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Ukiyo-e, for the uninitiated among you, means 'pictures of the floating world' in Japanese. It's a name given to a kind of ethereal Japanese woodblock print which gained popularity in Edo (Tokyo) as far back as the early 1600s. In the book, Masterpieces of Japanese Prints, Richard Lane writes that it was from traditional schools of Japanese art that ukiyo-e, "acquired its basic themes, its lovely and harmonious coloring, its sinuous, supple line, and its emphasis on the dramatic relationship between figures."
OK, this ain't no art class, but ukiyo-e and its celebration of the earthly spirit, the underworld, and the heavens, is part of what makes OKAMI one of the year's best games. Okami, the new action/adventure game from Capcom, is one of the most beautifully rendered games of the 2006. Because of its attention to Japanese myth, ground-breaking game play and graphics reminiscent of Asian ink painting on rice paper, it's in a class by itself.
In Okami, you're Amaterasu, a sun god who's returned to earth and has taken the form of a snow white wolf. Your mission is to stop the huge and monstrous Orochi, who has unleashed a kind of apocalypse upon the peaceful world of Nippon (Japan). Even as you move through the first level of Okami, you'll marvel at its beauty and shudder at its monsters.
In Okami, you're no hack-and-slash swordsman, killing willy nilly to progress in the game. What you'll really become early on is a kind of artist of the gods. You'll meet a small god and companion called Issun, a bug who'll teach you how to employ your PlayStation 2 controller's left stick as a brush. You'll be informed that there are 13 gods of the brush, and as you move through these starry worlds, you'll become adept at using the them.
Sometimes, you'll draw a river to help you pass through a stream. At other times, you'll use the brush as a sword to kill demons in your path. I guess that's why they call the thing a Mystic Celestial Brush. Down the line, you can make a swirling motion to draw the wind, or call up lightning by making a zig zag with the controller stick. Since you have to work at it rather than simply pressing one button, you really do feel as though the elements of wind and fire are in your hands.
Unlike the Greek and Roman myths, the Japanese myths are still new and mysterious to me. As I played the game, I ate up the stories of cherry trees which are gods, and even the tale of Orochi, who has many heads like the Hydra, the multi-headed serpent so popular in Greek myth. Okami is completely rich with stories, so much so that I felt like a kid again, having fables read to me by my mother as I sat wide-eyed. As though you're under a spell, you'll feel that child-like sense of wonder throughout the 40 hours of game play.
Even a game this rich, of course, isn't perfect. You'll get a little tired of pressing the 'O' button to read the words of people, animals, and gods who want to talk to your white wolf character. Sure, it's a fact that when you read, you tend to remember more than when you hear words. Despite this, the constant button-pushing slows things down.
Some games are compelling as far as weapons and creative shooting goes. Some games have a rich story, but repetitive game play or below-par backgrounds. For the most part, Okami, has every base covereddown to the most minute detail. More importantly, Okami is a real triumph of art in gaming.
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