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Okamiden (DS) artwork

Okamiden (DS) review


"The game’s structure most closely resembles something that you’d expect to find in The Legend of Zelda. There’s a general overworld, with fields and mountain pathways, forests and beaches. That world connects a number of small towns, shrines and dungeons. You start with only a handful of locations that you can visit, but later in the game you’ll be able to wander the map freely as you search every nook and cranny for the numerous collectibles secreted throughout the land. The overworld is a delight to explore, neither too large nor too simple for its own good, but the real attraction is the game’s assortment of dungeons."



I have a long history with Okami, the highly praised title from the ill-fated but highly skilled development team at Clover Studio, but none of that history has anything to do with the process of actually playing the game. I’ve owned the title twice now, once for PlayStation 2 and now for Wii, but I’ve not played so much as a single second of it. Ridiculously, that means that the first hands-on experience I’ve had with the legend of Amaterasu, the wolf-shaped goddess, was the experience of playing through the handheld sequel, Okamiden.

My lack of experience with the first game wound up perhaps working in my favor, though, because the story that Okamiden tells is not the story of Amaterasu. Instead, the hero is Chibiterasu (or “Chibi” for short). Chibi is only a puppy, but the land of Nippon needs him just as much as it once needed Amaterasu. Evil has washed over the land and the people find their lives shrouded in darkness. A fearsome evil is attempting to completely ruin everything that’s good and decent. Only a white puppy with curious red markings and his similarly cute friends can hope to wipe the fearsome menace from the land.

Sorry for the dramatics, but they’re warranted. Despite being a handheld game that features an adorable puppy and some kids who barely seem large enough to heft a sword (let alone abolish evil), Okamiden tells a surprisingly involving tale. Chibi is a likeable hero who looks much like your favorite canine might. He pants, licks people who need comforting, pounces about playfully and wags his tail furiously when mischief is on his mind. The artists rendered him in a traditional Japanese watercolor style, so that bold lines delineate the pint-sized pup, yet he’s full of personality that belies the visual simplicity. Numerous scenes throughout the lengthy tale are sure to produce a smile or--when the time is right--perhaps even a tear. I honestly can’t recall the last time a game’s story left me feeling this emotionally attached to its characters. It really caught me by surprise when such a cute game was the one to accomplish that.

A lot of the attachment probably comes down to the relationship that plot and gameplay enjoy. Chibi’s gestures can only go so far, and the developers realized as much. Therefore, you’re frequently paired with a companion. Each of those companions has his or her own story and together you will work to resolve each narrative strand. There’s the young boy with a mysterious past who leaves his tiny village to find out more about who he is, the mermaid who seems to know more about Chibi than Chibi himself does, the child actress who is running from a future as a powerful magic user, a brash young fellow who has the confidence of ten grown men and an attraction to words that don’t fit feudal Japan at all and a young lad who grows faint at the mere thought of going too long without food. As Chibi, you’ll join up with those characters multiple times throughout your journey and usually wind up exploring a dungeon or two along the way.

The game’s structure most closely resembles something that you’d expect to find in The Legend of Zelda. There’s a general overworld, with fields and mountain pathways, forests and beaches. That world connects a number of small towns, shrines and dungeons. You start with only a handful of locations that you can visit, but later in the game you’ll be able to wander the map freely as you search every nook and cranny for the numerous collectibles secreted throughout the land. The overworld is a delight to explore, neither too large nor too simple for its own good, but the real attraction is the game’s assortment of dungeons.

When you enter a dungeon, prepare for some puzzle solving. There will be a handful of enemies throughout each area and probably a fearsome boss at the end, but mostly you’ll just need to use your brain as you work closely with your partner to negotiate winding passages. That allows you to form a connection to them that goes beyond the lines of dialog that they produce during downtime. Maps of the dungeons that you must clear are thankfully available right from the start, so you don’t have to worry about getting lost. Just keep pressing onward and keep pressing switches to reveal new paths forward. In that sense Okamiden can become somewhat predictable, but the developers made the regular process interesting enough that it is seldom tedious. You know that the way forward probably involves a switch of some sort, but getting to the next switch rarely requires the same technique that you used to get to a previous one. You’ll have to rely on ingenuity and magic.

Magic plays a key role in Okamiden. As a god in training, you are equipped with the Celestial Brush that your ancestor made famous. At nearly any point in the game, whether in battle or just facing an obstruction of some sort, you can press the ‘L’ or ‘R’ button to turn the bottom screen into your canvas as you draw brush strokes that produce magical effects on-screen. As long as you have the ink and have learned the skills, you can produce vines that pull you to distant ledges, summon up whirlwinds to blow back your competitors, produce magnetic energy that pulls objects together (or repels them) and--perhaps most frequently--slash with mystical energy that even the strongest of armor can scarcely hope to deflect. The stylus is your weapons, the dungeons your stage.

For the most part, Okamiden presents its qualities competently. Those who have been playing DS games for a while should have little difficulty controlling Chibi as he wanders around the various dungeons, or as he battles some memorable bosses that one would hardly expect from such an unassuming title. There’s no adjustable camera, but that seldom is an issue because you almost always see everything that you might wish to see in each environment. Occasionally you might find yourself running in a circle so that you can bring a foe on-screen when you’re going head-to-head with someone more fearsome than the usual crew, but such instances are unlikely to prove fatal because this is a game designed for gamers both young and old. Moments that are likely to cause frustration are few and far between and the challenge level is such that for most this will be a relaxing tour of glorious Nippon.

As the Nintendo DS winds down and its successor takes over, the platform is unlikely to see many more games that match the general quality of Okamiden. Here is a satisfying adventure that makes only the most necessary of concessions to its platform, a robust adventure that should keep you entertained and delighted for more than 20 hours. If you let it work its magic, you’ll leave the experience like I did: pleased and thinking that maybe it’s time to play Okami and meet up with Amaterasu.

Rating: 9/10

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Staff review by Jason Venter (April 18, 2011)

Jason Venter founded HonestGamers in 1998, and since then has written hundreds of reviews as the site's editor-in-chief. He also is a prolific freelancer with game reviews, articles and fiction available around the Internet.

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