A Look at the Latest: Aragami (PS4)

Aragami is a stealth action game that has a lot of great ideas about how to handle stealth gameplay. Some stealth games you’re too powerful, so sneaking around is more of an option rather than a requirement. Other stealth games might make you too weak so that your only choice is to slink around and hope you never get spotted. Aragami is definitely in between those extremes in a sweet spot that it nestles into quite comfortably. With perhaps the best toolkit of any stealth game I’ve played without pushing it too far overboard into overpowered territory, Aragami had a lot of potential to perhaps be a definitive game in the stealth action genre.

 

Aragami begins as you are summoned by a white-haired girl who has been captured by an enemy clan in a fictional take on Japan. In this world, the Aragami is a spirit of vengeance, your whole purpose being to enact this girl’s revenge on her captors and free her through the use of your shadowy powers. This setup is frankly pretty brilliant into feeding what makes Aragami such a perfect fit for stealth gameplay. The Aragami character is able to teleport to nearby shadows as a way of moving around, allowing you to sneak around areas without being locked down to a static character whose only mean of passing by enemies is to wait and run when there’s an opening. Of course, there is still quite a bit of waiting to line up your teleports right, but the shadow teleport makes areas a lot more interesting to navigate and allows you to sneak past enemies much more easily. The Aragami is a shadowy assassin too, and if you sneak up properly towards an enemy, you can kill them silently with a rather satisfying animation. Even if you get noticed, so long as you are fast enough, you can kill an enemy to prevent them from raising the alarm to call in their buddies, but you’re at a huge disadvantage in this department. If you aren’t quick on the draw, all the enemies have light-based weapons which will destroy your shadow body in an instant and set you back quite far in the level. Or, at least it felt quite far due to the slow nature of sneaking around a packed enemy camp and taking out bad guys one by one. It’s manageable, but it can still hurt to have a lot of your careful work undone, especially since the game can get pretty mean with enemy placement later on in the game.

The shadow teleporting is not your only trick, and the many options the game gives you is really what sets it apart from some of its stealth game kin. As you progress, you’ll find scrolls hidden throughout the levels that can be used to unlock new skills for your assassin. Before I mention any others, you should immediately invest in the one that allows your raven companion to be called on to give you hints on the locations of all the scrolls in a level. Not only do these scrolls let you tap into new skills, but they contain the bulk of the game’s story and worldbuilding, and what you learn of the game world through the main story can be confusing and far less engaging without this supplementary material. You owe it yourself to get this upgrade immediately.

 

The other upgrades aren’t quite as important, but they do give you a lot of nifty tricks to help you take down enemies and navigate levels in new ways. You can get the ability to turn invisible briefly to sneak past hard areas, you can get a skill to detect all enemies in the area that you can upgrade to track them permanently as well, and there are quite a few more… but sadly, even with the potential usefulness of these abilities, quite a lot of them are hampered by the limits the game imposes on them. One of the upgrades is the incredibly useful Kunai that you can throw at far off enemies, a godsend for taking down archers who have high towers to spot you from. Quite a lot of your techniques all share the same restrictive special meter that can take quite a while to recharge, so even though you are given cool ways to dispense enemies with black hole mines and blinding shadows, you’ll only really find use for those as novelties. The Kunai is just too reliable, and it would be a waste to use your power on other things that really are more flashy than effective. If the game had given each ability perhaps one use each before per charge, maybe then the abilities would be more useful and interesting. Little things like this is where a lot of Aragami’s potential begins to be wasted. You can try to distract guards with a noisy charm you pick up and you can cover your kills with a power that lets you make corpses disappear, so once again, the game likes to give you a lot of tools to be stealthy in an interesting way, but it feels like it limits itself a bit too much to let you make use of all of them. You even get a Shadow Kill attack that will restore your special powers AND disposes of the corpse immediately, but it takes time to execute and you’ll still find yourself sticking to the effective basics. Almost every skill could have been made much better with even just a few slight alterations. The black hole trap would be great if you didn’t have to be right next to the guys you want to use it on. Blinding enemies would be fun if there was some reason not to instantly kill them besides going for a no kill run. Even just speeding up the Shadow Kill a slight bit would mean the others skills are immediately more usable since you could risk it more often.

 

The core gameplay is still enjoyable for the most part. Hiding in the shadows will make you much more difficult to detect, and bouncing between them makes for very satisfying movement through the levels. Unfortunately, even that shadow teleport has its limits. The game environments have many shadows for you to hide in and many lights to weaken you, but the main error the game makes is that it also tries to do shadows with various levels of shading, with some lighter or thinner than others as well as areas that are rather dark but aren’t technically in shadow. With such a pivotal gameplay mechanic resting on easily identifying which areas qualify as dark enough, the game should have sacrificed some of its rather nice graphics to shore up the shadow consistency. Sometimes it’s difficult to discern just where you can teleport in an area, and your teleport’s range definitely doesn’t help with that either. I can totally understand why the developers decided to have the Aragami only able to teleport a set distance in any direction, but it feels just a tad too short almost all the time. Constantly shuffling forward a few steps until it finally puts the right shadow in range is tedious rather than intense, and when you are trying to do a stealth kill on an enemy, you’ll often find yourself doing the same awkward shuffle behind him as the stealth kill option requires you to be just a little too close to him to activate. There were many enemies I should have been able to stealth kill easily, but the finicky range of it instead allowed the guard to see me. I could usually get the kill after, but the game has a scoring system for those who are interested in it, and I can see many people getting cheated out of points because of moments like that.

