On the face of it Okamiden may seem an odd title to bring to the DS. While it's spiritual predecessor Okami remains a cult classic whispered about in revered tones by those in the know, nobody really bought it. Indeed so poor were Okami's sales that it even earned itself a snappily-titled Guinness World Record for 'Least Commercially Successful Winner of the Game of the Year'. The Wii remake two years later was hardly a blockbuster either.
So why a sequel? And why on the DS? Well, most importantly the notion of an Okami follow-up had powerful champions within Capcom, in the shape of Ace Attorney producer Motohide Eshiro and Okami Wii director Kuniomi Masushita. They believed in the continuation of the series, despite its poor sales. But beyond that there's something else that makes itself immediately apparent when you pick the game up. Forget dreams of a HD sequel for a second, the DS might just be the perfect place for Okamiden. Everything from the gameplay to the new character designs are a perfect fit for the handheld's unique charms.
So in a nod to the DS' younger audience, Okamiden follows the adventures of its predecessor's offspring just a few months after the events of Okami. Demons have returned to torment a mystical Japan. Chibiteratsu is the protagonist, the celestial wolf child of Amaterasu from the first game. He's ridiculously cute, a lovely little bundle of fluff padding along with his tail wagging behind him. DS owners are used to cute, of course. They have it coming out of their ears. But Chibi is just adorable.
Seeing as Chibiteratsu is just a pup, he doesn't quite have the divine powers of his mother. So aiding him on his adventures is Kuninushi, the young son of Okami's Susano. Kuni rides along on the wolf's back, nattering away as he goes, offering tips and hints and the odd chucklesome, fourth-wall breaking quip. While Kuninushi was present during the entirety of our demo, the finished game promises a number of different partners. We hope they're all as charming.
The DS' top screen is where these two little guys explore an environment sketched out in colourful cell-shading and thick, overstated Sumi-e syle brushwork. It's a welcoming aesthetic, all grassy hillocks and cherry blossoms. Viewed from a largely static overhead perspective the exploration sections have you meandering around the land, smashing pots and opening chests as you go. Controlling Chibi with the D-pad, jumping with B and attacking with Y, it's reminiscent of the Zelda DS games.
Meanwhile, while exploring, the touchscreen acts as a menu for all your options, items and equipment, as well as offering arrows to edge to camera around a little. But it's when you summon the Celestial Brush that the touchscreen gets really interesting.
A flick of a shoulder button achieves this, pausing the action, moving it down from the top screen and taking you into brush mode. This is where the stylus comes into play. Transforming the art-style from the colourful vistas of the exploration screen to a gorgeous sepia-toned, ink-sketched on parchment look, brush mode is where you'll be figuring out the various puzzles dotted across the land.
So, to take a simple example from the tutorial, very early in the game you'll find yourself unable to continue as a section of bridge leading to the next area has collapsed. By flipping into brush mode, you can solve the problem by sketching the outline of the hole in the bridge, thus fixing it and allowing you to continue. It's exactly the same mechanic as Okami. But where using the Celestial Brush even in the Wii version was a tiny bit awkward, on the DS it's a revelation.
The key to this is that rather than just transferring the brush ability to a touchscreen in the most obvious way, Okamiden makes a rather nifty embellishment. In an attempt to recreate the experience of calligraphy brushwork, whisking the stylus across the screen quickly and lightly results in a thin, sketchy scrawl while a slower, more deliberate trace creates a thick bold line. It may seem like a inconsequential touch, but not only does it tie in with the game's aesthetic and themes, it feels really good. This level of attention to detail bodes well.
The stylus is used to good effect elsewhere in the game too. Kuninushi isn't just riding along for advice and narration, he has an effect on the gameplay itself. So, unlocked through the Shirabe brush power, he can clamber down from Chibi's back and offer solutions to problems. This happens in a couple of different ways. Chibi can either leave Kuni behind to explore a weak area that can't bear both their weights, or more interestingly, you can leave Chibi panting away on the spot while you take over control of Kuni. By tracing a line in the intended direction with the stylus, Kuni will follow along obediently, allowing access to smaller, narrower sections of the environment.
Indeed, it's the puzzles that receive a far greater focus in Okamiden. There is combat, of course - a single-button melee attack is used to soften up enemies before finishing them off with a quick slash across the touch screen - but the puzzles are where you'll spend most of your time. It's a pronounced shift from Okami, but it makes perfect sense in the context of the platform.
And that perhaps is what makes Okamiden such and exciting prospect. It's the perfect game for the DS. Playing to a wide audience that are used to novel controls, are familiar with the broadly Zelda-esque gameplay, and openly embrace the cuter things in life, this has the potential to seep into the popular consciousness in a way that Okami never did. Suddenly the series doesn't seem like an oddity, or a cultish curiosity, it's decidedly mainstream. Could this be the first of the series to break out?