Okami is drawn in the cel-shaded look that developed early on the PS2. Instead of the roundly shaded forms of traditional 3D animation, cel-shading flattens the shapes of characters and objects, keeping them 3D while making them look like moving cartoons. It's a striking effect, blunted only by its incessant overuse during the past five years.
Clover Studio, the game designers responsible for Okami, had already perfected cel-shading when they made the better-than-the-first sequel Viewtiful Joe 2 -- a cartoony martial arts action game. The 'toony look persists, but in Okami, Clover chose to use cel-shading to create the effect of a moving scroll painting.
The backgrounds have the drenched, dripping look of Japanese art, as though sumi-e and ukiyo-e were brought together digitally. The landscapes of a mythical medieval "Nippon" wander with the same expansive grace that I've explored in dozens of PS2 adventure games. But in Okami, the path is fringed with black brushstrokes. Dark whorls smear across the sky like drops of ink dissipating in water.
In this starkly striking paper-and-ink landscape, I am a god in the form of a dog. The landscape has been polluted, and it's my job (through combat and calligraphy) to save the environment. There is the usual run of physics-based puzzles (jump carefully across the tops of giant mushrooms, roll a ball down a hallway), but they are enhanced by a philosophical sort of conundrum.
"Someone is missing something that isn't there," Okami tells me. And so I learn to create things with my calligraphy brush. Like a god with his finger on a divine pause button, I can stop the action and transform the screen into a piece of paper, with my inked brush poised above the page. A line drawn through an enemy and they are cut in two. A circle in the sky and the sun appears. And a circle with a little fuse ... That's a trick I learned from the god of explosions.
THE GOOD: Okami learned its tricks from solid games such as Wind Waker and Kingdom Hearts. But instead of formulaic lockstep, Clover Studio animated Okami with a style inspired as much by Shinto mythology as it is by other videogames.
THE BAD: A game that flaunts visuals as much as Okami is bound to push the boundaries of the declining PlayStation 2. Graphical shudders occasionally mar the flow of the game's animation, particularly when a cherry tree is blossoming on a blank page. And the bane of many PS2 games -- being able to record my progress only in special locations scattered across the game's vast gameworld -- is in full, irritating force here.
THE BOTTOM LINE: One of the PlayStation 2's most stylish combat games, Okami draws -- perfectly -- on every PS2 clich & eacute; in order to save the world, again.