Platform: PlayStation 2
We always knew it would age well, but over six years after its UK launch the PS2 has turned into the Clint Eastwood of the console world, still quietly knocking out classics at a time when its last-generation peers have quietly retired to a life of inactivity bar the occasional EA or Activision franchise update. Impressively Okami is only one of a series of exclusive heavy hitters launching in the UK in the next five months. More impressively, when many so-called next-generation games struggle to make a visual or emotional impression, it’s a game that almost effortlessly does both. So, if you’ve relegated the old Sony system to the attic or kid’s bedroom, then it’s time you reclaimed it right now. It’s time to say hello to the first truly essential game of the year.
The reasons why come down to a winning combination of art and humour. The first is hugely important. The novelty factor of cel shading wore off long ago when even the most basic kiddie racer started using it as a kind of visual statement, but Okami is one of those games that really uses the potential of the technique. Here it invokes both the spirit of classical Japanese scroll painting and a connection with ancient mythology. Its painted world – a rich concoction of ever shifting line and colour – might look strange in still images but – believe me – it’s stunning in motion. There are times when the game’s huge flourishes of camera movement or bursting colour are practically overwhelming in a way many more technically advanced titles can only dream of. The visual style is a brilliant way to bring a world of ancient folklore to life, but only one of many things that makes Okami so special.
You see, in this game the paintbrush isn’t just the inspiration for the look, but also the game’s signature weapon. To make the explanation as brief as possible – something you wish the interminable intro movie would have done – you play the Japanese sun god Amaritsu, incarnate in the form of a white wolf, and set on banishing the demon Orochi back into the darkness from whence he came. Despite his naturalistic four-legged form and subsequent lack of opposable thumbs, Amaritsu proves a dab hand with a range of celestial weapons, but none is the equal of his world-changing paintbrush. At nearly any point in the game, you can press the R1 button to hold the screen in a monochrome stasis, then use a stick-controlled cursor to paint elegant strokes onto the frozen image. Different strokes and shapes have different powers; some slash defenceless enemies or obstructive rocks in half, others bring trees into bloom or repair broken bridges. Others still create bombs, summon floating lily-pads or draw vines which hoist Amaritsu high into the air. In effect, the paintbrush becomes the equivalent of the various tools Link finds in the Zelda games, enabling our hero to reach new areas, solve specific puzzles and even defeat the most fearsome monsters just when it looks like all hope is lost.