The 'Shroom:Issue LIX/Crocodile Style Reviews
So I renamed my section to something with a little more personality. Just a little, though; don't want to blow your minds with my inhuman ability to come up with the most amazing and witty names known to mankind. Hopefully the change won't be too confusing, but at least now I don't have to worry about people looking at "Non-Marioverse Review" and saying "It’s not Mario? Then fuck that!"
An appeal from your dear old Crocodile Man: If you remember, Psychonauts was the very first review I ever did for the 'Shroom. It was an OK start for me, but even now I'm still getting the hang of reviewing... err, but this isn't about me; the development team behind that masterpiece is Double Fine Productions, who have recently started an appeal on Kickstarter to fund a new adventure game project that promises to go back to lead designer Tim Schafer's roots when he was still working with LucasArts (this is a very long link, isn't it?). At the time of writing, they managed to obtain more than one million more than the amount of money they had initially hoped to raise for the project, and 32 days are still left; when this section goes out, there'll still be time left to donate and get nice bonus goodies when the final game comes out in the latter half of the year! It's much like how Radiohead sold their album In Rainbows; donate whatever you want, even if it's just $5. Support a team that were nearly driven to bankruptcy because of the tyranny of Electronic Arts' careless and money-whoring behavior! OK, I'm done with that.
For those of you still reading my section after I spat on everyone's favourite roadkill last month, you'll probably recall me mentioning a little game called Ōkami at the end of my last review; since it's still around Valentine's Day and the amount of releases in January can be counted on a single mutilated paw, I figured I'd review that this month instead to spread my love for the game to everyone and show you all how much of a fickle hipster bastard I am. Oh don't worry it's OK if you haven't heard of the game before, no one else has... except no, you should feel terrible for having never heard of it before and especially terrible for not buying it and thus allowing the game to bomb so hard that the entirety of Clover Studios fell six feet under and left many of its creative staff forced to work on overrated pornographic Devil May Cry rip-offs. It'd be a far more beautiful world if most gamers weren't so busy scrounging at what little they can still get from the brown, salted grounds of the long-standing, popular five-star rated pastures to realize that far greener grass lays in brand new, largely unexplored lands beyond their wildest imagination where even escaped mental patients can mingle with the "normal" people and still be branded geniuses. If you can figure out what that metaphor is supposed to mean then you're doing better than I am, but basically Ōkami rocks and let me tell you exactly why it rocks.
The concept for the game came about when lead designer Hideki Kamiya and his cronies, sick of having rehashed Viewtiful Joe so many times, brainstormed a "nature-themed" game that resulted in a short video demonstration of a white wolf running through a forest with flora magically growing in its wake. Of course this would've been incredibly boring to play, so the team deigned to solve this problem by stuffing the game with as many ideas as they possibly could to eventually give rise to one of the most visually stunning and beautifully conceptualized creations since that giant pavlova in New Zealand. Ōkami takes place in a compacted version of medieval Japan in which all the major towns are a ten minute drive from each other and it's perfectly socially acceptable for people to casually confide in wild animals; you play as Amaterasu the Shinto deity of the sun, reincarnated as a white wolf with burn marks on her flesh – a pun on the title having two entirely different spellings meaning "great God" and "wolf", because that joke is fucking gold in their language – rather than her usual depiction as a beautiful young maiden presumably to avoid nerds trying to get the camera up her dress, not that the internet gives a shit. She is tasked with the quest to free Japan from the forces of evil that hope to cover the entire world in darkness and usher in a new era of bloodthirsty tyrants, because that's what they always want to do in fantasy settings since it's always worked out so well for their brethren in the past. Along the way she rescues deities fashioned after the Chinese zodiacal animals, each granting Amaterasu a distinct power over the elements of reality itself which she's able to harness by drawing markings on the screen in a literal application of bringing her paintings to life; all the while assisting a variety of characters with loose connections to their original mythological counterparts in their efforts to raid the demon strongholds, crush the enemy resistance, and rob them of all their possessions and dentistry.
