Okami’s North Ryoshima Coast Was Probably A Late Addition To The Game

I frequently speculate about how certain odd things in a game may have come about due to relatively late decisions in the development process, late enough that the change might have left some detritus lying around. I strongly suspect one such change is the role the Water Dragon plays in Okami.

The second act of Okami is a cartoon political drama centered on Queen Himiko of the capital city of Sei-An, the capital’s high priestess Rao, and the underwater Dragonian people who live under the waves off the nearby Ryoshima Coast (it should be noted that while the people are mostly drawn from Japanese legends dating back millennia, the locations were made up for the game).

When you first arrive in Sei-An City, the city is crippled by plague, so all the side quests are unavailable. There’s not much to do except follow the main plot, meeting up with Priestess Rao and salvaging a ship sunk by the rampaging Water Dragon off the coast. As you leave the ship, you are pursued by the Water Dragon. It’s possible to escape the Water Dragon, but only if you’ve invested in enough magic reality-warping ink to draw enough lilypads to let you jump from pad to pad safely to shore (Okami’s protagonist is wolf-form Amaterasu, and therefore much faster jumping from pad to pad than swimming). If you’ve been spending your XP on health or wallet upgrades (and possibly even if you’ve just been blitzing the game and not getting any XP from side quests or feeding animals and stuff – I had tons of XP and lacked ink because I gave it a low priority, but I’m a fairly thorough player), or if you try a less effective escape strategy like creating one lilypad and using ink to create gusts of wind to blow you towards shore, you will be caught by the monster, whereupon you…end up safely on shore, exactly the same as if you’d successfully escaped the Water Dragon.

A number of adventures ensue. You shrink down to tiny size and have a Fantastic Voyage in the Emperor’s body (different guy from Queen Himiko, but he’s a minor character) to defeat the source of the plague, meet Queen Himiko and a friendly orca who can swim fast enough to outpace the Water Dragon so long as you’re not stupid which lets you explore the outlying islands, find one of the zodiac gods who’ve been sharing their magic reality warping ink brush powers with you, and discover the hidden whirlpool that leads down to the city of the Dragonians. There, they ask you to go on another Fantastic Voyage, except this time instead of shrinking down to fit in a human body, you are staying normal size to go into the Water Dragon and purge the corrupting spirits that have driven him mad. Plus, once you get rid of the Sei-An City plague, a bunch of side quests open up, so you might run around doing those for a while.

I bring all this up to make the point that you do a lot of stuff between your first encounter with the Water Dragon and the point where you go inside. And the method of getting inside is that there’s a chamber in the Dragonians underwater palace where the Water Dragon perpetually has his head stuck in with his mouth wide open. It’s kind of a weird way to get inside the Water Dragon, and matched with the weird part of gameplay where you get chased by the Water Dragon away from the sunken ship and have to guess the fastest way to escape on your first try or else get deposited on shore automatically and anti-climactically. I suspect that originally the dragon would swallow you as you tried to escape the wreck, and you would do the Water Dragon dungeon before you cleansed the plague in Sei-An City, and all the plot beats with the cat god’s tower and exploring the islands and the underwater palace of the Dragonians were added later, likely because Okami’s Act 2 is pretty lightweight without them.

Further evidence in support of this theory: Ryoshima Coast is split into two zones, Ryoshima Coast proper and North Ryoshima Coast. North Ryoshima Coast is where every single plot beat required to get inside the Water Dragon is located, but Ryoshima Coast proper is where the shipwreck is located and where your first encounter with the Water Dragon takes place. If you move the Water Dragon dungeon to happening after you get swallowed while escaping the shipwreck, you can very neatly excise North Ryoshima Coast with only three small edits required: First, you must move the departure point for Oni Island (the stronghold of Act 2’s main villain Ninetails, which can only be reached with the help of both Queen Himiko and the Water Dragon) from the viewing platform in North Ryoshima Coast to the nearly identical viewing platform in Ryoshima Coast proper. Second, you need to make the route from Shinshu Fields (the first region of the game) to Kamui (where Act 3 starts) accessible by double jumping, without needing the cat god’s wall climbing power, because the cat god is no longer a thing. Third, you need to edit references to thirteen zodiac gods to instead be references to twelve. You get the double jump much earlier than the cat climb (in fact, if the height of the cliff was shrunk but its shape was otherwise left alone, you could reach the top with the wall jump you have at the start of the game), but that’s no problem, because you also need the thunderbolt to get to Act 3, and you get the thunderbolt from Oni Island at the end of Act 2.

