Games Review: Okami HD (Switch, 2018) remodels its intuitive controls for an endlessly beautiful adventure

Okami was a work of art before it was ported to numerous modern platforms, inspiring a new generation of players with its mythic take on the old Zelda formula, but this Nintendo Switch port in particular gives it a necessary new life.

It’s obvious why Okami has never gotten a proper sequel. It’s hard to improve on near-perfection. The unique PS2 original served as the penultimate release from Capcom’s boutique Clover Studio before many of its senior staff departed to form what is now PlatinumGames. It was released on the PlayStation 2 back in 2006 and serves as the creative studio’s crowning achievement, elevating gaming to high-art with an inspired concept that borrows from the East Asian tradition of ink wash painting and translates it into an enriched video game environment. Little since has come close to matching Okami‘s elegant art direction, which was enhanced by gameplay that successfully mimicked some of the strongest parts of Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda franchise for an incredible action-adventure and original story.

It was just a matter of time before it arrived on the Nintendo Switch, following last year’s release as Okami HD on the PlayStation 4 and it’s previous iterations on most gaming systems including the Nintendo Wii. There’s no surprise then that Capcom keep pushing this, wanting more people to sink into the immersive world of Amaterasu and her celestial brush.

While Nintendo DS’ Ōkamiden was a worthy follow-up, it never quite reached the depths of the original, which are here in all their glory as you play as the aformentioned Amaterasu, a goddess embodied as a white wolf and accompanied through an almost 40 hour journey by a frustratingly chatty bug named Issun. Those already familiar with Okami know exactly what to expect from the gameplay: a wondrous journey that keeps you on your toes and always finds new, refreshing ways to bring surprising perspectives to the game’s main mechanics; a story compelling enough to warrant a 20 minute introductory cutscene and incessant dialogue that would otherwise become easily annoying; and beautifully designed dungeons memorable in concept and fascinating to explore. Unfortunately this also means that you’re already expecting the game’s major flaw, that being it’s simple combat and a progression system that is rendered relatively useless by the game’s lack of difficulty.

This is the first time the original Okami game has been made portable, which alone is reason enough to go out and get it. It may lack the sharp 4K resolution of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One ports, but whether docked or handheld on the Switch, it still looks like a dream — and plays like one too; since Okami isn’t an intensive game, there are next to no issues performance wise. Other than that, the only advantage the Switch version has over other current-gen ports is the controls, which perfectly complement the game’s marquee feature: the Celestial Brush.

As if there wasn’t already enough intricacy in the game’s Japanese styled aesthetic, which is textured with brush strokes and drip marks so that the entire journey looks like a living painting, the Switch’s Joy-Cons bring a new angle to the primary mechanic. The Celestial Brush is your way to interacting with the feudal Japanese setting and acting upon it to progress throughout the game, literally making you the artist as you transform the screen into a canvas and mimic shapes by using ink to solve puzzles, swipe at enemies, and bring even more beauty and depth to this world. Prior to this, it always felt slightly awkward to paint with the brushes, but the Joy-Cons have an intuitive movement that really refreshes the concept and seeks to re-engage those who have already played through the game (perhaps more than once), besting even the Wii’s motion controls with something that feels natural.

Playing through the game brings plenty of celestial brush techniques to discover – just one of many ways to strengthen your character – which in turn help you uncover secrets and consistently signal deeper exploration of both where you have been and where you are going. They work in very much the same way as finding a new toy in the Zelda games, something that in both gaming universes feels genuinely exciting and earned. On top of that, there’s plenty of content to keep you involved as well as interesting NPCs and cleverly hidden details that don’t feel superfluous to the game’s complex core story.

As mentioned above, the lack of difficulty can negate Okami’s otherwise fun and addictive character progression. And for a game that seems to encourage experimentation, giving you different ways to approach combat or interact with the world, this is a clear oversight that won’t be fixed unless a true sequel is one day revealed (we’re still holding out hope after over a decade of waiting). The niche art direction should be at odds with the accessibility to casual gamers, but for whatever reason, the developers chose to make this a simple game with broad appeal, only presenting a handful of complex puzzles amongst the more straight forward and clearly dated ones.

Even still, it’s hard to deny that Okami is a remarkable game, and holds up well despite how dated it is. The HD version may have not feature a substantial graphic overhaul, but the fact that it still looks so good is a true testament to just how high Clover Studio managed to climb with this almost-masterpiece. If you haven’t played it before, then it’s a no-brainer that this is now one of the most essential titles on Switch; if you haven’t played it in awhile, make sure you take some time to revisit this enchanting and often absurd world.

FOUR AND A HALF STARS OUT OF FIVE

Highlights:: Yep, still one of the most beautiful video games of the 21st century; graphics still hold up well; intuitive motion controls add new depth to technique; compelling story carries over well on the switch; first time you can take it anywhere.
Lowlights: Dated combat; lack of difficulty; impatient people may hate the inability to quicken dialogue at some points.
Developer: Clover Studio
Publisher: Capcom
Platforms: Nintendo Switch

Review conducted on Nintendo Switch with a retail code provided by the publisher.

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Chris Singh

Chris Singh is the Deputy Editor of the AU review, an obsessive hip hop nerd, a whisky drinker, and a lover of all things travel. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter with @chrisdsingh.

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