Stealth games offer a thrilling sense of satisfaction that you can’t quite get from a lot of other genres. Using quick thinking and environmental awareness to outsmart and neutralize your opponents combines the mental gymnastics of the puzzle-genre with the satisfying nature of action games. Series like Tenchu and Thief are standout classics in the genre because, unlike a lot of modern games stealth games that have added more and more action, you were either stealthy or you were dead. Aragami is a passionate love letter to those classic stealth games, but it’s a letter written in sloppy handwriting.
Created by newly formed Spanish indie studio Lince Works, Aragami doesn’t just earn it’s comparisons to Tenchu through gameplay. The game takes place in feudal Japan, and incorporates all of the historic architecture and spiritual themes that come with that setting. The entire game is rendered in a gorgeous, inky cel shaded style that makes the environments and characters pop even more than usual. While the characters in the game speak in short, garbled phrases, you can hear hints of Japanese phonetics and vocabulary, which is a nice touch.
You play as an Aragami, a god of vengeance summoned by a kidnapped princess in an effort to eliminate the people who trapped her and her family. Throughout the eight hour story, you begin to unravel the reasons for her kidnapping, as well as pieces of memories from both her past and yours. The contrast between the bright and energetic princess and the stoic silent Aragami bring some interesting moments of interaction, but for most of the game, the gameplay takes priority over story beats and exposition.
Much like Tenchu or the Shinobido series, Aragami is a third person game where staying in the shadows is of the utmost importance. Your character is a being made purely of shadow, so while his abilities are fueled and recharged by being in the shadows, they are also drained by being in the light. They involve the direct manipulation of shadows, with one of the most important ones being a Dishonored-style teleport, which lets you instantly travel to any nearby patch of shadow. You can also create new temporary pools of shadow in areas where there are none, and combining this with your blink ability gives you a huge amount of mobility options and opportunities.
The way they blend the mechanics of the game with the story and character are really smart, and do a great job of illustrating the importance of these to the player. There’s no traditional HUD, but everything you need to know is incorporated into the character himself. Your cloak glows white when you have the energy to perform moves, and you see the glow refill as you stand in shadows, while being in the shadows keeps you pitch black, but stepping into the light reveals your characters colors. One point that the game stumbles over is the reason why all enemies can kill you in one hit. Yes, it forces you maintain perfect stealth, but it’s only because every single enemy is equipped with swords and arrows imbued with powerful light energy.
There are a number of other abilities and upgrades to acquire throughout the game, but the way you go about earning these upgrades is poorly thought out. Normally, a game might have you earn skill points by completing objectives, reaching the end of levels or achieving certain feats. In Aragami, there are tiny hidden scrolls scattered across every level, and collecting them gives you small text passages to read in the pause menu that flesh out the world. They’re collectibles, and the game even labels them as collectibles at the end of levels. However, finding these incredibly well hidden scrolls is also how you obtain upgrades.
In multiple missions, I would meticulously kill every enemy and explore the entire map trying to find scrolls, leave with one or two and figure that was all, only to discover that there were six to find after completing the level. There’s an ability you can get that marks the locations of all scrolls in a level by tapping a directional button, but it costs nearly seven scrolls to unlock. Especially considering the game gives you points for performing different kinds of kills, it feels like tying points to ability progression would have been a lot smarter, as opposed to forcing you to tirelessly search every corner just to progress your character.
Unfortunately, that’s far from the end of my problems with Aragami. I could barely keep count of the number of times the game hitched and stuttered, practically every time the game needed to load something, whether a building coming into view for the first time or at the start of every cutscene. Early in the game, there’s a cutscene where a lone guard walks past a doorway, where we suddenly see Aragami standing there. It would have been a really cool and dramatic moment, if the game didn’t freeze for a full second as it loaded Aragami’s model.
The gameplay has a lot of fun depth to it, but half the time I felt the frame rate hitches and sudden freezing dragging me right out of the moment. On top of that, the core gameplay itself is soured by some wonky enemy AI. There were a lot of times where I walked up to an enemy at an awkward angle and killed him with no fuss despite very much being seen by him. Enemies are also apparently supposed to deflect my attacks if they’re alerted and I attempt to kill them head on, but there were plenty of times where I ran up to an alerted enemy or fell in front of him and tapped the kill button with no consequences. These issues don’t necessarily make run-and-gun tactics feasible, but they’re just bits of awkwardness that kill some of the stealth tension.
The game also features a co-op mode, which I didn’t get a chance to try out for myself. I can see something like that adding another layer to the game, and with the relatively open-nature of every level in the game, having two players synchronized and helping each other out sounds like it could be a good time.
You can see the passion and care put into Aragami from a mile away. Everything about the game shows a love for the stealth genre and the games that made the genre so great. Unfortunately, it isn’t until you get up close and start to play the game that you also see all the cracks. Aragami has a lot going for it, but it also has a lot going against it, and those issues keep a good game from being a great game.
Version tested: PS4