|Platforms||PC (reviewed), PS4|
|Release Date||October 4, 2016|
Review code provided
Aragami is a return to a genre that has more or less disappeared in recent years. A stealth adventure game with the emphasis placed firmly on stealth, this cel-shaded entry almost immediately recalls such legendary games as Tenchu or Mark of the Ninja, and not just because of the Samurai setting and heavy use of Japanese culture throughout its world. It’s because it puts the stealth back into stealth games.
The game throws you into the robes of an Aragami, a nameless shadow spirit summoned by Yamiko, a young woman who has been imprisoned in Kyuryu. The land has been overtaken by the Kaiho and your job is to rescue Yamiko and exact vengeance on the army of light for everything they’ve done to her and her people. Luckily that’s exactly what you exist for as a spirit of vengeance.
Rather than waging a one-spirit war against the army of light, your approach is more befitting of a shadow spirit. Stealth is your weapon in Aragami. The game takes the diluted stealth genre and strips it back to basics. There is no option to attack the enemy head on. If you’re spotted by a guard they’ll annihilate you with a single hit. As in the stealth games of old, Aragami is about planning and patience.
Watching guards and figuring out their patrol patterns, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike without retaliation or slip through their lines undetected. That’s your choice. Move through the various levels unseen like a phantom or strike from the shadows like an unseen predator. Aragami is a slow-paced game of strategy as opposed to a fast-paced action game. It returns to the fundamentals of the genre and is all the better for it.
Every part of this game is put together to create one of the most compelling stealth experiences of recent years. While enemy AI can be a little bit dopey, the way they’ve been implemented in the game is brilliant. There are precious few gaps in their patrols for you to exploit and they are not easily identifiable. Careful planning and movement are the only things that will prevent you from being on the wrong end of a blast of light.
If you’re sloppy, those gaps will become smaller and fewer. If you’re seen by a guard a detection meter will fill and you’ll be given a second or two to react and hide. If you’re only seen for a split second the guard will think nothing of it, otherwise the guard will leave his position or patrol route to check what he saw. If a guard finds the dead body of his comrade he’ll sound the alarm, causing everyone in the area to begin hunting for you.
When they return to their positions, however, you’ll find that their patrols have changed. After your enemies have confirmed that there’s an assassin prowling the shadows their patrol routes become more aggressive. Suddenly they’ll start checking more corners, covering even more of the area and squeezing your opportunities to sneak by them or pick them off. It’s a fantastic system that adds a dynamic level to the gameplay – if you mess up, you’re definitely going to feel the pain of it even if you escape a death sentence.
As a shadow spirit, sticking to the shadows is the best way forward, and Aragami has various shadow-based powers to aid him in his quest. You’ll start with a couple of basic powers – the ability to create a shadow and the ability to teleport between them. As you play through the game and find scrolls hidden throughout the various levels, which grant you ability points and background lore, you’ll be able increase your suite of shadow powers and upgrade your existing ones.
While Aragami is a game all about keeping you on your toes and providing you with a genuine, stealth-based challenge, these abilities can make you feel empowered. You’ll be able to unlock abilities that can turn Aragami invisible for a short period of time, throw insta-kill projectiles, make guards’ bodies disappear or even summon a shadow creature to devour a poor, unsuspecting bad guy. While these abilities certainly help and make you feel like a badass, you’ll never feel overpowered by them.
Aragami’s core gameplay loop is rewardingly addictive. Crouching in the shadows, watching your enemies and waiting for your opportunities is compelling. There’s no easy or obvious path through the game’s levels and that makes it all the more satisfying whenever you progress. From taking out a single guard to getting through an entire area, Aragami is a game of gratification. If you’re killed then the game instantly loads back at the beginning of the area for you to try again, armed with the lessons you’ve learned.
All of this takes place in some of the best-designed levels I’ve encountered in a while, perhaps all year. The levels in Aragami are huge, sprawling areas with multiple paths to approaching your enemies and objectives. By exploring around a bit (something you’re going to want to do anyway to find the scrolls you need to expand your abilities) I was able to find a fair few various ways to approach any given area of a level. Part of what makes Aragami work so damn well as a stealth game is this freedom and that the levels are so meticulously well designed.
I only have one gripe with the game – its boss fights. It’s not that I think the fights themselves are bad. They’re actually really well thought out. They’re a microcosm of the game itself – a condensed version of what Aragami does brilliantly well in a smaller stage with an ultimate bad guy to defeat in multi-stage objectives. The game doesn’t upend its excellent mechanics and throw you into open combat, which is nice. The big problem I have with the boss fights is that the boss always knows where you are and makes a line straight for you. No matter what. It’s infuriating that you can’t hide or escape from them.
It almost feels like these boss fights were designed with co-op in mind, with one player distracting the boss and trying not to die while the other completes the objectives required to allow you to take him down. Oh yes, Aragami has co-op, which is the cherry on top of this wonderful stealth sundae. Two players can play through the entirety of the campaign, working together to beat the game, which is an absolutely fantastic idea, adding replayability to a game that already has it thanks to a score-based rating system.
In fact, there’s so much more praise I can heap on Aragami. Its cel-shaded graphics look great, making its colours pop and working really well for the gameplay by making the bright and dark areas stand out, which is handy for a game where light and shadow are the main themes. The game also has no UI cluttering up the screen – all the pertinent information you’ll need while playing is displayed on the back of the main characters cape. Oh, and the music is pretty fantastic too.
Aragami is an excellent and extremely welcome return to the fundamentals of stealth gaming. The emphasis is firmly on stealth – there’s no room for open combat here, once you’re caught you’re dead. Aragami comes with excellent level design that affords you the freedom to approach its levels in a variety of different ways, with a suite of powers and abilities giving you an extra layer of flexibility. While enemy AI is a little on the dopey side, their deployment patterns and patrol routes more than make up for this, and the mechanic that sees them take on more aggressive patrols once they know you’re around is an excellent addition.
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