Posted By Robert H. about 6 months ago
On my last Music Mondays, I talked about a game with some of the best Japanese vocal talent I’ve seen in any game. Good as that talent was however, it does not nearly begin to cover all the various Japanese musical styles out there. While it would take far too many articles to try to cover every style out there in detail, I can at least mention one of my favorite soundtracks to make use of Japanese instrumentation in all of gaming: Okami.
Okami is a game built on and around Japanese mythology. The main character is the Japanese Sun god Amaterasu and the world of Nippon that you can explore is filled to the brim with legends from the well-known tale of Urashima the fisherman to the relatively unknown story of the Tongue-Cut Sparrow. With a focus on Japanese culture and lore that strong, it’s only natural that the music follow suit with heavy usage of traditional Japanese instruments, especially taiko drums and the shamisen, a banjo-like lute. As a result, a majority of the songs have recognizable similarities that make the overall package very cohesive, although each manages to retain more than enough individuality to be appreciated separately.
Even with that similar instrumentation, that’s not to say that the songs are all close to each other in structure and tone. On the contrary, this game runs the gamut with nearly every type of music that could come out of the instruments in question. Light and bouncy songs like “Issun’s Theme” are just as likely to make an appearance as heavy and sad songs like “Kushi’s Determination,” all depending on the situation the song plays for. Most good soundtracks make each song fit the situation it plays for in the actual game, but Okami is certainly one of the very best at doing just that. So good, in fact, that is goes beyond just fitting the events of the game.
Okami is one of the few games I would ever laud as telling its story just as much through music as through the actual story scenes themselves. The music is an integral part of the actual story being told and so much would be lost if the soundtrack wasn’t as good as it was. I liken the difference between most good themes and Okami’s music to the difference between being told what you already know and experiencing something for the first time. Whereas most good video game themes fit their situations because you already know why they work as well as they do, Okami’s music has a tendency to teach you just as much as about something as the graphics or story would.
Admittedly, this concept is a bit difficult to describe correctly, but there are prime examples to be found throughout the game. For instance, “Giving Kushi a Ride” is not only a great song with incredibly strong instrumentation, but also conveys the intensity and importance of Amaterasu’s final rush on the current villain’s dungeon even though the game hasn’t directly told the player that this is the end of the current arc. The usage of the restoration themes is another great example, as the slow buildup to a sweeping instrumentation perfectly conveys how every location gets healed, changing from a morose cursed zone to a place overflowing with life. Although, it’s not a stretch to say that my favorite demonstration is “Reset ~ Thank You Version,” an absolutely beautiful song that accompanies one of the most important and emotional scenes in the game. Suffice to say, the song immediately shows how there is still hope despite it looking as though the odds are against Amaterasu, and, even today, it proves to be the only song I’ve ever heard that will always get a strong reaction from me, no matter how many times I hear it.
Naturally, with a soundtrack as expansive as Okami’s, there are some songs that I feel I must mention specifically. First up, “Northern Country Kamui” is a song I love for just how intense it feels. Kamui is an incredibly harsh area and this song perfectly conveys the strength someone would need to live in the freezing weather, while having a wonderful flow backing it up. “Wep’keer Theme,” being the song associated with practically the only standard settlement that can be found in the north, has an icy chill that pervades the entire track. Despite that, it never comes off as overly cold so much as wrapped in mystery thanks to the instruments used and the wonderful second half of the song where the beat is stepped up significantly. Even though both those songs are good, my favorite on the soundtrack is probably the classic choice for this game: the above-shown final boss theme “The Sun Rises.” To put it simply, the song is one of the most triumphant I’ve ever heard and the usage of practically every main melody and instrument in the game makes it feel like the perfect capstone to an already great soundtrack.
Honestly, I should probably stop myself there. There are about 150 songs on the Okami original soundtrack, and while I may not love every one, I would be hard-pressed to pick one I didn’t like. Every song in Okami is used wisely and only adds to the already great story on display. It’s rare to find a game that manages to tell the story just as much through music as through cutscenes, but that’s exactly what happened here. Okami is one of my favorite games of all time and I have extremely strong doubts that I would like it nearly as much without the soundtrack it has. So, the only thing to be said is that everyone owes it to themselves to set aside a good portion of time and listen through the Okami score. After all, it’s rare to find a soundtrack that can tell a story just as well as it can please the ears.
Music Mondays is a weekly column by Austin Yorski and Robert Heck dedicated to discussing the most interesting audio experiences in electronic interactive media. Tune in every week for more original game soundtracks that you need to hear. Feel free to disagree with, add to, or question everything. I welcome your feedback.