As a professional ninja, I’m constantly frustrated by the representation of my noble traditions in video games. There is so much more to our art than teleportation and sneaky backstabs. Where is the game that shows our penchant for wicker work? When shall I see the portrayal of every ninja’s natural instinct for Polynesian cookery? Yet again, this is all ignored in Aragami [official site].
An aragami is a vengeful spirit, summoned to help someone in a pickle. It seems Ms Glowy Damsel is trapped somewhere by some baddies, and she’s performed the ancient ritual to incarnate you, but for some reason has done it so you’re summoned bloody miles from her. She appears to you as a sort of ghost, nattering away distractingly while you’re trying to avoid getting noticed, compelled to move toward wherever it is she might be hidden by the evil Kaiho. To do this, you are required to cross stretches of very occupied land, smothered in enemies who’ll kill your with their wicked light weapons on sight. So sight is what you must most keenly avoid.
The result is a game that reduces the stealth formula down to simply teleporting from shadow to shadow (or magically casting a shadow on the ground if there’s not a convenient one to hand) and choosing between killing the enemies or just nipping past them. As you progress you gain abilities that mean kills don’t leave behind enemy-alerting dead bodies, options to distract guards, and so on, each new ability feeling like something that would have been nice to have had from the start to make the early game an awful lot more appealing.
In fact, Aragami ignores pretty much everything except for teleportation and backstabs. This rather beautifully presented stealth-me-do pares the concept down to its barest parts, all but removing the “oh shit it’s all gone wrong” moments of stealth games, and fixating only on the standing in shadows and standing in some other shadows.
It’s interesting how this dissection of the formula reveals the importance of the ability for things to go wrong, leaving you to inelegantly bluster your way out of a situation. In Aragami, get spotted close up and you’ll die, what with literally not even having an attack button. The importance of staying hidden is, ironically, removed by death simply setting you back to the last checkpoint, from where you just try again, making failure feel like nothing, rather than something.
I should qualify that the counter to these arguments is that allowing players to react to failures of stealth risks creating a game that can just be blustered through, an option to go crazy with your sword, not playing as the developers intended. And I get that this wouldn’t be right for Aragami. But of course the best stealth games are those that make the stealthy play so much more fun to employ that sensible players will default to it anyway.
Ultimately, as fun as it may occasionally be for short stretches, Aragami eels thin as Oxo cube gravy, a sort of tech demo for Dishonored concepts, rather than a complete game in and of itself. The presentation is superb, the cartoon style appreciably dark and chunky, and it borrows very heavily and sensibly from Dishonored in its delivery of the teleportation (right down to the same arrow doodah when teleporting up to roofs). And it would be remiss not to celebrate the superb use of your character’s cape as the means of communicating your meters for light, ability points remaining, and so forth – a really smart and well-delivered idea, only somewhat spoiled by the cloth physics meaning it can get tangled up and rendered useless. Fans of the long abandoned Tenchu series seem excited, but as someone who never played those I’m not sure how much of that is the desperation of addicts cut off from their supplier, or whether Tenchu was a watery-thin series too. (Come at me.)
That you can’t even swing your sword, let alone jump, left me feeling impotent as a ninja, restricted rather than freed. And since the game does little with imaginative level design, rather simply creating broad obstacle courses, the skills I do have feel unrealised in the setting. It’s also crummy in a few ways. Marking your enemies using R so you can track them in the level is a nice detail, if it would only stop wiping those markings. It’s incessant need to wrench the camera from you for no reason even blanks the level of marks.
Interesting-looking routes that seem like novel alternatives to the main path are invariably blocked by invisible barriers, key dialogue appears on screen when you’re in the middle of something, then disappears before you get a chance to read it, and for some godforsaken reason it takes you out of crouch whenever you kill someone, so if the lengthy animation doesn’t give other guards a chance to spot you, the fact that you’re just standing there afterward should. It’s also really bloody weird that the default cursor icon looks like Windows 10’s loading circle.
Get into the flow and there are moments of pleasure to be found. Nipping from shadow to shadow, flinging a shadow blade at a distant foe, evading attention, and reaching a goal, occasionally feels neat. But these moments tend to come as a run of luck, that doesn’t involve bumping into any of the game’s issues. Teleporting feels great when it works, but too often you can’t get the target marker to reasonably find a spot to land, or indeed it will only pick a spot that sees you trapped in the scenery. You can even manage stealth kills against an enemy that’s not only seen you, but is screaming to all around that you’re there. It just feels too clumsy to be the game it wants to be: a pure stealth challenge.
I stopped playing at the point where the only mission marker it would give me was a hole in the ground and an instruction that wasn’t possible there, and nothing had really gripped me enough to want to struggle through that confusion. It’s clearly going to delight some as a purebred stealth sim, but for me it’s too narrow, and too fragile.