Aragami is a sight for sore eyes if you're a fan of the stealth genre. While we have incredible games integrating its conventions with Dishonored, Assassin's Creed, and even Wolfenstein: The New Order, they treat stealth gameplay as an equal alternative to action rather than the only realistic option. Seasoned game series like Metal Gear Solid and Thief are primary examples of the latter, emphasising stealth to the point of making combat a major threat. Aragami falls in line with this traditional focus on stealth gameplay, but is it worth leaving in the shadows or exposing to the light for all to see?
One thing for sure is that our eponymous hero prefers the dark. He's a dark spirit made incarnate from the afterlife, summoned by Princess Yamiko because of his unfulfilled vengeance in life. He must save her from the clutches of the Kaiho clan, which is an army of light that ruthlessly took down her empress and the Nisshoku people. Now it's up to you to find talismans associated with Yamiko that the Kaiho have spread across the lands, and by gathering them where she is imprisoned, she will be rightfully freed to restore what was lost.
However, this isn't your typical "princess in a castle" story, as the game humorously pokes fun at itself at one point. There's a rich history to explore with flashbacks that Aragami experiences with memories of his prior life and Yamiko's past. Exposition through dialogue and lore with collectable scrolls reference key players and events that give more context to the conflict between the Kaiho and Nisshoku. While we thought it would be uninteresting fluff, it's surprisingly deep and worth investing in. You'll be able to more easily follow and understand the campaign's extraneous details and plot twists, and with that comes a more enjoyable story.
Along the way, you'll be travelling across tranquil forests and cobbled streets to reach the city of Kyuryu, where Yamiko is trapped. This affords plenty of settings where dozens of bow wielders and swordsmen patrol your surroundings, which you must carefully navigate in the shadows. However, shadows aren't just an obvious choice for your character to take advantage of – they're a necessity to fuel his dark abilities. This is indicated by a neat implementation of UI info with his cloak's design, which not only shows what ability you have equipped with cool illustrations, but also white lines that drain if you use shadow-based moves that only fade back when you're immersed in darkness. You can naturally run, crouch, and perform assassinations, but when it comes to abilities like teleporting à la Blink in Dishonored or becoming temporarily invisible, you have to be aware of your limits and environment to keep these powers up.
That's why lamps, fire, and the light-endowed soldiers you come across can result in instant failure. Not only can you be exposed, but also devoid of your usual abilities. This forces you to evaluate your approaches to every area, which can be great fun whether you choose to spare or slaughter your foes in silence. It's incredibly reminiscent to how the Tenchu series works, but the addition of harnessing shadow mixes things up.
There are six abilities total, and they're evenly split to cater to pacifists and murderers. By collecting those scrolls, you unlock skill points that can be put toward the ability to create a shadow facade that distracts guards or another that blinds someone for a few seconds. More violent alternatives allow you to throw a shadow kunai or summon a dragon behind someone that instantly drags their body into the nether realms. These moves and more are essential to incrementally evolving how you navigate levels and deal with foes, which prevents the gameplay from becoming too familiar over time, especially when you're able to start stringing together two to three moves to satisfying effects.
You're rewarded by fully erasing or avoiding your enemies, so we switched back and forth between these two playstyles to keep things fresh. While we could tell the former was the greater and more arduous task compared to the latter on average, we never felt like either strategy was too simple. While some areas may be easier if you ignore soldiers, picking off people one by one was admittedly a better option on occasion. This shows great attention to level design and AI placement to prevent players from favouring one playstyle too much, which should be rightly commended.
But that doesn't mean the game gracefully sneaks past our watchful eye. The AI did baffle us on rare occasions by instantly seeing us from the shadows and noticing our presence when they were turned around. Aiming can also be aggravating when trying to Shadow Leap to ledges or casting a brief shadow over an unlit surface, which would result in us trying to aim ever so precisely to find the right spot until we could execute either move. However, the biggest shadow looming over Aragami is intrusive performance issues. It ran around 20-25 frames-per-second most of the time, with major stutters between cutscenes and during gameplay, too. When you throw in some rough edges evident in the animation quality, we have to say that the game's appeal is slightly hindered with issues like these, which we hope are partly addressed in a future patch.
Despite these grievances, Aragami still has a lot going for it. The cel-shaded art style adds to the appeal of environments and character models, even if some of the finer details and textures aren't that impressive. But that's not the case for the music. It's excellently composed by Twin Feathers and the glorious Videri String Quartet with violins, percussion, flutes, female vocals, and the occasional Hyōshigi or Shamisen. They contribute to a haunting, suspenseful soundtrack that always fits the mood. Well, excluding when electric rock guitars came in during the mediocre boss fights, which we thought were based more on circumstantial luck than skill to beat.
When you do reach the end after over 10 hours of play, there's even a campaign multiplayer mode. While we weren't able to test it for ourselves, we see a lot of awesome potential in the collaboration this mode could bring forth. Having a partner allows opportunities to carry out complex tactics to eliminate multiple foes at once, and we think that the game would be even more entertaining this way. So, if you play mercifully solo, we'd highly recommend ramping up the death toll with a friend the second time around.
The patient, cunning mindset Aragami puts you in with its strictly stealth gameplay is something we long for with more titles. With simple yet smart level design and mechanics, it proves to be a focused title with heart and soul that has learned much from its old masters. But the game does lack polish in its performance and appearance, and the AI can be irritating at times. Fortunately, the release's story, visuals, and sound design ultimately help lift it out of the darkness.