And you probably know that the Japanese zodiac only has twelve signs in it to begin with, and that Cat is not one of them. You may also know that the Cat takes the place of the Rabbit in the otherwise identical Vietnamese zodiac, and that Japanese/Chinese legend has stories explaining why Cat didn’t get to be part of their zodiac (short version: Because Rat is a bastard). Cat’s inclusion as a thirteenth zodiac god makes perfect sense, but it would have made just as much sense to exclude Cat, so I find it noteworthy that it is Cat who is found in North Ryoshima Coast, the one zodiac god who could plausibly have been added near the end of development rather than planned from the start.

And the cat climb power is used almost nowhere in the game except North Ryoshima Coast. While the internet has no encyclopedic listing of all cat climb points, the Okami wiki does note that the cat climb power is one of the least used in the whole game (the wiki uses the power’s official name of “cat walk” – I have switched to “cat climb” to make its use more intuitive to people who have not played the game, but it’s the same power). The only three cat climb points I remember in the entire game outside of North Ryoshima Coast is one in a dungeon in Agata Forest, the one you use to reach Act 3 in Shinshu Fields, and once in an Act 3 dungeon (although, in fairness, the last one actually would’ve required redesigning a small section of the dungeon to add, rather than just adjusting the height of a cliff and adding a cat statue). Contrariwise, the super-dig power you unlock that lets you dig up hidden objects which are buried in solid stone has a couple of dig points at every map in the game, even though you unlock it at around the same time as cat climb (it’s in Ryoshima Coast proper).

Here’s a bonus speculation, although I’m much less sure about this one: I think Act 2 was originally meant to either come before the confrontation with Orochi at the end of Act 1, or else its antagonists Ninetails and Blight were originally supposed to be unrelated to Orochi. In the game as it is, these two emerged from Orochi’s slain body as two out of four dark spirits who fled to cause mischief far away from Shinshu Field where half of Act 1 takes place. But Act 1 also takes you to Taka Pass, and Taka Pass borders Ryoshima Coast, and the reason why you can’t go to Ryoshima Coast and start Act 2 early is because the city checkpoint is closed due to the mysterious plague fog that’s descended on the city (you have to use the inferno power you get from the end of Act 1 to blow up a cannon and knock the bridge back down). But Orochi’s not dead yet, so Blight and Ninetails shouldn’t be doing anything! If Blight and Ninetails are just other, lesser demons, like the Spider Queen and Crimson Helm you fight in Act 1, then this makes perfect sense, but if they spawn when Orochi dies, then who’s causing the plague fog? Was Orochi doing it personally and then Blight took over after Orochi is defeated? If that’s the case, then what did defeating Orochi even accomplish?

There’s a lot of explanations for this early Blight problem. Maybe it was decided late in development that Act 1 should be completely self-contained, which required bumping the defeat of Orochi up to much sooner in the plot, so that Susano’s arc could be tied off there. Maybe the whole plot of Act 2 was always supposed to come after Act 1, but was originally disconnected and episodic from Act 1, with Blight and Ninetails getting up to shenanigans totally separate from what Orochi was doing further north, and they decided that this made the game seem aimless (which is still a problem even after Act 2’s villains are tied to Orochi’s defeat – the first time I tried to play Okami some 5 years ago, I drifted away early on in Act 2 because it felt like Orochi was the climax and I was playing the world’s longest post-game section). Maybe it’s just an oversight, because Act 2 was built after Act 1, and the reason why Ryoshima Coast is closed to regular foot traffic was made up by someone who was thinking of the story as it was during Act 2, without stopping to think that players would first come here while exploring the boundaries of Act 1. Maybe it’s just a bug, and the guy who talks about why the bridge is closed is supposed to talk about how they’re trying to keep the cursed zones out during Act 1, and switch to talking about trying to keep the plague in during Act 2, but the flags weren’t made correctly so the guard talks about the plague fog during Act 1.

