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Brush with greatness

Okami paints a masterpiece

10/3/2006 11:40:07 AM

Rating: 4.0 stars

VIBRANT COLORS: Forget those palettes ranging from light to dark gray.

It’s considered gauche these days to laud a game on the basis of its graphics, but Okami makes that unavoidable. Most games aim for cold realism; Okami looks like a painting come to life, with impressionistic flora and Japanese-inspired architecture outlined in bold, black strokes. Most games offer a palette ranging from light to dark gray; Okami’s vibrant colors pop off the screen. Amaterasu, the white-wolf protagonist, moves with fluid grace as she restores life to a cursed world. This is one gorgeous game.

Glad we got that out of the way. Sure, Okami will be turning heads at demo kiosks, and rightly so, but if you focus on the graphics, you’ll miss the game’s real achievement. Okami doesn’t just look like a painting, it plays like one. On the surface, it’s a standard action-adventure game with cursed world, distressed villagers, and stoic main character. The stroke of genius is the inclusion of the “Celestial Brush,” which allows you to invoke godly powers. You activate the Celestial Brush by hitting the R1 button, at which point the screen pauses and takes on the appearance of black-inked parchment, and a wooden paintbrush appears. The brush can be used to attack or to defend your character, but more often it holds the key to solving puzzles and exploring the game world. Depending on the environment and your brush stroke, swaths of paint become gusts of wind, lily pads, slingshot-like vines, and more.

Although the brush gives a fresh twist to the action-RPG template, even without it Okami would be a worthy entry. It’s not just the sheer size of the game, though I will admit to feeling daunted when the narration informed me, 15 hours in, that the story was just beginning. It’s not merely the cast of quirky characters, like the blustery warrior who has a habit of showing up when the battle ends and hogging the credit. No, the brilliance of Okami lies in the way it balances goals and rewards. There are enough hidden treasures and side quests to keep you occupied as you traverse the map. Often you’ll see goodies that you can’t reach till you acquire the appropriate brush power, and you’ll have to make another pass later.

If you’re thinking that all this sounds a little like Zelda, you’re correct. But Okami compares favorably with any of the recent Zelda games, even when it borrows from them. Amaterasu travels with a fairy companion named Issun whose enthusiasm and chipper attitude made me want to squash him underfoot. Like Navi in Ocarina of Time, Issun points out secrets and suggests what to do next, but the help is almost never needed. And as much fun as the Celestial Brush is, it plays the same role as the Ocarina and the magical baton from Wind Waker. There’s even a fishing mini-game. But given that Okami matches and occasionally tops Zelda’s blend of combat, puzzles, and narrative, cries of plagiarism seem wide of the mark. What Okami steals works beautifully, and what it invents works even better.


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