Some games don’t get sequels, no matter how patiently we wait. We didn’t get another ICO, we didn’t get another Final Fantasy VII (though many of us are still hoping for a remake), and after playing Okamiden, the long-awaited handheld offshoot to one of Capcom’s most remarkable properties, gamers will find themselves waiting some more.
That’s not to say that Okamiden isn’t a good game. This handheld iteration is, if nothing else, amusing. But the overall package—the good, the bad, and the seriously ugly—is not as impressive as it might have been seven years ago when the Nintendo DS first came out.
For those who have barely touched their DS, this may not be much of a problem. Like the PS2 and Nintendo Wii original, Okamiden provides the player with complete access to a paintbrush tool (called the Celestial Brush) that can be used to color the world. But instead of spray-painting walls (as in Jet Set Radio), revitalizing decayed environments (as in Epic Mickey), or removing sludge/paint from the islands of Super Mario Sunshine, Okamiden allows you to attack, influence, and enhance the world with the simple stroke of a paintbrush.
Or, more specifically, the simple stroke of a finger or stylus across the bottom screen of the DS. This gameplay element makes Okamiden instantly cool, charismatic, and unmistakably irresistible. If you've never experienced anything like this before, you'll be won over for hours.
However, if you have played a game like this before (namely Okami, but either of the handheld Zelda games will do), Okamiden might come across as more of a chore than a work of art to be cherished.
In theory, the gameplay is remarkable. Players control a lone wolf, Chibiterasu, who just happens to be the descendant of Amaterasu. He’s quick, loyal, and has been placed in a world with a more immerse camera than The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. The camera is low and pleasantly angled behind Okamiden. But while it's possible to swing the camera around in games like N64 and Nintendo DS versions of the fifteen-year-old Mario 64, for example, there is no such feature available in Okamiden. Thus, when it’s time to backtrack, players will have to endure a stiff camera that makes it appear as if our four-legged friend is running toward the screen. Unfortunately, backtracking is as common in this game as lawsuits are at Activision, so you’ll be running toward the screen a lot.
But wait—now I need to backtrack. I was about to tell you why the gameplay was theoretically remarkable.
As with the N64, GameCube and Nintendo Wii versions of The Legend of Zelda, Okamiden allows you to battle in a world that’s wholly immerse and entirely in 3D. Jump, dodge enemies, launch simple combo attacks—all the staples of a good action/RPG are here. It’s very impressive to see these features, no matter how trivial, in a Nintendo DS game. The cel-shaded art style, which attempts to mimic the beauty of Okami, is even more impressive. Granted, Okamiden completely fails in this regard (the jagged edges and generic cartoon effects have been seen on the DS before). But this is old hardware, and you can tell that the developers put their hearts and souls into making the game look its best. If you haven’t played some of the system’s finer titles, Okamiden should qualify as a very beautiful game.
It seems that I have gotten sidetracked once more. Now I must backtrack to the gameplay, which, according to mathematical calculations that have yet to be proven (aka a “theory”), should be downright spellbinding. So why isn’t it?
Okamiden’s developers (like most other developers) confuse backtracking and rehashing with gameplay length. Have you ever noticed that the longer an RPG is, the more you have to backtrack? Meanwhile, short action games tend to feature very few moments where you have to retread old environments. This is not a coincidence, and it's a glaring flaw that severely detracts from Okamiden’s potential and appeal.
It is not uncommon for players to go out of their way to step on a switch, only to walk back several steps (or feet) to flip another switch, and then be forced to return to the first one. We've done it before, and any interest that was once there is definitely gone by now.
Aside from the mission-specific moments, when a Crazy Taxi-style arrow is used to point us in the right direction, players are required to journey without any helpful hints. In a larger, more open-ended world, this might be acceptable. But Okamiden isn’t exactly a non-linear adventure. There are obstacles (physical and magical) that will keep players from wandering too far outside current path. The problem is, within these confines is a land full of boring characters that must be spoken to and tiring environments that must be revisited in order to trigger the next step.
Frankly, Okamiden is a game that should have done better. Yes, Okami had its share of repetitive moments, but it also featured one of the most compelling presentations of any game of its time. It was a unique alternative to Zelda. Okamiden is not.
If this review has advertised Okamiden as a bad offshoot, then it should be noted that my comments come more from disappointment than anything else. There are some players who will undoubtedly love Okamiden, either because the flaws (such as backtracking) are not as familiar or because they have the capacity to overlook its myriad mistakes. I wish I could do the same.