Aragami 2 – Final Review

Aragami 2 excellently succeeds in its evocation of place, Asian stylings embraced to the last, creating one cohesive whole, environments linked thematically and aesthetically, the game abounding in creativity. Certain missions which occur at night are particularly arresting, with tranquil, azure skies dotted with stars, all aspects of the environments tinged with an inviting shade of blue. The Asian architecture which dominates the landscape serves a world-building purpose, grounding the narrative, giving it scope – crimson pagodas are present, cutting against the blueness of the heavens, while massive palaces extend ever upwards, looming menacingly and awesomely. Cherry blossoms with their sweet pink foliage are scattered about the levels, petals occasionally blowing in the breeze, giving a sense of dynamism to the environments. Blue skies are sometimes departed from, the skies instead embracing a violet aesthetic, a blood red moon complementing that violet. 

Even character models seek to capture these Asian atmospheres, with believable armor and weapon modeling, the player character, (who I shall call A) alternately adorned with garb practical and flamboyant, a sheath on his back, protecting the imaginative blades made wieldable. Towards the late game, a particularly powerful enemy type is introduced, entire body protected by elaborate, durable samurai armor, transforming him into a threat, even as his dispatch is not particularly different to achieve; still, his figure is intimidating, reflecting his relative strength and resiliency. Sorcerer type enemies have glowing red flames blazing from their hands, creating an almost supernatural component, which rapidly grows fairly compelling; the fantastical whimsicality of the game world and its inhabitants is a masterful stroke of brilliance, an overwhelming success, while the immense environmental diversity only furthers still world-building. Sprawling mines are explored one moment, beautiful blue crystals being the subject of that mining, then the next moment massive palaces and villages are visited. Invisible walls and barriers, though, are fairly common, lessening the sense of scale which is implied by the game’s rather long draw distance, restricting wandering though also creating a sense of focus.  

Despite these creative successes, the game fails miserably technically, performance of a consistently low quality. Part of this performance is attributable to the recent launch of the game, with no new patches released currently. But this fledgling state cannot explain all errors. Clipping issues are abundant, as I fell through the environment a handful of times, though traditionally the game rights itself rather quickly. But greater offenses are present, distant enemies, when observed, seemingly moving at five frames per second, creating a sense of cheapness, a total lack of polish. The game’s creative landscapes sometimes suffer from a bizarre strobing effect, black lines flashing wildly in the distance, obscuring the beauty inherent in the night skies. Fortunately, the game crashed but once throughout the entire playtime, so frustration was minimalized on that front. None of these glitches are game-breaking, though the game fails in other aspects of its design, with very poor texture quality, distant mountains being a mere mass of blue and brown, devoid of any true detail, these textural failings extending even towards the character modelling, while some water seems totally static, never rushing onwards. Many of these failings are likely attributable to the Unity Engine, the developers merely seizing upon the tools which were made available to them. Creatively, the game soars, but rather than ascending to the stars, the game attains only the clouds, limited by technical failings and glitches.

Regarding the narrative, one plot thread centers around the struggle between two warring brothers, each vying for control of the state, dominion over the humble inhabitants of Rashomon Valley, though why precisely they desire that power is never explicitly stated, at least beyond the cliched, “power for power’s sake.” In recent years, it seems, the severity of that conflict has only intensified, the peoples’ fate in increasing jeopardy, the world on the cusp of darkness, subjugation. The intrigue on offer here is compelling, explaining the motivations driving A and his countrymen and fellow Aragami, they collectively dwelling in Kakurega Village; hopefulness remains in the land, and it is A’s job to satisfy that hopefulness, by directly interfering in the struggle between brothers. Despite brightness and hopefulness, darkness arises in contrast when considering the nature of these men, the perpetual, selfish cruelty of their actions. As men of power, the assumption remains that they have obligations to safeguard their people, to act in their benefit; neither brother seems to regard anyone external as having value, instead focused on their own petty concerns, the satiation of greed and lust for power. Tragically, the resolution to this plot thread is particularly clumsy and lazy, enemies turning to allies; no substantial payoff is ever achieved, this resolution conveyed solely through text – the struggle never receives a formal cutscene, ending abruptly.             