North Ryoshima Coast, though, I’m pretty confident that was added in after the game was already well into production in order to put some more meat on the bones of Act 2.

Far Cry 2 Has A Dumb Ending

At the end of Far Cry 2, the Jackal, the arms dealer who equipped both sides of the civil war that tore apart the fictitious central African nation you’ve been murdering your way through, turns out to be working on a plan to evacuate the entire civilian population of the nation and then trap the militia and mercenaries inside to kill each other to a man. The player character helps this plan at the very end, presumably including the part where both the Jackal and the player character kill themselves at the end, because the Jackal seems to think that war is a literal infectious disease and that you can’t just decide to stop fighting wars, you have to actually die or else other people might become infected by war-fighting just by proximity to you.

There’s so many dumb things in this plan. The idea that you can evacuate the entire population of a nation except for the combatants, when combatants make up maybe 20% of the population at an absolute extreme level of hyper-mobilization (5-10% is way more likely even for a civil war where logistics are relatively easy). The idea that war is an infectious disease and that the people who fight it have to literally die instead of retiring. The idea that the two opposed factions will keep fighting until all of them, every last one, are dead, when they’re already starting to come to a truce and are thus presumably both close to exhausted, which will not change even after the existing leadership of the two sides is totally annihilated.

There’s also the part where all your buddies turn on you for vague reasons. I can imagine a perfectly good reason: At the end of Act 1, one of the two factions (it changes based on your playthrough and makes no difference) has the other on the brink of total defeat and are trying to consolidate their rule by killing a ton of people, including all the mercenaries who kept the war going. You have a choice to either help your mercenary buddies defend the bar where you’ve been hanging out together for the whole act, or help a bunch of civilians escape the country. I chose the latter. The buddies who showed up to fight me were mostly the Act 1 buddies, with only one exception. That one exception tried to talk the Act 1 buddies out of starting a fight with me, although he does side with them when this inevitably failed. So the Act 1 buddies try to kill me because I abandoned them to try and save the civilians, and my one Act 2 buddy joins them because he’d already cut a deal with them to flee the country, probably because the Act 1 buddies showed up first and put a gun to his head.

They don’t actually say that, though. Act 2 Buddy (mine was Xianyong Bai) says his escape plan is still on, then the lead Act 1 Buddy (mine was Marty Alencar) comes out and says the deal was to leave me on my own and wants Act 2 Buddy to shoot, Act 2 Buddy tries to defuse the situation, and Act 1 Buddy starts shooting. Act 2 Buddy sides with Act 1 Buddy. My understanding is this plays out pretty much the same regardless of who you try to help at the end of Act 1, so it’s only coincidence that any of my buddies have any reason to dislike me. An equally supported but much stupider interpretation would be that the buddies have been infected by the war virus that the Jackal thinks exists and are killing people at random. It comes across like someone thought it would be cool to have your buddies turn on you in the game’s finale, but apparently didn’t follow that thought far enough to write some dialogue where they actually say why they’re doing it.

I wonder if there were originally supposed to be multiple endings? Towards the end, you have several missions where you’re assigned to kill a high-ranking member of the UFLL/APR by another high-ranking member of the UFLL/APR as they struggle for control of their respective factions, but can instead decide to kill the person who assigned the mission. By the end, you’ve whittled each faction down to exactly one named character, who are meeting at a jungle bivouac to discuss a unified government. Part of the Jackal’s plan is to kill them both in order to throw the factions back into chaos (this part, at least, makes sense – after the total massacre of the leadership of both factions, the remaining troops will scramble to re-establish a chain-of-command, and given the militia-and-mercenaries-duct-taped-together nature of the armies, it probably won’t be straightforward or bloodless). Another part of the Jackal’s plan is to collect the diamonds to bribe the border guards, which is where you fight your buddies. So it’s straightforward to have three endings: One where you go to the Bivouac and join the new government, killing your buddies and the Jackal to eliminate anyone who can destabilize the new regime, one where you go to your buddies and plan an escape together, killing the faction leaders and the Jackal so you can cut your way out of the country, and the game’s existing ending where you help the Jackal with his stupid plan. This still would’ve had the problem that the “good” ending is the stupidest one, but at least I could’ve helped my buddies flee the country instead. Honestly, it would’ve been much more in keeping with the game’s themes if the ending was to realize that we can’t do anything in this country except make things worse, so probably we should just leave.

