Developer: Clover Studio
Format: PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Wii
Poor Ōkami. Capcom tried releasing it three times, and the first two times it didn’t really sell. (I can’t find any sales data for the third go, the HD port on PlayStation 3.) And yet, as I explained several years ago, it’s easily one of the best games ever made.
Ōkami slots into that little sub-genre of “basically The Legend of Zelda made by someone who isn’t Nintendo” (see also: Beyond Good & Evil, 3D Dot Game Heroes, the almost-made-it-onto-this-list Shining Wisdom, etc). You’re plopped into the paws of Amaterasu, the Japanese sun goddess reincarnated as a magical white wolf, and dropped into “Nippon”, a stylised version of ancient Japan. (In fact, the game’s entire plot is a sort of retelling of various Japanese folk tales and Shinto mythology – the idea being that this is what really happened, and the stories known in Japan today are exaggerated, misunderstood Chinese-whisper versions. Obviously it doesn’t work that well if you don’t already know the folklore, but the plotting and characters stand up without that extra layer of knowledge.) “Ammy”, as sidekick Issun calls her, is formidable on her own – fast, agile, and weirdly able to attack with one of a variety of weapons that levitates between her shoulders – but her defining trait, and the game’s central hook, is her wielding of the Celestial Brush.
See, Ōkami is designed to resemble a moving sumi-e painting, that distinctive Japanese style of delicate, flowing watercolours. So when Ammy really needs to pull out all the stops, she gets all meta and turns the screen into an unfinished painting, and you can draw on top of the action before “unpausing” to achieve results. So a basic horizontal line turns into a vicious sword slash, a comedy bomb turns into a giant comedy bomb, you can make water flow from one container to another by linking them – it goes on. It’s a brilliant hook that’s utilised to its utmost and never gets boring.
But what would a great gameplay hook be without a good playground to use it in? Happily, Nippon is one of the best gameworlds ever crafted. Gorgeous to look at, lovely to listen to (I imported the fantastic soundtrack from Japan – 5 CDs! Over 190 tracks!) and stuffed with wonderfully memorable characters and locations. And I mean stuffed. You know how some games pretend you’re at the last bit before you actually are? Ōkami does it three times. And it’s so massive that each time it works. Maybe because you don’t want it to end – Ōkami is one of the true elites, and should be investigated by anyone who calls themselves a gamer.