With the game’s narrative ambition, a secondary, far more compelling plot thread is explored, this one centering around the Aragami as people. Many missions gravitate around their history, efforts at self-discovery; they know not who they are, and merely wish to reclaim their identity, their souls, and their mortality; so long immortal, death and mortality seem enticing indeed, bringing with them a cessation of pain. Resonant, human dimensions occur here, and this portion of the narrative soars, far eclipsing the petty struggle between brothers. Efforts are made to make sense of the self, and make sense of the world, one’s place within it. Tragically, this thread is neglected for a considerable duration, greater emphasis placed upon the other thread, which rapidly grows repetitious, unexciting. The emergence and eventual narrative domination of the Aragami’s endeavors towards the end game serves to deftly break up this repetition, to inject life and passion into the title. In their efforts of discovery, the hub world of Kakurega Village gradually swells in size, many pivotal figures recruited as the narrative progresses onwards, perhaps most central being gifted Lady Miyoshi, a human, but one who is eager to assist her soulless friends, a useful, generous ally. Leader and patriarch Katashi is also consulted before every mission, serving a crucial role, while blacksmiths and poets are also absorbed into the village, bastion of security. In further divergences, the resolution on offer here is effective, compelling; victory is achieved, the ultimate antagonist defeated. But rather than ending in brightness, bleakness is clung to, the spoils of the conflict remaining elusive, as if the struggle were for naught.  

Whether the narrative soars or falters, the gameplay is universally fantastic, decidedly unique, as its mechanics and structures can be conveyed in one succinct statement: Aragami 2 is a stealth game for people who dislike stealth games. In many engagements, predatory aggressiveness is a viable strategy, while the poor NPC A.I. further dispels any sense of commanding challenge, being incredibly forgiving, though this forgiving nature seems to stem not from some programming error, but is instead a deliberate decision by the developers, everything centering around imbuing A with an excess of strength, the narrative and gameplay conveying the immensity of his power, detached from and elevated above the common rabble who are frequently combatted, they being vulnerable and helpless. Not breaking from the genre entirely, considerable patience is needed for eventual success, while many tactical considerations are needed also, such that the game is never excessively easy, though it remains casual and inviting to the last, many mechanics being trivial.

A perfect illustration explaining this casualness is at hand, when considering something as seemingly mundane as blood splatter. An assassinated enemy, whether he be felled from above, from behind, or from a position of cover, expires in a dramatic, exaggerated fashion, blood splattering everywhere, staining floors and walls in redness. If this were a truer, more pure stealth experience, something like this would be detectable, would attract the attention of other nearby guards still alive, this reactionary nature contributing to a sense of refined believability. But it is not so, no reactions ever made, even as an NPC walks directly through the puddles, footprints now tinged with red; the A.I. is completely oblivious. Sound plays a relatively inconsequential role, the screams of dying enemies similarly not attracting attention, the thud produced upon their collapse also failing to attract detection. Sound only becomes a concern when moving at a sprinting pace, necessitating crouch walking through the environments; again laziness shows here, as do further departures from the stealth genre, progress discarded to make easier the title, to transform it into a power fantasy, even as the A.I. sometimes shows intelligence, the agile among them clambering walls and rooftops in search of A, though this one display of brilliance cannot rectify other, repeated failures.   

Great flexibility of options are on offer here, with a plethora of purchaseable abilities, some being mundane passives, others altering the gameplay in fundamental ways; the sense of progression is immense, highly compelling. Even from the first, manifold assassination techniques are available, A capable of slaughtering an enemy from above, or pulling an unsuspecting enemy over cover, these early inclusions being detached from, say, the early Far Cry games, where such abilities need be purchased; here, A is powerful from the start, deft and dangerous. The abundance of lush, sprouting foliage serves a crucial role in stealth, almost totally concealing A from detection, while enemies can be attracted to that foliage, promptly dispatched, their corpses flung over A’s shoulder, falling to rest in the flowers and grasses, body concealed. A clever whistling function facilitates such strategies, attracting an enemy directly to A’s location, where they can be promptly dispatched.