Just getting this out of the way early so I can move on to the good bits; this game's story is a complete mess. The whole thing is a horrendous mish-mash of as many Japanese folk stories as the writers could find in the local library, and it all becomes more than a little confusing by the mid-way point. After you slay Orochi – who throughout the entire first act was hyped up as the incarnation of all evil and master of demons – your adventure continues with little explanation as to why so you can keep slaughtering a few more incarnations of all evil as if they're coming out of a fucking college and killing their dean will stop them from raiding the town and knocking mailboxes over. Some of the events don't really have much necessity to the overall plot and feel like a shallow attempt to pad the game out, such as the retelling of Tale of the Bamboo Cutter only used as an incredibly round-about way to give you a plot device that's only ever used once in the entire game; or that random time travel segment in the third act that comes completely out of left field and just repeats a short part of the Orochi story from the first part of the game with a few names changed here and there to feign originality. Straight out of the big book of "Bad Game Design Clichés" is the very final level, which is just a series of disjointed rematches with all the prior major bosses before you're finally allowed access to the actual end boss, which means you fight Orochi the exact same way three goddamned times throughout the whole game. Adding to this is that only about four characters are any sort of interesting – aside from Amaterasu herself – and there really has to be something wrong with the developers if they think jiggling cel-shaded tits are going to give anyone a hard-on; while I'm on that, the shameless lechery of the Navi-esque helper character swiftly becomes more than a little degrading by the second quarter of the game, and he has a terrible habit of dropping redundant and often deliberately insulting exposition at the drop of a hat, so the little shit may as well just be a sat-nav system imbued with the personality of Prince.
Don't let the whinging there discourage you, because the reason I hold Ōkami in such high esteem above others of its ilk is because it's a perfect example of how far a magnificent concept and brilliant artistic direction can carry a game in spite of all its flaws. The story may be off its rocker, but it presents itself in a steadily paced and consistently epic progression that managed to capture my interest from start to finish, something that can't be said about Skyward Sword's tremendously inane "but thou must proveth thouself for the hundredth buggeringeth time" bullshit. From an overly wordy starting position that leaves you much like our heroine – knowing something big is going on but still a bit dazed and confused about the whole thing – you gradually get into the rhythm of the grand adventure laid out before you, and before long you're slicing off drunken snake heads and electrocuting a nine-tailed fox lacking the common sense to not hold up a lightning rod in the middle of a thunder storm. While it does play its mythological angle fairly loose, the folklore and theology is generally treated more accurately and tactfully than games like God of War or Darksiders, and it's quite a thrill when you recognize one of the characters or plot threads from the actual Shinto texts so you can brag to all your family and friends about how utterly boring you are. The sheer amount of effort invested into making the atmosphere feel as traditionally Japanese as possible is outstanding, from the oriental soundtrack filled with kotos, shamisen and flutes, to the ksitigarbha statues and cherry trees framing the roads, to the large shimenawa ropes strewn about a great number of rocks, trees and houses; relics of a bygone age in Japan's history when you could walk one hundred feet without being run over by a stressed out businessman. All this is given incredible depth from the smooth watercolour effect of the cel-shaded graphics, which gives the art style a distinct traditional painting look that strongly compliments the classical Japanese theme and immerses you all the more in the beautiful world around you, and since that's all worded too professionally to be my writing I'll also add that there's a drunken sheep that poorly attempts Matrix styled acrobatics in this game.