Somewhat refreshingly for a stealth game, the areas you traverse are not cast in perpetual darkness. The game has many open bright settings even though it takes place at night. It is somewhat appropriate considering you are fighting an army who is adept in Light Essence, Essence essentially being the game’s version of magic. There are a few areas that are pretty typical visually, but the game takes you through many outdoor and indoor locations of various styles to keep the places you have to sneak about in interesting. The indoor areas can get a bit guilty of being too packed in with hallways and blind corners. Some areas set up where it’s all too easy to enter the next area and get immediately detected because of guards around the corner you couldn’t have seen without activating your limited detection skill. You can always hide and wait for the guards to cool down, and they do admittedly sink into that forgiving stealth game trope of giving up pretty easily on you and going back to their patrols. The game insists they are more wary afterwards, but it never felt noticeable if they were.

 

You may notice almost everything I say has to do with sneaking past or killing guards, and that’s another fault of the game. Almost every level follows the same mission structure: sneak around, kill bad guys, break some switches to open up the way ahead, get level item. The game ends up being too much about moving around rather than completing any sort of interesting ninja task. Maybe if there was some sort of interesting target you had to get to and kill without getting detected, or some simple puzzles to complete on your way through the level. If they want to keep the movement interesting, make areas that require a lot more thought to navigate, like an area filled with archers in high towers that you can’t kill so you have to weave through their lines of sight instead. The game does try to add a few moments of quick teleportation in a poor attempt at variety. There are crumbling platforms you can only stand on for a bit that are acceptable, but late in the game there is a long vertical spinning set of platforms you need to shadow teleport up, all while light lasers are moving around the room to try and kill you. It’s nearly impossible to tell how the light lasers are positioned on the platforms you need to teleport up to, and since you have to keep dodging the lasers on the level you’re on currently, it’s pretty much guesswork on if you can get up to the next level and be safe. Strangely, this is a case where I could see something like the 3D effects from the 3DS helping. Looking up at at a set of lasers so far off, the depth is incredibly hard to discern and you can’t really tell the one at a lethal height from the ones at a safe height. 3D would be at least somewhat of a solution, but really, the segment just isn’t that fun no matter what you do to fix it. The only other variety found is a few boss fights, and thankfully, they do not stray away from the stealth gameplay. They are more like the different kind of stealth challenges I wanted to see, with the bosses requiring a mastery of stealth rather than combat to take down. None of the bosses are particularly inspired, two of them just stronger variations of things you’ve already encountered, but they at least break away from the norm a bit.

 

Diverting from the gameplay for a bit, I do think the story, so long as you collect the scrolls, is a very good fit for the game and quite good in general. Sadly, there are a few issues with its presentation, the main one being locking important details in the scrolls, but the other being the manner the game presents it. In cutscenes, characters speak some phony language instead of English or Japanese as text boxes translate, with Yamiko, your white-haired companion and primary conversation partner, sounding a lot like Midna from Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess but with less clear emotions. She is a nice character at least, but a lot of what she says is hurt by her odd face and the way she emotes with it. Your character, the Aragami, probably does a better job of emoting than her despite his limited design, and she has a lot more important emotional moments to carry. The story is mostly told through flashbacks you slowly get as you find the level items, and while the game does link them together eventually, it leaves a bit too much of the context to the scrolls to explain. The scrolls, at least, are well-written and incredibly interesting, although strangely, they seem to paint a picture that creates a world bigger than the one the game takes place in. For example, you learn that this world has people who specialize in the magic styles of Fire, Water, Earth, Wind, Shadow, and Life Essences. However, you only ever see the Shadow and Light ones used during gameplay. Characters that are given long backstories in the scrolls seem to pop up suddenly in the story if you did not read the proper material beforehand. The scrolls are definitely a worthy reward considering how much they add to the game, but the dependence on them to keep up with the story is more than a little puzzling.

THE VERDICT: I legitimately think that Aragami had the potential to be one of the best stealth action games ever made, at least from a mechanical standpoint. The shadow teleportation, all the tricks you unlock, and the moment to moment gameplay and level design could all make for a thrilling stealth game that doesn’t dip too far in either of the extremes of combat or hiding. Unfortunately, most everything is hampered by some minor flaw that takes away from what could have been a much more enjoyable experience. Your range is a tad too short, your skills are a tad too limiting, the levels are a tad too similar, the story a tad too confusing without the scrolls, and the game a tad too small for the story the scrolls make you interested and invested in.

 

And so, I give Aragami for the Playstation 4…

A GOOD rating. Aragami feels at times more like a foundation for something greater. Being able to track the collectibles is great, having so many skills to navigate a level and take down enemies makes stealth gameplay far more rewarding and varied,  having a strong story as your spine makes it all worth doing… but all of these need a lot more work before this game can be more than just a collection of good ideas. Another amazing idea the game has is the idea of stealth co-op, which no doubt can be a blessing or a curse. Someone unfamiliar with stealth games will no doubt frustrate their partner by raising alarms and sneaking around poorly, but if you can play the game with someone competent enough, it can feel like a clan of ninjas working together. Everything Aragami does is Good Enough, but if Lince Works can take all they’ve worked on here and make an Aragami 2 where they tweak everything ever so slightly to make things smoother, they might end up with the definitive stealth action experience on their hands.

 

For now, Aragami will still be overshadowed by other games, but even though it comes up short in a sometimes literal way, Aragami is an enjoyable and interesting stealth game that is bound to please any fan of the genre and perhaps a few people who aren’t.

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