Monday, September 26, 2011

Poor Okamiden...


Yeah, I’m still here. I’ve just been busy.

Kurow is full of weird slang.
While the list of recent games that interests me has been dwindling this year, the urge to write about the ones I have played hasn’t lost its will at all. I’m well aware that I still owe this little space quite a few blogs too, it’s just a matter of my finding the time to bang them out. One of the games that I have been playing off and on over the past few months is Okamiden, the portable sequel to Clover Studio’s 2006 Zelda-killer (which if you regularly keep up with me---was a successful ‘assasination’ in my eyes)[1]. The title for this post is apt because this game will be the middle child in what I’m assuming for the series’s future. I completed the little adventure last night and I was quite impressed with it.

What surprised me is that even with no immediate title to pointlessly compare it to, I couldn’t help feeling that upon completion, Okami as a potential franchise just zapped away a bit more of the small reservoir of love that I have for the Zelda series. It’s surprising to me because Okamiden is not a game without its flaws. It’s riddled with shortcomings and questionable decisions left and right, but still managed to intrigue me as a game even more than Skyward Sword probably will (which I’ve decided to skip until I’m home for the holidays). The question there becomes why?

Well it wasn’t that hard to figure out after immediately completing it, as the game’s conclusion is as satisfying as its predecessor---but starkly more depressing. Even in comparison with more high-profile AAA games with focus on narrative, the game deals with its own in a surprisingly mature manner. This is the biggest and most obvious thing that I took away from both Okami and Okamiden. It actually cares about the little tale it’s presenting whereas the likes of Nintendo only cares about its franchise’s continuity to the extent that they can tease fans and keep it as vague as humanly possible as to not risk compromising things as ridiculous as its timeline’s continuity (all while appealing to the fanbase’s every whim) [2].

I’ve never been one to spare people details just for the sake of avoiding spoilers, but if you’re trying to keep things fresh in terms of Okamiden, you may want to stop reading here.

So the most famous thing about Okamiden is that a main character dies at the end. Kurow, a living doll made by a Moon Tribe member (who was prominent in the first title) makes a small doll in his image; Kurow is then sent down from the moon and immediately befriends Chibiterasu (the main character and son of Okami’s main heroine, Amaterasu). What was surprising about Kurow is that in reality he was a MAJOR player in the overall game. It’s arguable that the player will spend even more of their time with Kurow on Chibiterasu’s back rather than Kuni (son of the first game’s Susano and the small child featured prominently on all the game’s advertising). That leads into another discussion on the games treatment of its partner characters. Chibiterasu befriends five children who all play major roles in his adventures during the game:

Kagu – A brash young girl who participates in theatre acting as a passion, but is also ashamed of being a powerful Miko practitioner.
Nanami – A young mermaid who the player meets chronologically before she actually first appears in the game proper.
Manpuku – A portly boy looking for his mother in the past who has a distinct weakness for eating.
Kurow – The eccentric ‘doll’ sent from the moon. He talks and carries himself in the same style as Okami’s Ushiwaka.
Kuni – Susano’s adopted son who is captured after the second boss battle for the entirety of the game.

The game weaves these five together as well as a game of its nature will allow, even going so far as to repeat the time-travel thematic that the first game used so ‘epically’. This is the most defining characteristic and difference I can ascribe between Okami and Okamiden. The former was a massive and epic adventure encompassing a narrative that worked on multiple scales. Okamiden is about a third of its predecessor’s size (going off my own playtime as Okami took sixty hours for me to complete my first time through; Okamiden took around twenty five), and made more use of thematic mechanics in terms of how its story unfolded. Not only that, but it makes use of subtlety to hammer home those themes too. The best example I can think of to describe that is the appearance of the ‘Goryeo’ from the first game[3].  What was a sunken ship in the first title is a thriving vessel in Okamiden, filled with people and doubling as a sort of mini-dungeon. As its arc draws to a close however, a sea dragon appears and attacks the ship. Instead of the expected boss battle with the dragon,  the captain and its members proudly lecture Chibiterasu and Kurow on the responsibility meant for them both and forces them off to complete their own journey. 

As Kurow carries a crying Chibiterasu off (who is upset because he wants to help the ship’s crewmembers who are facing dire odds), one can make out the ship being dragged violently underwater by the serpent. Granted, some of its members do survive and can be met later, but the way in which the scene dealt with the concept of loss was unexpected for a portable game of this type, and as far as I know there was no indication at all that the crew as a whole survived, so you’re left to accept the death of a number of people you just recently met.

The things that really work against the game are the reason I almost stopped playing halfway through myself. Technically, the game is inferior to its PS2 counterpart. There’s only so much a portable game will be able to accomplish so that much was obvious. Aesthetically, it’s just as charming, but not as surprising as the first game. This means that novelty that was present in the first game is now lost in a game that is technically hindered as well being only a supplement in terms of its own aesthetic originality. The difficulty of the game is not to be overlooked either, as one will probably make their way through the entire game being able to count their total number of deaths on a single hand. There’s only so much sense of accomplishment one can glean from a game when it’s as easy as this, and that ends up working against it. The celestial brush techniques are varied, but don’t deviate that much from the first game and only enjoy the DS’s more-suited touch screen functionality at best. The game generally relies too much on retreading mechanics, themes, and areas from the first game without (or only minimally) garnering appreciation for each. As much as I appreciated the double trip to two different sections of Nippon’s past, we did do the exact same thing in Okami too---we didn’t need a checklist crossed off in terms of ‘cool stuff we should just do again’.

So the first ten hours was me fighting that last paragraph in its entirety, but the latter fifteen or so let the young characters shine and Okami’s original game mechanics take center stage in an admirable fashion easily worthy of its big PS2 brother. The music is just as lovely as it was before and it more than anything else---breathes new life into the old areas the player will traverse again[4]. Given the somber conclusion of Okamiden (Kuni is denounced as a son by his father and leaves home to learn about his past), both Kuni and Chibiterasu could easily appear in a grander fashion on a more powerful console.

Okamiden makes me enthralled to think about what could be done with a new PS3 iteration, but at the same time I don’t even think it would be worth it at this point either [5]. Gamers have proven that they don’t really want (nor do they deserve) it.

1. There’s a in-depth post in there somewhere, but in order to capture it accurately, but I’d have to play both Okami again and a Zelda of my choosing (probably Ocarina of Time) to figure out why I’m so intent on Okami proving Zelda’s unequivocal failure. As it stands, I’ve enjoyed the first Okami title more than I have any one Zelda game.

2. Nintendo has spoken on this countless times, but the most recent instance I’ve read is in this month’s Game Informer where Zelda’s series producer states outright that they purposefully keep the series continuity and narrative downplayed because otherwise they’d have to give it priority comparable to the game’s mechanical design (which is about the laziest damn thing I’ve heard).

3. Okami Wikia – Sunken Ship [ http://goo.gl/GI9mE ]

4. Check out ‘Evil King Supression’ – Okami’s Final Boss theme [ http://goo.gl/PNHw9 ]

5. Okami was in the Guinness Book of World records for being the least commercially successful game to win a ‘Game of the Year’ award. It failed to break 1 million in sales even including a 2nd release (the PS2 and the Wii).