Beyond these combat techniques and basic options for stealth – both of which serve a role of empowerment – greater empowerment arises when regarding the game’s mobility options, A capable of sprinting at considerable speeds, dashing about the environments nearly imperceptibly and quietly. Most critical, though, is the “shadow leap” ability, which permits A to teleport from location to location. With the game’s repeated attempts at casualness, these abilities are all connected to a stamina meter. While in theory this would put a halt on the frequent employ of such powers, the recharge rate is very generous, these powers almost always accessible; the player is never truly helpless, or is helpless for a very scant duration. A lower recharge rate would evoke tension, much needed when considering the relative dearth of tension.  

Given that this freedom of movement and options for assassination are available from the first, the game’s mentioned upgrade system might seem redundant, unneeded for success, never necessary. But as further and further abilities are unlocked, it becomes clear that this is not so, these abilities exciting because of the flexibilities they evoke. True, as with the recharge rate of the stamina meter, the swift cooldown of these abilities further deflates possible tension, though their inclusion and diversity mark another of the game’s strengths, the late game decidedly different from the opening, increased options and freedoms given the player. One ability summons a literal dragon composed of shadows, wrapping its gaping maws around an unsuspecting enemy, before promptly dragging him to some other dimension, meeting with a particularly violent end. Such a power encourages aggressiveness, though this approach is improved further by manifold other abilities, most critically “Wraith,” which turns A completely invisible for a short duration, and which can be upgraded, removing the production of all sound while the ability is activated. Given these strengths, the ability can remove the player from almost any situation, a sort of safeguard, something reassuring about its presence.

Thankfully, and preserving some tension, certain of the more powerful abilities have rather extended cooldowns – Wraith, so overwhelmingly useful, make take upwards of thirty seconds to recharge, preventing spamming. Breaking from these attempts at challenge, many lesser abilities – like the mentioned whistle – recharge seemingly on the instant, vulnerability eschewed; I am divided about these precise systems, appreciative of the power fantasy, while also displeased at the complete lack of difficulty or resource management. As illustration of Aragami 2’s bizarre uniqueness on this front, the Dishonored series should be examined. There, mana is of a finite sort, regenerating just enough to ensure constant employment of the Blink ability, while the potions which restore mana can be scarce. Given this, overemploying abilities which slow time or blow through obstacles can leave Corvo totally exposed and helpless. Here, matters could not be further apart, the games belonging to the same genre, though still embracing decidedly different design philosophies. Still, something highly compelling is present in the end-game, when many abilities have been purchased. They can all act in synergy, and even if their presence destroys challenge, they again evoke a power fantasy.

The game exists in a highly linear fashion, clinging tightly and always to one central formula, almost to a fault; Kakurega Village is visited, leader Katashi or some other villager is consulted, spewing unoriginal if sincere dialogue which is rarely fully voiced, perhaps reflecting further technical limitations. Still, the inflections of the voice acting further the Asian world-building, being a fusion of an actual language and one imagined – highly compelling, I enjoyed discoursing with Katashi, even as certain of the missions he assigns are lackluster, uninspired. After discoursing with the revered leader, a mission – or multiple missions – are unlocked. To activate the mission, a board is visited, the mission promptly beginning after entering a designated portal; this is the formula the game constantly adheres to, This board, though, is visually compelling, conveying the magnanimity and diversity of Rashomon Valley, while its design is brown, almost sepia in coloration, the developers’ creativity shining through even here, something which would be mundane and neglected in other titles. A central failing, though, is the frequency with which these environments are revisited, some visited over half a dozen times; tedium rapidly settles in. A few, very minor alterations are made, enemy spawn patterns often altered from mission to mission. The objectives naturally vary also, though a bit more diversity would elevate the game, result in a richer experience.  

