress.

Paintbrush, you say? That’s right, Okami has a Celestial Brush, wielded by her aggravating artistic bug-buddy Issun. (Think, “Hey, Listen!” and you get the idea.) By holding down the R bumper, you can paint various items against the scenery. Draw a circle in the sky and you’ll make it daytime. Dot the ground and build a defensive wall of trees. A horizontal line becomes a cutting slash. Later in the game you will gather more advanced strokes, like bombs, thunderstorms, and the ability to create lily pads for traversing water. My personal favourite is the vine ability, where you draw a line between yourself and the target, pulling you through the air.

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The brush techniques don’t just serve to solve puzzles, they also prove useful in combat. In a style more akin to classical JRPGs, monsters don’t roam free, but rather in the form of floating icons. Outside of mandatory story beats, you can choose whether or not to enter battle. The encounters take place in closed arenas, separate from the main game. Fleeing is possible, through cracks in the magical wall. You circle around your enemies, mashing combos until they enter a stone state, at which point you slash at them with your paintbrush for extra damage.

Visual effects are thrown at the screen with every move you make: splashes of colour and light, clouds of confounding mist, sprigs of grass as your paws hit the ground. This can make combat encounters confusing, but generally the fighting feels solid, and you’ll find a satisfying rhythm between live strikes and dodges, and the almost turn-based nature of the brush moves.

Okami is unashamedly video-gamey with its systems. Skill barriers block your path, Metroidvania style, although sometimes your limitations feel arbitrary – for example, you can change to daytime virtually from the start, but switching back to nighttime comes much later. Therefore any quest requiring moonlight in the early game requires simply waiting or grinding.

The graphics have aged very well thanks to their stylised appearance, based on the traditional ukiyo-e method. A lovely, subtle paper effect dimples the screen. Like Wind Waker, up-rezzing alone pays dividends. While the visuals don’t quite have the cartoon clarity of Nintendo’s classic, the game does borrow that game’s slightly unwieldy camera: it’s sluggish to control and is at an awkward close-up angle by default. There’s a better, zoomed-out view, but the game loves to snap back to the default perspective. In terms of performance, this is a top-notch port, with both 1080p docked and 720p handheld running at a fairly faultless thirty frames.

Okami HD is a fine remaster of classic game which has largely stood the test of time. It may lack some of the qualities we have come to expect in the modern age (although it must be said that it’s more welcoming than contemporaries like Twilight Princess), but it’s still eminently playable. More importantly, it remains a uniquely stylised and atmospheric descent into a dense, epic and engrossing piece of imaginative mythology. Get over that early sluggishness and it’s impossible not to fall in love.

Okami HD is out now on Nintendo Switch from Capcom.

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