Okami deserved better. Clover's 2006 PlayStation 2 classic was loved by a precious few, but a wide majority simply passed it by. It's hard to say where the fault was; "drawing" on the screen to cast spells was an incredibly fresh mechanic, and the sketch-book art direction was (and still is) completely unique. If I had to guess, the misguided Zelda comparisons, awkward pacing, and heavy helping of Japanese culture served as a turn-off for a swath of potential players. Whatever the case, it's a surprise that Capcom, sans Clover, decided to take another stab at the franchise with Okamiden. The DS's touch screen seemed objectively perfect for Okami's signature mechanic, but the other variables, namely how well a new development team would simultaneously iterate on game design and survive a hardware downgrade, were unknown.
Nine months have passed since Amaterasu vanquished Orochi and freed Nippon of corruption. Demons unexpectedly return, but when Ammy is summoned again, a smaller but similar looking wolf, affectionately referred to as Chibiterasu, appears in her place. Issun, recently appointed Celestial Envoy and former partner of Ammy, puts Chibi in motion and sets the stage for another adventure. The general format is the same as before; scour the landscape, meet people, explore towns, complete fetch quests, and conquer dungeons all on your way to vanquishing evil.
Okamiden's narrative could have erred in the way of cheap fan faction (and early on you'll swear it's heading in that direction), but by the time it all unfolded it turned out an interesting, if not unpredictable, ride. Whereas Okami broadcast a more global exposition on the impending apocalypse, Okamiden shifts perspective to tell a more personal point of view from a handful of select characters. Issun occupies Chibi for only a short while, leaving the figurative reigns to a wonderful cast of children. The problems and plights of these kids are all wrapped in familiar parables, but they're played with such an earnest sense of decency and given such great rapport that you can't help but sympathize every time they speak. The path to the end game is indeed focused on saving the world, you just might not realize you're getting there by rescuing a theater troupe or searching for someone's captured mother.
Okamiden's appeal goes a long way on charm. Whether you're wrapped up in Chibi's undeniable cuteness or the hacked together gibberish that serves as dialogue, most everything in the game is sure to enslave your sentimental side. Few games focus on a rampant altruism without coming off as goofy or pandering, but Okamiden managed sincerity in the midst of its relentless cuteness. I did find the cut scenes, of which there were a many, to occasionally drone on and on, but they're all skippable if it becomes a problem.
The Celestial Brush, the means by which Chibi can interact with the environments, has never felt more appropriate. Drawing on the screen with analog sticks was functional but detached, and the Wii port suffered a similar disconnect, but input is really at home on a touch screen. By pressing the DS' stylus right on the screen, the player is granted a more personal connection to the world. Either L or R bumps the top screen down to the bottom, allowing a few moments of drawing time to execute commands. It's not perfect, execution was sometimes prone to error when commands needed to be scribbled toward the edges of the screen, but it felt much less abstract than it had in Okami.
Slight disappointment lies with the realization that you're not doing too many new things with the Celestial Brush. Input is still quite easy as it only requires a dozen or so simple drawings, but nearly each one is borrowed from Okami. A dash across the screen is a slash with a sword, a circle with a wick on top is a cherry bomb, and a cursive lower-case L is a gust of wind. Trying each of Chibi's powers on different enemies is the heart of the strategy, and half the fun is in experimentation. This could apply to combat where one might bloom an enemy oyster and then drop a cherry bomb in the opening, or in the environment with a clever use of the lasso-like vine whip. Okami didn't exactly set the world on fire so it wasn't too bad of an idea to recycle these mechanics, but it does sting a bit for those expecting a true sequel rather than a remixed Okami (not to mention Zelda has taken this approach for years).
Oddly, it's the children that help distinguish Okamiden's gameplay from its predecessor. Each kid comes bundled with a unique ability. Nanami, a mermaid, can cross bodies of water while Kagu can walk over otherwise invisible panels of terrain. These actions are typically accomplished in similar fashion, all you really have to do is dismount the kid and draw a line from A to B, but certain abilities also factor into combat situations I am not willing to spoil. Issun was fine as a foil and mouthpiece for Ammy, but, like the touch screen controls, it felt like better relationships between Chibi and the kids were forged through interaction and dialogue, rather than just the latter.
The remaining bits of Okamiden run the gamut through familiar, albeit smaller, territory. Four-plus years after I dumped forty hours into Okami has left me a little hazy, but I don't remember the expansive fields and winding villages feeling so confined. Chibi's lack of a run button ensures a slightly slower pace through these vistas, further fueling the illusion that they're smaller than they may seem, but a brief period of adjustment eventually gives way to spatial normalcy. The dungeons, on the other hand, are all completely new and built to embrace a compact design. Most play out more like a series of challenges rooms instead of a large, multifaceted arena ripe for backtracking, but the puzzles are generally sound. I did, however, wish there would have been a bit more direction in the over world (I spent forever looking for someone one time)
Combat has also seen significant refinement. Chibi's basic attacks are condensed to a single button and spread across three weapons. A charge move and a few combos may not seem like much, until you remember the slack is covered by the Celestial Brush. Battles increase in complexity with additional powers, but generally they're a breeze. This is in stark contrast to boss fights that seem to solely exist as a canvas for experimentation. There aren't that many, but each and every one requires an outside the box approach and, unlike much else in Okamiden, can be quite difficult.
Okamiden had the daunting task of emulating a graphical style that pushed the PlayStation 2's considerable technical prowess. The sketchbook elegance is preserved with its unmistakable style, and while a lot of detail is lost to lesser hardware, certain elements did persevere (the swirls of wind in the background and Chibi's trail of flowers, to name a few). For a three-dimensional DS game it actually looks pretty damn good, and, with a camera that's almost always on rails, it actually doesn't control poorly with a d-pad. The frame rate dipped into the twenties when the screen was especially congested, but it's not something that happened too often. The music traded heavily on nostalgia from Okami - meaning I wasn't quite able to tell whether it was borrowed, sampled, or remixed, but it was definitely familiar.
Okamiden's intended audience presents an interesting thought exercise. Fans of Okami might seem like the obvious target, though they might be disappointed to learn that Okamiden is more of a lateral step than a true sequel. Younger players might seem to go hand in hand with the more juvenile atmosphere, but the difficult bosses and generally (compared to more simple games, at least) advanced techniques may go over their head. Ideally, I feel that Okamiden would be perfect for seasoned gamers who missed out on Okami the first time; now's your time to make amends and enjoy a great game that genuinely strived to blend old and new and create a divergent experience. In any case I found myself voraciously consuming its content, as it, even as an Okami reprise, filled a slot occupied by a precious few.