While there’s a sadness in knowing I’m playing the last major Nintendo DS game that will ever be released, Okamiden closes the system’s library with style and grace. Previous releases may continue to be republished, but as new games go Okamiden is it for the incredibly successful touch-screen handheld.
The story is a successor to the PS2 & Wii’s Okami and not a sequel, according to the developers. Think of it in the way that Zelda games are successors to each other. They share a world but not the exact main character, however alike they may seem (The Phantom Hourglass and The Spirit Tracks, however, were sequels to Wind Waker because they shared the same version of Link). To that effect, Okamiden is a self-contained story, and while it loves referencing the first game it will not hinder your experience to have not played it.
Okamiden begins nine months after the events of Okami. Amaterasu, the reincarnated Sun God-turned wolf heroine of the first game had returned to the heavens, leaving the Japanese province of Nippon clear of evil for a time. Pulling from the cyclical nature of that world, just as Nippon is once again overrun by evil spirits and cursed zones a white wolf cub appears. The hoppy bug-sized celestial envoy from the first game, Issun, immediately recognizes the cub as Chibiterasu, son of Amaterasu. Because Chibi is young he is less powerful than his mother and he must set out to learn the Celestial Brush strokes his mother mastered evil with, and be extremely cute while he’s at it. But though the player is placed into a very similar Nippon from Okami the differing events offer enough variation in story for the setting to be only familiar and not stale. The art direction of the game adds to the experience, mimicking Japanese watercolor paintings but with an anime twist to the style. It’s simple, culturally relevant, and plays a big part in making the game’s world really feel like the Japanese mythological tale it means to portray.
If you’ve played the original Okami, The Legend of Zelda: The Spirit Tracks, or The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass, then you already know how to play Okamiden. It’s the kind of adventure gaming controls that come naturally and have been used over and over again: B to jump, Y to attack, and the shoulder buttons to enter Celestial Brush mode and interact with the environment. But what sets Okamiden apart from other adventure RPGs are two things: its sentiment and the brush system. Like Okami, the story is not a simple case of good conquering evil: it’s about the people Chibi meets along the way, whether he is helping them or they are helping him. Like Amaterasu, Chibi may be powerful but his success rides on his companions, and Okamiden highlights this by giving Chibi five characters to accompany him throughout his journey. Though you’ll only have one with you at a time, each companion character comes with their own set of abilities, attacks, and perspective on the world. They’ll each also name Chibi in their own way – a running joke throughout the story. Isuun recognizes Amaterasu’s son as Chibiterasu, but Kuni, the son of Okami’s easily frightened swordsman, Susano, calls him Mutt, and the mermaid Nanagi calls him Squiddy. Chibi cannot communicate in a language these characters understand, but his movements, barks, and cartoonish symbols that appear by his head (like a dark cloud or droplets) are plenty emotive just the same. Chibi will help a little girl diagnosed with one year to live by giving her the fireworks show she’s dreamed of, or he’ll help a father build his son a fishing rod to show that even though the son is not following his father’s footsteps the father still supports his interests. Mermaids, hamsters, evil spirits, fortune tellers, a giant carp, a demon market, and plenty of characters from the original game populate the full, living world that Nippon is. I think of it similarly to Mass Effect’s world: while Mass Effect series’ story is incredibly compelling, I found myself skipping out on it to talk to every single person and learn about every single planet because they were all so fleshed out and realistic. Okamiden accomplishes this same desire to get to know the game’s world.
The gameplay is based around the Celestial Brush mechanic. By pressing one of the trigger buttons the top screen pauses and shifts down to the touch screen, where you can draw brush strokes with your stylus. As you move through the adventure Chibi will encounter constellations, and tracing the constellations brings forth a celestial god who will teach the cute cub a new trick. You’ll draw a straight stroke to slash an enemy or object in half, or a circle with a line sticking out to create a cherry bomb. While this system works incredibly well on the DS, the learned strokes are not varied. Many brush strokes are the same: drawing a circle in the sky will bring out the sun, while circling a baron tree will bloom it. Another repeatedly used stroke is the idea of drawing a line to connect two objects: a line from your companion character to a chest will have the character fetch the item inside – useful for objects in a place Chibi cannot reach. Drawing a line from water to a torch will flow the water over the flame, and drawing a line from Chibi to a specific type of flower will create a vine that grapples him over. However, while the strokes are similar using the strokes differently for different situations creates enough variation to keep you from getting bored. There’s just something extremely satisfying about circling the trees around you and having cherry blossoms pop up, no matter how many times you do it.
In battle, though, using the Celestial Brush can become repetitive, especially because you cannot draw multiple symbols at once or combine the effects of the strokes. And every time you hit the trigger to move to brush mode the music changes, and when you’re finished drawing the music changes back to the overworld music. It becomes annoying to have the soundtrack constantly interrupted – a problem I had with Okami that I’d expected to have fixed for this game, however minor a gripe that is.
The boss battles make up for those complaints. These extra large, extra evil spirits will task you to use abilities you’ve gained and strategies you’ve learned leading up to the fight to take down the boss. These fights are lengthy, sometimes in stages, and often require you to somehow hinder the demon’s ability to heal itself. Teamwork with your companion character is also key in these fights, as you may need him or her to hold down a switch while you fight, or carry an object from one place to another, for example.
Item collecting and upgrading, exploration, hidden areas, odd characters – all the staples of an adventure RPG are here and Okamiden brings the world to life. With approximately 15-30 hours of gameplay it’s fairly lengthy for a portable console, though much shorter than its predecessor. Still, while the game clearly learned a lot from the DS’ handling of Zelda games it retains the original feel of Okami, and both fans of the series and newcomers will enjoy this last foray in adventuring before the DS is done.