Aragami – Final Review

Aragami, as a pure stealth title, can be an occasionally brutal experience, the player character – the titular Aragami – defenseless upon detection, recognition often equating to a swift and violent death. Certain offensive abilities are purchasable, but they do little to lessen the punishing nature of the gameplay – punishing, though never frustrating. Despite Aragami’s vulnerabilities, and the seemingly insurmountable odds with which he is faced, stemming from the overwhelming quantity of patrolling guards, success remains achievable, though that success requires considerable patience. Triumphing, then, is a glorious, satisfying affair. In efforts to foster the inviting – to further dissipate frustration – respawning after death is near instantaneous, with zero load times, indispensable when considering the great frequency of death throughout the campaign. Enemy A.I. is alert, though their perceptiveness is not too exaggerated as to evoke notions of cheapness; their programming and behaviors are excellently done, and considering A.I. behavior is crucial to an effective stealth title, here the game succeeds, seizing upon this pillar, building upon it.

Given its stealth roots, it follows that line-of-sight is critical to the gameplay systems, though other complexities also exist, particularly when considering the nature of sounds, also critical to detection or evasion, sprinting naturally producing more audible noise than does crouch walking, or advancing forward in a traditional gait. In efforts to further the minutia of sound, a useful bell is wielded by Aragami, which can be activated at any moment – a valuable tool, it is able to alter enemy movement patterns, permitting redirection or increasing enemy vulnerability, prompting the guard to leave his post, also opening up new avenues of movement. Beyond sound design, it is principally the visual which matters – the mentioned line-of-sight fast shows its importance; in immense shadows, Aragami is nearly invisible, position foiled solely by the intimate approach of guard, stumbling upon Aragami, opening him up for swift destruction. Considering the nature of shadows – the opportunities for concealment they permit – much of the game is spent bounding from darkness to darkness, easily done given the intuitive powers at the player’s disposal, the majority focusing on mobility and maneuverability – facilitating most strongly this freedom is a brief teleportation ability, “shadow leap.” When employing this ability, instantaneous motion occurs, highly useful in all scenarios, central to the gameplay. In efforts at achieving balance, though, its strengths are tempered somewhat – the final warping destination need be blanketed in shadows to permit traversal, while these systems are measured, their usage directly tied to “shadow essence,” a mechanic which prevents the abilities’ overuse or abuse. Exceedingly useful for both stealth and exploration, Aragami can use the power to fast obtain elevation, while an intuitive mantling system is in place – locomotion is an enjoyable affair, height also crucial to maintaining anonymity. Under pressure, the ability can be rather finnicky to activate, lending to the game somewhat unintentional tension.   

With the significance of the shadows, this ability can be disabled by light, all of Aragami’s strength and endurance attributable to the shadows, his bastion and sole source of sustained sanctuary; remain away from the shadows for any considerable duration, and Aragami becomes vulnerable, helpless, even as a plethora of active and passive upgrades are obtained. Remaining in direct light, moreover, results in even faster depletion of Aragami’s shadow essence, these systems mandating a near constancy of presence in these patches of darkness. With this system, a sort of tactical planning is necessitated before directly engaging a foe – can I chance this engagement, or will total vulnerability emerge before success is achievable? It is wondrous, that these considerations exist, lending to the game considerable depth – Aragami shows sufficient novelty here. In fairness, too, this shadow essence recharges automatically, once the retreat of the shadows is regained – few were the instances where energy was entirely depleted, though overwhelming tension persists; helplessness is not eternal, at least if aggressiveness is not pursued always. This shadow essences – its moderation – extends to the game’s upgrade systems, like the summoning of a decoy, or more exotic abilities. Some of these are mundane, related to the damage output of deadly kunai, or an increase in carrying capacity for those selfsame weapons, initially very slight, requiring further moderation. This dearth of abundancy oft results in a risk/reward scenario, and occasionally risky actions are encouraged, with shrines scattered about the environment which refill the charges for certain of these abilities, essentially lengthening the carrying capacity of those kunai. Collectively, these powers are exceedingly useful, resulting in continued freshness in the gameplay; becoming temporarily, totally invisible, moving at a lighting swift pace, producing no noise – these are exhilarating moments, and some are notable as they mark a brief break from the game’s purity of stealth.

