Not all great games are built to last. Okami was considered an instant classic when it launched back in 2006 but, now that Okami HD has arrived on the Nintendo Switch, the question is whether or not Capcom's godly epic has stood the test of time.
Nostalgia can be a tricky thing. Have you ever gone back to watch a movie you loved when you were a kid only to discover it wasn't actually all that great? That's why many folks prefer to hold on to their fond memories rather than risk having them tarnished by a return visit many years later. That's exactly why it has taken me 12 years to revisit Okami. It was not only my favorite game of 2006, I had it pegged as one of the best games of all time. So when the HD remasters started popping up on every platform known to man, I decided to hold tight to my memories rather than chance disappointment.
Then, two weeks ago, a review copy for Okami HD on the Nintendo Switch showed up in my inbox. "Well," I thought. "I suppose there's no avoiding it this time. Here's hoping I'm not about to have a pair of rose-tinted glasses smacked off of my face."
I was relieved to learn within the first hour of playing that Okami is one of those rare games that was truly built to last. Sure, this latest remaster boasts some seriously impressive enhanced visuals and a handful of fun Switch-specific upgrades but, otherwise, Okami HD is the same game it was 12 years ago, and that same game is still a masterpiece today.
Playing as the wolf god Amaterasu (Ammy), you are tasked with traveling the lands of Nippon in order to expel darkness and eventually overthrow a demon lord. Along the way, you'll run into an impressive cast of charming characters, take part in mini-games aplenty, collect useful items and treasures, learn new skills and so, so much more.
Your companion on this quest is Issun, a minuscule traveling artist who hangs out with Ammy like a talkative flea. Since Ammy never speaks herself, Issun serves as an interpreter of sorts, relaying information to other characters and the player through his never-ending banter.
With your chatty pal on hand to help explain new mechanics or lead you toward points of interest, the lands of Nippon soon unfurl before you, brought to life in a gorgeous cell-shaded art style that took me by surprise time and time again. I need to stress the fact that I've already played through Okami but, even still, the game managed to catch me off guard many times with just how beautiful it is. Combine the bright and colorful visuals with an absolutely glorious soundtrack and Okami remains a feast for the senses.
The story itself is pretty linear but that's counterbalanced by big, open sections of the map you can explore and a massive number of things to discover. When you're not too busy battling baddies, tackling wonderfully-designed bosses or closing off demon gates, you'll spend dozens of hours digging up treasures, uncovering hidden caves, fishing, helping other characters with side missions or interacting with the world in all sorts of creative ways.
Beating at the heart of Okami is a mechanic I'm amazed other developers haven't tried to ape in the past decade, the Celestial Brush. Given the fact that the world of Okami looks like a Japanese painting come to life, it's fitting that your key ability is to literally paint items and events into existence. Draw a slash across an enemy and they'll take damage. Sketch a circle in the sky and the sun will appear. You can use a looping line to stir up a gust of wind or paint circles onto water to create lily pads.
You'll have more than a dozen brush techniques at your disposal before the game wraps up and the developer did a great job of integrating them into everything from exploration to combat. It's an amazing way to interact with the game, and the Switch is even better suited to these mechanics than any other platform to date. You can still paint strokes using the analog stick or, in portable mode, you can simply use the touchscreen for even more precise control. My favorite way to play the game, though, is with a Joy-Con in each hand. It takes a bit of practice to get the hang of but, once you learn to keep your hand steady, it's a hell of a lot of fun to physically draw your desired shape in the air and see it appear on the screen.
While these brush techniques are an important part of exploration and combat, Okami offers plenty of other ways to build Ammy into a character worthy of her godly status. You'll learn all sorts of new fighting techniques throughout your journey, as well as pick up a variety of weapons and gear to make you even stronger in combat. Figuring out which techniques work best on the ever-increasing variety of demon enemies is a lot of fun, creating a reward loop that makes you truly feel like you're growing in power.
There's a whole lot to uncover in Okami and one of my favorite aspects of the game is how your progress is represented visually. I'm one of those people who like to see an "In" pile on my desk become an "Out" pile. While I might not enjoy cleaning the house, for instance, being able to look around afterward and see the difference a few hours of work has made is hugely gratifying.
Okami does this by literally breathing life into the world Ammy and Issun are fighting to save. When your adventure first begins, most of the beauty has been choked out of Nippon, leaving it a bland landscape of yellow grass, muddy water and bare trees. When you clear out enough enemies, destroy a demon gate or topple a boss, you're rewarded by an animation that shows life returning to the world around you. Trees sprout leaves, crystal clear water washes away the pollution and an oppressive cloud of evil energy is replaced by blue skies. Keep exploring and you'll find additional trees or patches of evil earth you can paint life back into, animals to feed and more. Each time you complete a task, more beauty is returned to the world and, eventually, each section of the map will look like a big, colorful list of chores that has had every item crossed off.
When I first started playing Okami HD, I was worried that I was about to become a victim of nostalgia. A lot has changed in the world of video games in the past 12 years, so I had trouble believing even a game I recalled so fondly would prove to be just as good today as it was two console generations ago. But it turns out Okami is one of those games that was truly built to last. All it needed was a fresh coat of paint and it's suddenly just as powerful an experience today as it was more than a decade ago. If this latest Switch port was the first appearance of the game, I truly believe it would be a contender for game of the year. Stacked up against some impressive modern juggernauts, that's saying a lot for a game that originally launched back in 2006.
This review based on a download copy of the game provided by the publisher.