Far Cry 2 Tried And Failed To Be Realistic

Half-Life is a 1998 first-person shooter that pushed the realism of the genre forward by having guns lie on the ground like regular objects instead of glowing red and spinning in the air. Its graphics have not aged well – it’s on the wrong end of the Half-Life gap, which is no surprise since the Half-Life gap is named after the way that Half-Life 2’s graphics, while clearly aged, look about as close to modern games released almost twenty years later as they do to the first Half-Life’s graphics, released just six years before. Despite this, I found that its atmosphere and immersion still worked even though I first played it fifteen years after its release, past the age when nostalgia is usually able to get its hooks in.

Far Cry 2 is a 2008 first-person shooter that tried to push the realism of the genre forward by portraying a civil war in a fictitious African nation somewhere in the blood diamond region, where two rebel factions with armies comprised as much of foreign mercenaries as of local insurgents fought over the remains of a country that everyone was fleeing as fast as they could. Healing animations involved digging bullets out of your flesh with a knife or setting horribly bent and twisted limbs, enemies with a sliver of health left limp around or fire at you from the ground while bleeding out, and you have to keep your anti-malaria meds topped off or you might find yourself weakened or even incapacitated by the disease in the middle of a firefight.

You can tell from the phrasing that I don’t think Far Cry 2 was as successful in its immersion as Half-Life. Far Cry 2 has a lot more horsepower behind it than Half-Life, so where did it go wrong? Certainly not in its environmental design. Far Cry 2 depicts central Africa with a variety of different biomes and settlements, although it does lack any major cities, which is a disappointment but not an immersion problem, and in fairness to the devs I can see why representing something on the scale of Kinshasa or Luanda while also making the surrounding countryside the focus would’ve been difficult. Luanda, capital of Angola, is a major, modern port city, and Kinshasa, capital of the DRC, is the third largest city on the continent of Africa. But also it would have to look big while also being dwarfed on the map by the surrounding countryside, which means the surrounding countryside would also have to be bigger, and it’s kind of inconvenient to traverse as it is. Mercenaries tried to have major cities on a map that focused on the countryside, and the end result is that Pyongyang feels puny. Far Cry 2 has the advantage of taking place in a fictional country, though, so it might just be a small country with no major cities.

So despite one minor disappointment, environment design isn’t the reason why Far Cry 2 is less immersive than Half-Life. And neither is weapon design. Far Cry 2 covers all the standard bases: Pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, LMGs, rocket launchers. It does lack a bit of Half-Life’s variety in weird things like the gluon gun, but that’s not an immersion problem. It’s the opposite: Half-Life had to earn things like the gluon gun with its commitment to its atmosphere, making these things seem like plausible bleeding edge tech from a laboratory working at the outer frontiers of science, when they would’ve come across as goofy hyper-tech if they were dropped in right from the start (and goofy hyper-tech would be fine in certain contexts, but not Half-Life, which takes place in something approximating the real world). Far Cry 2’s gritty setting of a country worn down by years (decades?) of civil war with secondhand weapons precludes that kind of tech, so it’s not a surprise or a problem that it’s limited to your more standard military armaments.

And it’s not Far Cry 2’s enemy AI that’s the problem, either. The AI have the aforementioned limping around and firing from the ground when nearly dead, which makes them much less predictable than your standard FPS enemies, including those from Half-Life. They’re also much more willing to flank and surround the player, and the absence of any red dots on a minimap means you can get surprised by a straggler in an area you thought you had cleared, and that finding a sniper can be a challenge. And they’ll happily run you over if they can, which is an anti-climactic but not unrealistic way to die (if you want to play FC2, learn to dive for cover when you hear an engine revving). Far Cry 2 is better than perhaps any other video game at getting across the chaos and tension of a modern battlefield, where there’s never any clear signal as to whether or not you’re safe or when you’re in danger (although the game’s AI is, of course, oversimplified compared to real battlefields, and you can eventually pick up on patterns for where enemies are located and when they bring in reinforcements – still, Far Cry 2 puts a lot more effort into mitigating the limitations of AI when emulating battlefield chaos, and it pays off).

