You of assume that by now, everyone with an interest in Ōkami would have played it—after all, it’s been ported to just about every console under the sun since its PS2 debut in 2006. Still, I didn’t play it myself until the PS4 release last year, even though it’s extremely my shit, and a game as important as Ōkami should be as easy to get hold of as possible.
Enter the Nintendo Switch port of of Ōkami HD. With the console selling as well as it is, there are almost certainly Switch owners who haven’t had the chance to play Ōkami before; now they can. Even for those who have played it before, it’s worth double dipping just for the convenience of having Ōkami on a handheld. It’s the sort of classic that you’ll want to revisit often, so being able to take it with you wherever you go is a great thing indeed.
The Switch version also sports some new touchscreen controls, which seem only natural for a game that involves a large amount of painting shapes onto the world around you. Amaterasu, the wolf-shaped sun goddess at the centre of Ōkami, carries the power of the Celestial Brush, allowing her to paint objects into existence—they key to solving the game’s numerous puzzles.
In almost all the previous releases, you’d do this by holding down a button to pause the game and bring up the brush, and then paint whatever you want to paint with the controller’s analog stick. It worked well enough, and it never felt like the controls were getting in the way, but this setup always felt somewhat detached from what it was trying to represent. The Wii version’s motion controls brought things closer to “real” painting but still didn’t quite get there.
On Switch, Ōkami HD‘s touchscreen makes the Celestial Brush feel more natural than ever. You simply touch the screen, the game pauses and jumps into painting mode, and then you draw what you want to draw. It’s much the same as the button controls on a functional level, but the added tactile element and removal of one layer of abstraction makes it so much more successful at conveying the sense of actually painting. It goes a long way.
There’s still the option of using the traditional button controls if you prefer. In some ways, the buttons are more precise, simply because you can fine-tune your brush positioning before actually dropping the ink into the world. In other ways, the touchscreen feels more precise—it’s a lot easier to draw a neat, accurate circle with your finger than with with an analog stick, for instance. The good news is that and it isn’t an either/or situation—you can simply use what feels most appropriate in the moment.
The Switch version of Ōkami HD also looks better than ever. I feel like I say this a lot, but the console’s screen really shows colours and inky blacks well, which suits Ōkami perfectly. Its sumi-e inspired art style is one of the most defining things about it, and the Switch really shows that off. It also benefits from the smaller screen, which makes all the heavy linework look crisp and clean. The PS4 version could look slightly blurry at times—not to a point of distraction, but noticeable—but I haven’t seen anything of the sort on Switch.
Beneath all that, Ōkami HD on Switch is still the same brilliant game it’s been on every other console. Set in ancient Japan, it’s something of a retelling of the legends of the sun goddess Amaterasu, who is said to have painted the landscape into being. One of the best-known legends of Japanese antiquity is that of Amaterasu’s feud with her brother Susano’o: enraged at losing a contest, Susano’o rampaged across the land, prompting Amaterasu to go into hiding out of grief. She took the sun with her, plunging the world into darkness until the pair could reconcile.
Ōkami reimagines that tale, and sees Amaterasu travelling across Japan to fight back against the darkness, though this time the source of the darkness is the demon Yamato-no-Orochi. Susano’o, this time around, is a bumbling idiot who is far from the great warrior he thinks himself to be, but he nonetheless plays a crucial role in fighting off the darkness. Other familiar names from Japanese folklore also show up: the blossom princess Sakuya-hime, the tiny Issun-bōshi, and Queen Himiko, to name but a few—all with a fresh design and a modern take on their respective legends.
That’s laced through a tight action-adventure game that closely resembles The Legend of Zelda, at least structurally. Your progress through Ōkami‘s vision of ancient Japan is tied largely to the accrual of abilities—Amaterasu’s various Celestial Brush patterns, in this case—which in turn affect how you can interact with the environment around you. Dungeons especially play off those abilities, and tend to follow a particular theme or be designed primarily around a specific Brush power.
It’s easy to write those comments off as being representative of action-adventure games as a whole, and there’s an element of truth to that, though perhaps that speaks more to Zelda‘s influence on the genre. But Ōkami‘s Zelda influence runs deeper than that: everything from how the dungeons are laid out, to the way abilities are designed and used, to the collection of “Sun Fragments” as a means of increasing health calls to Nintendo’s iconic series specifically to mind. I don’t say this to accuse Ōkami of copying Zelda, but to note a clear inspiration—a fact not lost on the developers themselves, who paid obvious homage to Zelda in the little fanfare that plays when you discover a secret.
But for all its structural similarity, Ōkami pushes the boundaries in terms of storytelling and art design in a way that Zelda never has. It takes that framework and launches off it to explore a world of mythology that too few games seem interested in touching. It takes those wondrous stories of ancient Japan, otherwise confined to significant but admittedly inaccessible old tomes, and revitalises them for a modern audience. People joke that Ōkami is the best Zelda game ever made, but it’s more than that—it’s one of the best and one of the most culturally significant games ever made. And now that it’s on Switch, you can take it with you wherever you go.
|Score: 5 stars|
|Platforms: Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC|
|Release Date: 9 August 2018|
|The publisher supplied a copy of the game for this review.|