I wasn’t expecting very much from this game. I saw the trailer a couple of weeks ago and wasn’t impressed, it appeared to be a very simplistic and linear stealth game that would have almost no lasting appeal. The fact it was labeled as a purely stealth-based game with no actual combat was another red flag for me, so I didn’t give the game a second thought. But since the game I am really looking forward to playing, Dishonored 2, won’t be released until November, I decided to give Aragami a try for shits and giggles. Even if it didn’t outright thrill me, it would at least probably help prepare me for the stealth-based gameplay in Dishonored 2. To my very pleasant surprise, Aragami ended up being a much more enjoyable experience than I was expecting it to be; this being my first indie game made it even more of a pleasant surprise. Developer Lince Works have crafted a truly enjoyable title here. Sure, the game has some flaws, but its good points make all the difference.
For one thing, the story in Aragami is deep and well developed, certainly more so than my cursory first glance at the game suggested it would be. The dialogue is all text based, but it works well for this dark fairytale type of story. You are the titular Aragami, a vengeful spirit of shadows summoned by an imprisoned princess named Yamiko who guides her would-be rescuer to where she is being held so she can be liberated from her captors, the Light controlling army of warriors known as the Kaiho. The world of Aragami is a rich world with fully realized lore and lots of history behind it. Its Asian themed imagery, anime styled graphics and animations, and story that focuses on different sects and groups that can control element-based essences like Light, Shadow, Fire, Water, and Earth give the game a rather unique style that seamlessly blends the elements of certain anime that the game was likely inspired by, namely Avatar: The Last Airbender and Naruto. The relationship between Aragami and Yamiko grows and changes as their adventure together continues, and the game’s climax and ending was certainly a memorable experience.
The gameplay blends elements from the ninja focused series of stealth games known as Tenchu (one of my earliest PlayStation series of games) and another game I coincidentally referenced earlier, Dishonored. As I said before, Aragami is a pure stealth game with no direct combat. With the Aragami character being a spirit of Shadow, the Light weapons and abilities wielded by his enemies are basically his Kryptonite. Enemies alerted to Aragami’s presence will automatically block any sword or Shadow attacks that Aragami throws at them, so the only thing he can and should do if he gets spotted is run like hell and hide; should any attack from an enemy hit Aragami…he’s dead. Personally, I probably would have preferred the option to be able to battle against at least one enemy should one spot you. In the Tenchu games you could at least defend yourself should an enemy spot you, though fighting more than two or three enemies in those games would normally lead to a swift death.
On the other hand, the fact that Aragami is such a fragile character made the stealth in this game much more engaging. Death is literally lurking around every corner, so I made sure to bide my time and watch enemy patrol patterns before making my move since one slip up could lead to a very quick death…and I liked that (well, except for those two times I slipped up and died by dropping myself into water hazards). The fact that death comes easily in this game if you’re not careful, coupled with the fact that some checkpoints in most of the game’s missions are kind of far apart, further drives you to get into that “unseen assassin” mindset. When first going into this game, I was quite concerned that having to sneak through every mission and not fight any enemies would lead to a feeling of repetition. While some repetition did creep in on rare occasions, thankfully the fear of being caught and killed by an enemy should I slip up even slightly made every mission exciting from start to finish. That goes double for three specific missions in the last quarter of the game featuring some really intense and challenging stealth encounters against boss enemies that easily compare with the stealth-heavy encounter with Mr. Freeze in Batman: Arkham City.
Another aspect of the game’s stealth that I really enjoyed was Aragami’s collection of awesome Shadow abilities, and this is where the Dishonored inspiration comes in. Aragami’s main ability known as Shadow Leap works very much like Corvo’s Blink ability, allowing Aragami to teleport to any shadowy areas within range, whether they’re just a few feet away or above on high ledges. Sticking to the shadows not only renders Aragami invisible to enemies unless they’re right on top of him, it also allows Aragami’s Shadow energy (which powers his Shadow Leap) to regenerate, whereas wandering into brightly lit areas will make Aragami easily visible to enemies and also drain his Shadow energy. Much like with gaining and upgrading powers in Dishonored by finding hidden runes scattered around the levels, Aragami can acquire and upgrade additional Shadow powers by finding scrolls hidden in the levels, and these scrolls also include notes/journals that reveal more background information on the game’s characters and lore, so taking the time to track them down is definitely worth it.
Some of the Shadow abilities that Aragami can gain access to through these scrolls include creating decoys to distract enemies, throwing shadow kunai to instantly kill distant enemies, dissolving enemy corpses so they won’t be discovered by other enemies, turning temporarily invisible, and more. While it is possible to “ghost” through this game by slipping past all enemies without killing them, I personally preferred taking advantage of Aragami’s abilities to do away with those irritating enemy guards blocking my progress. There’s nothing quite so satisfying as luring two or three enemies to a designated spot and then activating a spell that sucks them into a miniature black hole, or sneaking up on an enemy and summoning a shadowy dragon or serpent to devour him whole.
The game does have some flaws though, other than the complete lack of direct combat. One limiting factor is how Aragami can’t jump or even climb over obstructions like crates, small ledges, or waist high walls, he must use Shadow Leap in order to traverse them. The game also suffers from frame-rate stutters and pauses, normally when a cutscene begins or ends, and there is noticeable screen tearing when moving the camera around a lot. It’s also worth mentioning that there are really only two types of enemies: sword wielding warriors and archers. This would normally be a huge issue, but in a game that features no combat it doesn’t really matter at all.
The graphics, while not terribly detailed, do have a nice anime-style quality to them, and that goes double for the flashback scenes that feature the type of animation you’d expect to see in an actual anime. The Oriental background music for the missions is strangely soothing, and this works in the game’s favor by somewhat lessening the feeling of anxiety at possibly being caught and killed by a passing enemy; however, the music does pick up at appropriate moments as well. Oh, and there’s an online co-op element where you can play missions alongside another player, but I never tried it since I prefer going solo, especially in a game like this (I can easily see my “partner” trolling me by letting himself get caught on purpose and giving away our positions just for laughs…no thanks).
So, if you’re the type of gamer who prefers straight up action or at least the option to fight your way through enemies when stealth doesn’t work, then this is not the game for you. However, if you’re looking to try out a game that captures that old school, pure stealth element that hasn’t really been seen that much since the old Tenchu games, then look no further than Aragami. And I for one am curious to see what Lince Works can cook up next.
Developer: Lince Works
Publisher: Maximum Games
Platforms: PS4, PC
Release Date: 4th October 2016