As the sun begins to set on the Nintendo DS, and portable gaming enthusiasts begin to compile their lists of notable late-generation titles, it would be unwise to not include Ōkamiden, Capcom’s sequel to the critically favored Ōkami (released for the PlayStation 2 in 2006 and later remade for the Wii in 2008). With a striking visual presence, clever stylus controls, and thoughtful level design, the game signifies the best of Zelda-inspired adventure without straightforward regurgitation. Ōkamiden’s own sense of identity, in fact, is what truly shines here, and it’s sure to pluck a few heartstrings as it gracefully charts its course, oblivious to current events that shape the country and people it quietly represents.
While taking its cues from the calligraphy-based gameplay of its predecessor, Ōkamiden is its own beast, really. “Beast” may be too strong of a descriptor, however, since the main character is actually a cute-as-a-puppy puppy named Chibiterasu, offspring of wolf deity Amaterasu, the protagonist of the first game. Set nine months after the events in Ōkami, the country of “Nippon”—its analogue inferred but never explicitly represented—is in danger of again becoming shrouded in darkness by an army of evil demons, though this time the task seems even more daunting now that “Ammy” has departed and “Chibi” must fill her paws. Along the way, Chibi teams up with equally un-savior-like kin, like the headstrong but insecure Kuni, son of an infamous swordsman claiming to descend from warriors, though few believe it. The narrative, while banal on its surface, actually contains an important and inspiring message of legacy and responsibility; while fate is indeed an always-turning wheel of inevitability, actions of good and the rewards they create are the most pure when they come from the self.
Carrying over the Sumi-e style of ink-and-paint graphics that made Ōkami such a visual knockout, Ōkamiden’s ambitious attempt to recreate their colorful splendor is impressive on a handheld (especially a veteran like the DS), but not perfect. The soft edges synonymous with watercolors are lost on screens with lower resolution, and the sense of epic scale that the developers were trying to achieve struggles a bit; Nippon seems oddly claustrophobic and cramped, even when vast stretches of land and sea are presented to the player. Chibi, however, is always adorable, and the supporting cast of allies and enemies exhibit inspired design and move with fluid and infectious personality. Indeed, the entire game brims with light affability, a quality that fails to escape awkwardness even in the best Zelda games.
Ōkamiden just isn’t that concerned with self-serious reputation or moodiness, and surprising touches of humor are everywhere, from the anime-inspired emoticons and one-liners punctuating dramatic cut-scenes to the detail of a button anus on Chibi’s character model. Yet nothing about it feels forced or distasteful.
The largest defining component of Ōkamiden’s experience involves the “celestial brush” gameplay, used throughout the game as the means with which Chibi and his various partners interact with the game’s tightly constructed dungeons and battle monsters. The stylus and touchscreen are used exclusively for this purpose, and players pause the action and paint their own calligraphy directly over the screen in order to, for instance, damage foes by brushing a horizontal stripe over them, or restore decayed and broken objects by tracing an imaginary outline of what the object would look like if whole. The addition of the passive, uncontrollable partner also results in new escort-like sequences that involve guiding them to treasures and switches by plotting a projected path for them to follow with your brush. This mechanic, unfortunately, slows down the action-inclined pace of the game more than it should, and continually stopping to make quick strokes and shapes with the stylus created a little unwanted repetition and hand-position finagling that I never fully got used to (especially since Chibi is controlled with the D-pad and face buttons).
But seeing the immediate feedback on the world that my drawing produced is the kind of phenomenological delight that the DS is made for, and the best DS games understand and utilize this concept without exploiting it. Ōkamiden flirts with that line, but thankfully never crosses it.
Steeped in history but not bogged down by it, Ōkamiden is a grandiose adventure that also manages to remain chipper and airy, despite the slightly repetitive nature of its mechanics and collection-heavy side quests. And while it is the next best thing to a new portable Zelda, that isn’t exactly a fair comparison, since Ōkamiden has a style and craftsmanship all its own. It’s impossible to weigh the game without using that scale, but the value derived from it is truly its own.