Friday, September 29, 2006

Okami Impressions

I just finished Okami, the latest title from Clover Studio, and I must say that I’m very impressed. It’s been a long time since I’ve played a game that has really drawn me in (the last being Sony’s excellent God of War), so it’s a testament to the game’s quality that I clocked in over 50 hours in a week. Read on for a full review.

Loosely based upon Japanese legend, the game casts you as Amaterasu, the Japanese sun goddess, manifested in the body of a luminous white wolf. The opening cutscene tells the tale of Amaterasu’s battle with Orochi, an eight-headed demon, and his eventual defeat. Having barely overpowered him, Amaterasu dies of her wounds. The game itself begins a century later as the 100th anniversary of his defeat nears. Orochi has made his return, and Amaterasu is summoned back to life to stop his return to power.

The most striking element of Okami is its visuals. The Viewtiful Joe series has made Clover known for their cel shaded graphics, and this game continues the trend. However, instead of the bright colors and cartoony graphics that denote most cel shaded games, Clover opted to make Okami look like a moving Japanese watercolor. The game is an absolute treat to behold: the characters and environments are wonderfully stylized, and the colors even go so far as to have that slightly uneven look, as if slightly more paint has collected in certain areas than others. If there ever was a list of games that prove video games are art, this title would be on it. The game’s animation is equally excellent, especially in Amaterasu, whose movements wonderfully capture the grace and power of a wolf. The visuals do have their down side, but it’s very minor: the frame rate can get extremely choppy at times, but never when anything important is happening, so it’s more a blow to the aesthetic experience than to gameplay.

Having been gone for so long, Amaterasu has lost the majority of her powers, which she gradually regains. This brings us to one of the game’s most interesting mechanics: painting. To wield her power Amaterasu uses the celestial brush, which allows her to paint upon the world. From simple lines for slashes, to looping gusts of wind, a large portion of the game is accomplished through the player’s brushwork. Whenever a puzzle presents itself, it’s almost always solved through creative use of the brush. As the game proceeds, Amaterasu collects various brushstrokes to regain her lost powers, usually conveniently helping her with a puzzle that can’t be beaten without it. In this way, it’s a lot like the Ocarina of Time from Nintendo’s eponymous Zelda title. It feels a lot better, though. While the Ocarina makes you push an arbitrary and often hard to remember series of buttons, all of the brushstrokes are very organic and easy to remember. They’re also (for the most part), wonderfully intuitive, making the mechanic a joy to use.

The similarities to Zelda don’t end with the brush. Though the game has a few novel twists of its own, such as collecting praise to restore Amaterasu’s powers, the game is laid out in a way that’s very similar to the 3D Zelda titles: the game is organized into a series of towns and dungeons connected by a larger overworld. The main world is one of the elements where Okami exceeds Zelda: where the maps in Ocarina and Wind Waker were largely empty and sterile, Okami’s are teeming with life, including both people and animals. Amaterasu’s Japan feels alive. Unfortunately, the dungeons leave something to be desired. They’re very small, and the game tells you how to solve all of their puzzles almost immediately. As a result, the player doesn’t feel much of a sense of accomplishment after completing one.

The game’s combat also leaves something to be desired. The controls are excellent and the enemies are gorgeous (each is based off of a mythological Japanese monster), but the combat itself is simply too easy: most fights can be completed without taking a single hit. There’s also not much incentive to keep fighting; Amaterasu’s progression is driven mostly by things like good deeds, so all you get out of battling is a bit of money. The bosses, however, are an exception to this problem. Not only are they enormous and spectacular, but they require you to creatively use your brush skills. Each boss fight is something to look forward to.

Despite all of its flaws, the game is still fantastic. The world is full of things to see and do, the characters are endearing, the gameplay is novel, and the visuals are simply stunning. If you like games of the Zelda persuasion, you should definitely pick this one up.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Numbers Game

The gaming world has been agog after Sony's recent announcements that the European PS3 launch will be delayed and that launch figures will be lower than expected, but the numbers themselves are of more interest to me. At 400,000 units, the North American territories will be getting four times Japan's allotment of 100,000 systems. Considering Sony's usual "Japan first" modus operandi for console launches, this is curious.

There are a lot of potential reasons for their sudden change of heart, the first of which is the shift is purely a strategic move. Microsoft, the company they see as their chief competitor, is floundering in Japan, with weekly Xbox 360 sales averaging at around 1,200 units versus the PS2's comparatively strong 20,000. In the United States, however, Microsoft is doing quite well, meaning Sony will be going up against an entrenched opponent. In that case, it makes sense for Sony to attack where its opponent is strongest, while giving the bare minimum of attention to the areas where its dominance remains largely unchallenged. This is a fairly mundane theory, but it still raises some interesting questions. What will happen in Japan? It's fairly clear that Japanese gamers are just as unhappy about the PS3's price as the rest of the world. Will they respond to getting the short end of the stick by buying more 360s, or will the first shipment placate them until Sony can send more?

A second theory is that a tectonic shift in market importance. It's been said that, with shrinking video game sales in Japan, that America become their most important market. If this is the case, you have to wonder how much water the usual "Sony will win because they have the Japanese developers" argument holds now. How much sway will the Square-Enixes and Konamis of the industry have if their audience has shifted westward? Will the likes of Electronic Arts and Ubisoft take their place as Sony's most important developers?

Finally, the move could be a concession to Nintendo. Since the move into 3D, successive generations have largely offered the same games, just with better graphics. Some have theorized that the Japanese video game slump is the result of too much of the same thing, which is why Nintendo's innovative DS has been pummeling Sony's more powerful PSP. The Wii, with its unorthodox controller, is an extension of the philosophy that spawned the DS. It's unlikely, but maybe Sony isn't sure that PS3's brute force strategy can break the ennui which has gripped Japanese gamers.

It'll be interesting to see if Sony's reasoning will become more readily apparent, and what it means for the industry. No matter what the cause is, it's sure to have some interesting effects.