Regarding length, on and on the game seems to stretch, massive expanses of time occurring where nothing narratively consequential arises, petty, trivial tasks receiving great, unneeded focus, grinding the narrative to a halt; pacing is wildly inconsistent, as is difficulty – some missions can be completed in fifteen or twenty minutes, enemies positioned in such a way to make exploration and mission success easy. Other, more involved missions can extend to upwards of forty minutes; this contrast is bizarre, and furthering the game’s linearity, there are no side quests proper, everything tight and rigid, the only freedoms here being the ability to determine which mission to tackle first, when multiple are available, a very frequent occurrence. This freedom, though, is simple and slight, never breaking up the tedium of the game’s missions. In consequence of the game’s formulaic nature, very rare were any awe-evoking surprises, even as new abilities are purchased, more elaborate objectives are thrust upon the player, and more damaging, intimidating enemy types are introduced. After a dozen or so hours, a rhythm is established, the nature of gameplay easily predictable; the game swiftly becomes a slog to play through.  

Incentivizing and rewarding exploration, scattered about the maps are various blueprints, often highly useful and exciting to discover, composed mostly of aesthetic options, such as clothing and various dyes with which to pigment that clothing. Others have more practical purposes, like throwing weapons and support items, which I totally neglected given my heavily stealth focused build, though they exist as welcome inclusions, seemingly making more viable open combat, which I avoided entirely, resetting or fleeing upon detection, once blades started to clash. Customization, though, is very rich and compelling, helms, swords, cuirasses, and leggings being primary options for customization. In a rather novel decision, actually discovering these blueprints does not automatically unlock the item for equipping – they must be purchased with gold, the game’s currency, awarded by missions and discoverable in the game’s environments, furthering the joys of exploration. This construction creates a sense of value to the currency, seeing as it is mostly finite, not in overabundance – certain cosmetics, meanwhile, can be extraordinarily expensive, even as that expensive nature does not directly correlate to greater aesthetical beauty; the sense of self expression is appreciated. Also, the only customization options which alter gameplay are “runes,” sometimes rewarded, sometimes discovered, just as with the gold. They confer substantial benefits, though those benefits are always tempered by limitations, creating a sense of commanding balance.

Much like the tempering inherent to the runes, Aragami 2’s strengths are also contrasted with and ruined by excessive weaknesses. Excellent, whimsical beauty and creative level design are let down by poor performance and consistently bland texture quality, a seeming relic from a time long passed, destroying greatly immersion. The game repeatedly advances notions of empowerment, in efforts to make more enjoyable the gameplay, an overwhelming success, if an odd motivation. Paradoxically, this empowerment trivializes many engagements, ruining the gameplay in its simplicity, destroying potential player engagement. Music, meanwhile, is excellent, furthering the sense of place, contributing to the Asian stylings and atmospheres, though even here failings arise, as the music seems somewhat derivative. The gradual growth of Kakurega Village is compelling, literal manifestation of the growing strength of the Aragami, their enhanced ability to fight, to discover their souls and humanity; and yet, many of its inhabitants are nameless, voiceless, valueless. Just as with the runes, then, almost all positives are accompanied by negatives.

Flatly negative, though, is the game’s immense length, sprawling, seemingly never ending. My actions and playstyle no doubt needlessly elongated the game, as I reset upon detection, a strategy I regret and which I departed from as the level of tedium swelled. But even without these elongations, too much content is here present, this failing only exacerbated by low variety, soaring repetition. Were the game a bit shorter, the tension a bit higher, the pacing and difficulty consistent, Aragami 2 could be an excellent title. Still, it exists as a compelling outlier, with a completely unique identity, a stealth title which is somehow not a stealth title, with considerable player flexibility, ample options for predatory aggressiveness. With a co-op mode present, surely even more content is present. But with a playtime equaling roughly 48 hours, no allure is attached to that content. Above all, Aragami 2’s seeks to appeal to as many people as possible, perhaps attracting players who are otherwise indifferent to the stealth genre. That is an admirable intention, and a great achievement which is certainly realized.   

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