My favourite part of the core gameplay is the combat which is fast paced, flowing and offers a great deal of variety; blending close combat and magic techniques together in a way that would make Gandalf feel inadequate. Entering combat surrounds a nicely sized portion of the area you're in with a wall of Pink Floyd lasers oxymoronically meant to be "darkness", giving you plenty of space to execute careful strategies and combos against a very colourful assortment of enemies, each with their own unique attack and defence patterns that rely on the many brush techniques at your disposal to overcome. You're always left with a great sense of accomplishment when you correctly side-step an attacking enemy, lunge forward with a string of melee combos and then finish it all off with a downpour of rain or massive blaze in the background to make the Japanese countryside look like a normal day in the Victorian bush. You have the choice of a wide range of different mirrors, rosaries and swords which can be placed as primary or secondary weapons to create different melee combinations and play styles; and there are moves in the game that allow you to steal treasures from humiliated enemies by urinating or shitting on them. That is true genius right there. But as fun as it is to slice enemies in half, it's all a bit too easy, with power-ups and healing items coming out of the woodworks, as well as combo strings being both satisfying to do and granting you a holy shield that can stack up to three hits, but if you're good enough to get that many combos without taking any damage I really doubt you'll be praying to the gods for any mercy and protection. Doing favours for people, feeding the local wildlife or magically sanitizing cursed bits of scenery gives you 'praise points' that can be spent on upgrades; but Amaterasu gets more praise from her people than Kim sung-il just from completing story objectives, and finding all the aforementioned optional sources of praise is no search for the holy grail so stats can be upgraded with enough frequency that before the second act even reaches the half-way mark you'll become an unstoppable force that bulldozes through enemy encounters just by winking in their direction, almost like you're a god of some sort.
But moving back onto the pleasant side of the field; Ōkami may not be the most open-ended game around, but it has enough sprawling, wide open spaces and detour routes to make the world worth exploring for treasure, which works well for games like this since it can quickly make a linear story feel more free and in your control. The stunning Heian and Okhotsk environments never feel redundant or a slog to travel through, especially because Amaterasu's mobility more resembles a platforming hero in staunch contrast to Link's downright pathetic athletics; she can build up momentum to run around at Olympian speeds, jump twice the height of a full grown human, climb up walls in jumping spider fashion, and later on you're able to purchase an item that allows you to run on water so you can pretend to be an oriental lupine Jesus Christ across a beautifully expansive ocean. And if you're twitchy, impatient and are against colourful and varied scenery, then don't fear for there's a fast travel system that involves lapsing into a drunken haze and waking up somewhere else in the map! Seriously, I love this game. Also, just to mix things up a little, the vast majority of the final act is set in a geographically inaccurate south Sakhalin and focuses on the aboriginal Ainu culture instead, which is to a mythological setting what whipped cream is to a bowl of strawberries (very good). I rightfully complained earlier about the final level being cheap padding, but the boss fights are genuinely spectacular and interesting enough to make it all feel worth the effort to finally reach what I personally believe to be one of the greatest end boss fights in the entire genre, even if the final boss himself resembles a foetus trapped in a snow globe.
Something I've realized while writing this review aside from the discovery that I'm such a pretentious weeaboo that I went out of my way to put the macron "Ō" all over the place, is that writing criticism and snarky commentary is very hard when it's at the expense of something you really like. I could keep pointing out some of the game's unnecessary stuffing, the odd flaw in gameplay, or continue picking at the tiny gripes like the lack of difficulty, but it's just like Psychonauts in that all the mistakes don't matter in the big picture because the game is so unique and beautiful that you have to play it anyway just for the grand experience of it. So if you own a PlayStation 2 and spot a copy of the game at your local retailers, then definitely pick it up and give it a try... unless of course the only console you own is a Wii, in which case I hope you like wanker's cramp and shitty controls because you'll definitely be getting your money's worth of that! But seriously, play it and I doubt you'll be disappointed; consider it penance for committing the cardinal sin of murdering an entire dev. team as a result of being complete dills. Supporting the game might set an example for the genre that could even inspire Nintendo to axe the Zelda license entirely in favour of something a bit more inventive, although I wager they won't be willing to throw away that cash cow until around the time of the fucking renewal of the world. Happy Valentine's Day!