In a clever maneuver, the graphics tie directly to these gameplay systems. There is no HUD whatsoever, only serving to heighten the nature of the game’s immersion, with very little intrusiveness. Other, more creative ways of displaying detection level are also present – here is no light gem or anything of the sort to muddle the screen. Instead, Aragami’s cape and silhouette change in accordance with his positioning, becoming black while in shadows’ embrace, becoming red and white when fully exposed or situated in a place of brightness. It is clever; it is creative. Furthering this hands-off design philosophy, the active ability is also displayed on Aragami’s cape, the symbol of a kunai present therein when it is available at the press of a button, characterized by a certain artsiness in its simplicity, showing also the amount of charges for that ability, each orb representing the number of current usages. Furthering this minimalistic approach, no map system is present, though the game is highly linear, even as the environments themselves can be sprawling and epic in scope. Despite this largeness, rare was confusion and uncertainty of where precisely to advance – it is difficult to become lost, at least for any considerable duration. Should such confusion arise, a summonable raven and companion to Aragami is summonable on the instant, highlighting on the HUD the current objective, and the location of restorative shines, before promptly disappearing, the HUD again becoming clean and uncluttered. True, one purchasable upgrade highlights enemies through walls, showing also their cones of vision, though save for these few exceptions, the UI is intuitive and streamlined to an admirable extent.

Environmentally, the game shows the repetitious, faltering technically though excelling creatively; low texture quality is tempered by a commanding, engrossing whimsicality, the environments morphing into a character in their own right, fostering a strong oriental atmosphere; pagodas, arches, an overabundance of blooming cherry blossoms – the game is beautiful, its use of color admirable. This visual design, too, is cohesive, the shifting from level to level never jarring, sprawling castles complemented by overgrown forested areas and ancient mausoleums, synergizing into one compelling whole. Water effects are cartoonish in construction, lighting is spectacular, while a beautiful blue sky, oft dotted with stars and a brightly shining moon, looms overhead always, the game eagerly embracing darkness, while never fully spurning light in some capacity. Aragami’s design, meanwhile, is compelling, the ancient samurai used as inspiration for his design – hooded in red, with a blade and sheath on his waist, he is likable and intimidating, even without uttering a single word. The repetitious emerges, though, when considering the game’s consistency – what is an asset is at the same time a glaring flaw; the starting area is mostly the same as the concluding level, though notable vacillations are present, a constant shifting between the open and claustrophobic, which accordingly demand different tactics in gameplay. Leaping from beam to beam in some isolated, confined residence, enemies oblivious just a few feet below, is a tense action, as mobility options are comparatively limited. These limitations contrast greatly with the larger, more expansive areas, where rooftops are easily accessible, facilitating freedoms in stealth, the distance between player and opposition occasionally immense, active threat thusly lessening.      

A great source of the game’s continued charm is related to its creative voice acting; a bizarre mixture of Japanese and what sounds like a fictional language, it is totally unique and imaginative, greatly distinguishing the game from other titles. While none of the dialogue is voiced in a comprehensible manner, the ornate language taking over, vague dialogue like this is always preferable to poorly voice acted dialogue. In consequence of this lack of voice acting, a considerable degree of reading is involved, dissuading to some, though the style of the writing was compelling enough, greatly enhancing world-building, advancing also the game’s continued charm. Many artistic flourishes are also present when considering this voice acting, Aragami’s mumblings sounding somehow dark and brooding, while his summoner companion, the empowered Shadow Empress, has a light, delicate voice and delivery, greatly endearing and almost tranquil in tone, which only makes her occasional bouts of justified anger all the more impactful. Certain of the patrolling guards also engage in discourse with one another, or some speak whisperingly to themselves, furthering world-building by providing insight into these guards’ psyches, subtitles accompanying their speech. When further considering this audio, the music is excellent, moody, and atmospheric, though perhaps too intense in tone, particularly because of its intrusiveness – never is a moment where music is totally absent. Bettering this musical quality is its dynamism, changing in accordance with the situation at hand. Sound, then, plays a direct part in the gameplay, even beyond determining detection level. Hearing the screams and gurgling of dying foes is impactful, even as total violence is shunned.  

The gameplay, while impressive, is certainly not for everyone, the game straddling the line between the popular and the niche. This straddling occurs when considering the level of difficulty, the singularness of the game’s design. True, in efforts to become more accessible and traditional, there exist the mentioned takedowns, and the inclusion of a progression system, various powers purchaseable throughout the campaign, gradually and greatly increasing the flexibility of options available to the player – the game does show its modernness. And yet, with the brutality which accompanies detection, many players are no doubt repulsed, particularly when considering the great offensive abilities possessed by protagonists in other “stealth” games. They deviate from the roots of the genre; Aragami thrives upon them, is nourished by them. A puzzle-like component emerges, repeated attempts needing be made, experimentation plentiful; the chance of immediate success in surmounting an obstacle is incredibly low. If success is to be achieved, scenarios must be attempted many times, gradually obtaining more and more progress, learning enemy movement patterns and the positioning of the critical shadows. When regarding these enemies, they are possessive of a certain threat – death comes early and often, their presence creating a pervasive sense of tension throughout. The lack of manual save serves to preserve that tension, always. Relying upon a checkpoint system, with sometimes massive stretches of time between them, success is a triumphant affair, highly rewarding. Dozens of Kaiho soldiers populated the environments; incapacitating them or avoiding them is an achievement, the game steeped in flexibility, when choosing which playstyle to adopt.

