Thursday, October 1, 2009

"Okami": The Game that Wouldn't Die

I bought Okami for the Wii last spring, shortly after the then two year old game had been ported from the Play Station 2. I beat it this past weekend.

Now, taking my ever-loving time on a game is pretty normal for me. I took nearly a decade to beat the original Legend of Zelda--not because it was too hard but because I loved starting the game over and filling in the narrative gaps with my own stories. But this trend sort of stayed with me as I matured as a gamer (which is not an oxymoron!), if for different reasons (I don't always have a lot of time to devote to the games I love, and that time is very often split between several games; I do the same with books). It took me about a year and a half to beat Twilight Princess, a couple of years to beat Final Fantasy VII, and I've yet to finish Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

But Okami took me a long time for a very different reason. I've spent the last sixteen months in a very love/hate relationship with this game. See, Okami, for me, is kind of like that girl you fall in love with who's beautiful, clever, fun to spend time with, but is constantly making promises it doesn't keep--whether it be not keeping dates or having multiple personality disorder. And yet, every time you take her back.

But let me start with the good. Okami is beautiful. If there was ever an example to help drive the argument of Video Games as Art, it's Okami. And the game--essentially unchanged from PS2 to Wii--is three years old! The art style of the game is traditional Japanese brushwork--heavy outlining but with line variance, watercolours, tons of Japanese symbols and art references, and even some scroll-style storytelling. In a generation of hyped-up, super-realistic, 3-D graphics, Okami operates stunningly with art-school charm.

And yes, the game is very clever with some innovative puzzles, varying combat styles, quirky characters (the best kind), and tons of well-placed (if sometimes crass) humour. These aspects, joined with an interesting story, make Okami very fun to play. You control the white wolf Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess of the Celestial Plain and Earth. A hundred years after your mortal death in combat against the dreaded demon Orochi, you've finally awakened to realize that your hard-won victory was for naught. The demon has returned, and you've no memory of your godly state or powers.

Now, up till this point, I was pretty psyched with this game. But about ten hours in, those promises started falling through for me. For one, every positive review (of which there are several) I'd read argued vehemently that this wasn't Capcom's version of Ocarina of Time/Twilight Princess. And yes, technically, the two games are different, on the surface. But underneath, Okami is just an attempt to make a Zelda game without the prerequisite characters, world, mythos, etc., so much so that it uses to the same Zelda-formula I ranted about when I reviewed Phantom Hourglass. So instead of needing to find the bombs or the boomerang or the hook shot to use on the dungeon boss, you have to find the sacred brush techniques to use on the dungeon boss. Instead of searching for heart container pieces to extend your life, you need sun fragments. You even have a tiny, mystical helper who speaks for you.

The second, third, forth, umpteenth, promises this game breaks are the root of my subtitle. Okami is the most painfully long game I've ever played to completion.

So imagine you've been playing the game for about ten hours. You've battled a few bosses, found a few powerups, saved a few civilians, all with the aim of defeating the dreaded Orochi. And there you are, on the precipice of battle against the hated demon whose darkness has choked your beautiful world. Your mystical helper asks if you're ready for the ultimate battle against evil. You nod agreement, and he remarks that there's no turning back, this is it, the battle to end all battles and save the world. Charging headlong against the Japanese hydra, you carefully sever each elemental head until the beast lays slain at your paws. With victory firmly in your grasp you let out a sigh of relief, exhilerated by your accomplishment...Only to find out Orochi wasn't the demon pulling the strings. There's another, worse evil out there. It has no name, it's never mentioned before, but your helper urges you on to face this nameless monster.

I was sort of okay with it when this happened. It meant I got to stay in this world a bit longer, even if I wasn't expecting to and stayed up into the wee hours of the morning because I thought I was on the verge of winning the game. But imagine this happens not once more, but twice. How about three times? All with you still not knowing exactly who you're supposed to looking for, what they want, and why they're so darn ornery. The first fake final battle I could take. But with every subsequent one, I became more and more despondent about the game. Orochi gave me motivation, a goal, a thing to defeat. But simply wondering this world in search of the next villain without a goal got boring.

To boot, all of these battles are long. They require tact and precision (which is good) but mostly repetition and pattern memorization, lots of repetition and pattern memorization. So much so, in fact, that even in this story driven opus of a video game, the designers felt it would be a wise decision to make you fight every single, god-forsaken (literally) one of them a second time! Oh! Actually, one of them you have to fight three times. Of course, this design choice is probably based on Japanese gaming traditions--the Mega Man games are famous for making you fight every boss twice and then having you battle Dr. Wiley's three times. But it doesn't work here.

At the end of the day, however, I still have to recommend Okami. For everything about it that I don't like, there's something I at least have to appreciate (even if I don't like the choice). Most importantly, this is a game pushing the limits of not only art in video games but art as video games. And even three years later, there aren't many offerings as beautiful as this.

Questions? Quibbles? Controversies?

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