When the announcement trailer for Aragami was released I was captivated by it. The art style was impactful and vibrant and the atmospheric musical score was elegant and delicate. But looking and sounding amazing do not alone make a decent video game, but with a great setting and promise of an exciting stealth game, I was eager to try it out.
Aragami at its core is a challenging third person stealth game. The player takes the role of Aragami, a vengeful spirit who has been summoned by Yamiko, the only surviving member of a clan that was wiped out by a rival clan, the Kaiho. Yamiko used a ritual to being Aragami to life with just one goal, to exact revenge upon the Kaiho. Aragami is a ninja, but a ninja with supernatural powers that enable him to use the shadows to his advantage by harnessing it to fuel his dark abilities that only grow stronger as the story progresses.
From the very start however, Aragami has a rather constrictive opening to the game where he is literally born into the world but has to learn about who and what he is and that includes his abilities and powers. So the early stages ultimately focus on the stealth nature of the game as the player not only learns how to use Aragami’s powers but restricted to what powers can be used. Each mission essentially is about getting from the beginning point A to the exit at point B, by going as undetected as possible through each area. Enemy guards are patrolling each area, with patrol routes and guard points and the player has to navigate around them to reach the goal or exit.
The way in which shadows play a part in the stealth is great fun. Shadows not only allow Aragami to do his Ninja stuff but they also serve as the source of his powers. The basic abilities include the ability to teleport between shadows and to create shadows to allow the use of his powers in areas without shadows. More abilities can be unlocked which will aid in more stealthy killing and to track enemies so you can plan your path accordingly. Defensive and offensive skills are unlocked later in the game that open up more options for the player but for the early chapters you are stuck only using the basic shadow abilities and this is where I found Aragami to be rather harsh.
It uses all the now standard stealth gameplay techniques you would expect but it rarely allows you to break from being stealthy. It wants the player to be a true shadow and remain undetected but will put obstacles in your way such as enemies that will tempt you to engage them. Whilst you can perform stealth kills, being more action orientated can be punishing as the enemies, if they see you within melee range, can instantly kill you with their attacks. If guards are alerted to something being wrong, such as discovering a body or if the player is seen, then every guard is alerted and will begin a search for you until you either leave the area or can remain undetected during their search. Not only are the guards highly reactive to any mistake you make but the layout of the environments have plenty of light sources such as fires or candle lanterns which not only make Aragami highly visible, but they will also drain his shadow power and prevent their use.
All together this can lead to some very frustrating encounters in the opening chapters as the player is learning how to use the shadow abilities but also just to navigate the environment. Moving from cover to cover without the abilities is possible but make a mistake near a guard or two and the game will punish the player with a straight death leading to a checkpoint restart, undoing minutes of gameplay. On controller I found that using Shadow Leap to teleport between shadows could be very clumsy especially when trying to use it to jump to higher vantage points with the camera being unforgiving when trying to find a point to leap to. Taking out guards with a stealth kill is satisfying with beautifully animated executions and this side of the game becomes more enjoyable as more offensive techniques are unlocked to allow more range attacks as well as traps to take out guards to help clear a path through a section.
Completing a chapter will have the performance of the player scored according to how they approached it. Be truly stealthy and remain undetected either by avoiding combat altogether or by killing all the guards and you will score a high rating. Being detected or having the guards alerted too many times and the score will be docked. The game really wants the player to perfect the art of stealth, forcing the player to really learn how to play without the stronger shadow abilities and techniques first before making life a little easier with them. For some players who enjoy such a challenge Aragami delivers it on a plate but for players perhaps not that familiar with other stealth based games, it does have a steep learning curve early on which could be off putting.
The story is told via interaction between Aragami and Yamiko in dialogue scenes as Aragami is really like a new born in that he does not know the world around him or his abilities and so relies on Yamiko to help him understand not only what has happened and why he was summoned but also in understanding his powers. Cut-scenes help tell the story as Aragami begins to experience the memories of Yamiko and of what happened to her, a side effect of the ritual used to summon him. It is a wonderfully told story but one which never moves beyond that of simply seeking vengeance.
The soothing musical score really suits the style of stealth being experienced with its quiet and calming melodies that lift the experience during play. It really is one of the best written and performed soundtracks to a game I have played this year and compliments the stunning visual cell shaded style of the game. The little details such as Aragami almost turning to shadow when shrouded in darkness is a nice touch just as being near light robs him of that cloak of invisibility. You can even see via the tunic Aragami wears, when his shadow abilities are fueled by shadow as it will glow with energy when in shadow but the player can see it draining away when in lighted areas. The environments are well designed to offer different routes to the exit made possible by utilising the shadow abilities such as Shadow Leap. It really is a beautiful world to experience through the game.
Fans of stealth games will find that Aragami can be a really satisfying and fulfilling gaming experience. Though it can be unforgiving early on, persistence opens up more and more ways in which the player can tackle each chapter with each new technique cleverly giving the player the option of a tutorial to understand how to use it before trying it in the game world. It also has a clever co-op play via the multiplayer option where you can team up with another player to share the experience is a great touch as well. I often found myself simply at the menu screen listening and absorbing its sublime music and its one of the most striking looking game I have enjoyed this year. But Aragami is a stealth game and by sticking to that rigid gameplay style and a harsh learning curve might make this one for die-hard stealth fans only, which would be a shame as it has so many aspects that elevate it to possibly being something very special indeed among all the heavy hitter blockbuster releases hitting the store each week.
Aragami is a game which wants the player to stay in the shadows but it is a game that deserves to have a light shone upon it as it needs to be seen….and played.