At the conclusion of a level, awards are dispersed, in accordance with the play style enacted. Guards vanquished bestow a fair degree of points upon completion, undisturbed guards dispersing their own quantity of points, usually in amounts greater than that obtained when adopting a predatory playstyle, vastly encouraging the usage of pure stealth tactics, even as success while using such tactics becomes more and more difficult; being funneled in a certain direction is frustrating. Furthering this progression, though, a trio of medals exist, to be awarded when achieving a particular challenge, namely one which is conferred for ghosting the level, evading detection entirely; a secondary medal awarded for slaughtering all guards in an area; and a third award for killing no one. These scores seem to have no real tangible benefit, other than the inherent satisfaction gained by seeing a high score. The medals, far more difficult to obtain, gradually contribute to the unlocking of various skins for Aragami. Admittedly, some are quite arresting and creative, but the requirements for unlocking them are rather absurd; killing Kaiho soldiers existing in the dozens is a near Herculean feat.

The game’s narrative feels rather lazy, abounding in missed potential. Aragami has been summoned by a bound princess, desperate to reclaim her position as queen, to obtain also a return to the corporeal world, long departed. In efforts to this end – to resurrection – various talismans scattered throughout the game world are sought out and acquired, the search accompanied by great conflict against the Kaiho, a collection of malevolent forces dogged and determined to prevent this woman, Yamiko, from her revival, their motives for intervention initially left rather vague. Periodic cutscenes punctuate the gameplay, where narrative intrigue is subtly developed, their delivery and presentation well-animated, keeping in line with the game’s cartoonish aesthetic. The narrative can occasionally be difficult to follow, especially when many of the background-developing scrolls are neglected; countless names and people are thrown around, with the expectation that their backstories and histories are known – wild assumptions are made. Given the constant tension present within the gameplay, and the untapped potential wrapped up in the world and lore, I could have easily and eagerly enjoyed three- or four- minute long cutscenes, appreciating potential exposition. But it is not so, much of the narrative dominated by brief, thirty second or so animations; the narrative disruption to gameplay is subjectively slight, gameplay being prioritized.

Matters gain traction towards the end, with an immense, unexpected revelation advanced, upending all of the narrative which came before. The revelation, while shocking, seems almost forced, serving as an exposition dump, to explain away every struggle made by Aragami. On the longer side, its is jarring, contrasting greatly with the briskness of earlier cutscenes; while the cutscene is an outlier, its presentation rather strange, I appreciated it none the less, wrapping up matters neatly, the gameplay culminating in an epic boss battle, fought between a newly-empowered Aragami, now in possession of a legendary sword gathered from the corpse of a fallen comrade, whom Aragami unwittingly slaughtered. The game’s greatest ally becomes the ultimate foe, and the game darkly ends with a death. Fairly satisfying, the concluding moments elevate the narrative from the struggling, foundering position to which it was for so long confined, matters coalescing, narrative memorability emerging.  

While the narrative is unfocused and unnecessarily difficult to follow, and also shows a dearth of ambition, Aragami excels greatly in its gameplay systems. The stealth was firm but fair, Aragami alternately vulnerable and empowered, his strength changing in direct correlation to his presence in either light or dark. The environments, most of them, are open and almost puzzle-like in construction, populated by a significant force of opposition, both in terms of sheer quantity, and in sheer strength. Triumphing over this immense adversity evokes triumphant sensations, a true sense of accomplishment, remarkably so; success here, the highs it evokes, are almost unparalleled. With a gradual escalation of powers, freshness persists, even as the worlds, themselves are rather static. Artistically and musically, it is excellent, though again the game is let down by its flawed narrative. Abounding in death, betrayal, and tragedy, the developers certainly sought to strike some emotional chord, and sometimes succeeded, though more often I felt no investment or resonance with the people, or the messages being conveyed; the game, then, is almost carried by its gameplay; the narrative is not necessarily horrible or unengaging, but it is a spectral shade compared to the gameplay. Aragami exists as a good title, just shy of being a great one.

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