Okamiden review: Small puppy, big game

If I were to overthink Okamiden, I would suspect its premise is a subtle commentary on the game's own development. The world of Nippon as it appears in the DS game is filled with the small children of the people and gods found in Clover Studio's 2006 PS2 game Okami. It's tempting to say that this is the developers' subversive way of comparing themselves to children at play in the world Clover created. But it's more likely Capcom realized a cute puppy would sell games.

It is a really cute puppy.

You won't need to have completed Okami to appreciate this game -- it's all explained reasonably well -- but it's rife with references to characters and events from the first game. Everyone you meet is a returning character or descendant, and the events of Okamiden follow directly from Amaterasu's adventures in the original game. But since Chibiterasu, the new baby wolf god on the scene, almost always has a partner to explain things to him, and that partner has someone around to explain things to them, you'll have a pretty good idea what's going on.

And in broad terms, what's going on is Zelda gameplay in an RPG environment. You go from town to town, clearing out demon invasions and solving each town's issue, along with the issue driving your particular partner to join you. For example, Nanami the mermaid is missing an item that enhances her water powers, and Kagu the young actress can't perform when the theater is overrun with demons and her family/troupe is missing. These partners do the talking, and have plenty of personality, while Chibi acts as a straight man dog, reacting in pantomime.

Besides a really cute, encouraging bark, Chibi has a growing slate of abilities with the Celestial Brush, activated by the stylus. For the most part, these moves work simply and intuitively (and are explained in tutorials), allowing you to create bombs, slash objects and enemies, manipulate fire, wind, lightning, and water, and direct your partner with little thought.

However, several of the abilities involve simply drawing a line from one thing to another, which can be ... problematic. Sometimes, the game has a hard time telling if you're drawing a line from your partner to a location to which you want him/her to walk, from yourself to an object you'd like to attach a vine to, or -- in the case of partners with special abilities -- if you're trying to activate water or fire abilities. It's not a game-breaking thing, but it's annoying, especially since every mistake costs you ink from a finite supply.

Problems largely stem from the fact that you're absolutely tiny when the camera is zoomed out, making moves difficult. The DS strains to deal with Okamiden in a few other ways, as well. The d-pad controls feel restrictive for 3D movement, though I definitely got used to it as the game went on. The camera also struggles to keep up with Chibiterasu's flashy combos, especially with the first weapon, which Chibi bounces around the screen while using.

Capcom had absolutely no trouble fitting a full-length game onto the DS. In fact -- and this sounds like a weird thing to complain about -- it feels overlong at its 20-plus-hour runtime. It starts slow, with a bunch of fetch quests that reduce divine intervention to a shopping list, and doesn't end where it seems like it should ... or even at the next natural stopping point. Though Okamiden hits a pretty satisfying stride in the middle, it is a bit of a marathon.

... OK, yes, an adorable marathon.


This review is based on a pre-release Okamiden cartridge provided by Capcom.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.