No, the problem with Far Cry 2’s immersion is its ambition. Half-Life simulated an underground laboratory under attack from aliens. You see a lot of friendly scientists and security guards early on, but they thin out as the crisis goes on, as everyone is either killed or holed up in a secure location. Far Cry 2, on the other hand, aims to simulate an entire country. The map, even combining both north and south together, is all of 6×3 kilometers, but that’s enough to feel like a wide expanse of rural countryside. No, the problem is that, outside of the in-engine opening cut scene and a couple of mission-specific spawns, there are no civilians. If you see a car approaching, you can and should unload your LMG on it or shoot it with a rocket launcher or whatever, because it is always an enemy.

Despite the fact that you look pretty indistinguishable from the mercenaries employed by both sides, both factions attack you on sight even when they’re on patrol on the roads, even early on when (as tracked by the game’s reputation system) you are a total unknown. You should be indistinguishable from allied mercs of either faction, but somehow everyone knows to attack you immediately. Even guard posts shouldn’t necessarily be able to suss out that you’re an enemy right away. Plus, while you have to take jobs from both factions to complete the story, you can support one over the other exclusively until they run out of missions, then switch to the other. At minimum, during the first half of this process, you’d think the one faction would stop shooting at you. The briefings given before missions do make it clear that you’re valuable because you’re a deniable asset, one which their own troops don’t know is (for now) on their side, but that suggests that both rebel militias are shooting at everyone they don’t personally recognize. Unless these armies are both 200 or fewer troops, that should result in tons of friendly fire.

And, perhaps most important of all, the game’s immersion is broken by its irritating and frustrating mechanics added, most likely, out of a misguided obsession with realism. I mentioned earlier that enemies can run you over, but this is a very not-fun way to be forced to reload a save. Being overrun by enemies who get on all sides of you makes a lot of sense, you’re supposed to be just a regular mercenary so really it’s kind of weird that it takes like five or six people to overrun your position instead of just three (a consequence of the deep reserve of health you get from being Player One). But also, realistically speaking, why would you ever send one person by themselves to storm positions held by eight enemies? Realistic drawbacks are only immersive if you provide realistic solutions, but the realistic solution to the problem of being outflanked is to bring more guys with you. The best you get in Far Cry 2 is a single buddy, you can only get them on the field by almost dying, and they won’t follow you to your next objective, just hang out at the spot where they bailed you out that one time (which they won’t do again until you reach a new safehouse to refresh the buddy rescue).

Plus, as is often the case with these kinds of things, realistic features that make fights easier are ignored. The enemy retreats under only the most extreme of circumstnaces, only if you’ve killed the vast majority of their allies and you’ve completed enough missions to have a strong reputation as a deadly enemy (and it still happens so rarely that I wonder if the times I’ve seen enemy remnants running away is actually a bug). Given these are rebel militias and mercenaries, you would expect them to start running away much more easily.

It’s hard to tell exactly how much of the problem is that Far Cry 2 was overly ambitious and ran out of development time on which to deliver on their ambitions, and how much Far Cry 2’s devs thought of “realism” as synonymous with “hardcore” and ignored parts of reality which make things easy or pleasant. It’s true that reality is generally more gruesome and difficult than video games, so being realistic will move things in that direction, but there are in fact nice things in the real world that video games have failed to emulate, and leaving them out is immersion-breaking. For example, unlike in video games, the real world is primarily made up of people who aren’t murderers and don’t mean you any harm. Even in warzones where people who want to kill you are common enough that you bump into them frequently, they still make up a maximum of like 10% of the total population, often less.

The malaria attacks were considered the most annoying part of Far Cry 2, but for my money I think the way enemies instantly recognize you even at very low reputation is worse, especially when combined with how quickly they respawn. Regardless of exactly what feature was the most aggravating, there were lots of gameplay elements intended to make Far Cry 2 more gritty and realistic, and which might’ve worked if the game had been realistic in general, but unfortunately it uses realism exclusively to disempower the player.