Aragami’s Stealthy Shadows Contain Few Thrills

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.

Aragami is out now on Steam for £13.40/$18/€18 and GOG too.

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20 Comments

  1. Sian says:

    I dimly remember Tenchu as being better. You were able to fight your way out of a tight spot, for one. I think there were little to no checkpoints, too. Also quite a few gadgets to play with early on, and no teleport. I quite liked it, and this game doesn’t sound like it would scratch the same itch.

  2. Freud says:

    I like stealth games. The whole process of observing, moving without being spotted, making a plan and then executing it is very rewarding. Even if the AI is dumb it usually is satisfying.

    I think stealth games also puts an emphasis of navigating an environment that’s not very common. Platform games obviously has it as do Mirror’s Edge and Portal.

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      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      I remember for myself when I first played Metal Gear 2 that is was like a revelation. Suddenly I wasn’t bound to being shot at and chased forever. I could mess with the guards in ways I didn’t think games would allow. If I had read Watchmen at the time I would have declared “I’m not trapped in here with you. You’re trapped in here with me!”

    • welverin says:

      The AI needs to be dumb to a degree, if it acted to intelligently a stealth game wouldn’t work to well.

      Real guards wouldn’t give up so easily, and wouldn’t conveniently stare at walls so you could sneak behind them.

  3. DanMan says:

    It does look rather stiff and unrefined to me in the videos, with very little dynamics in the gameplay. Not really interested.

  4. mepto says:

    This game is available from GOG as well. Why do people always need to point to steam when sometimes, we’re lucky enough to get a game onto a non-quasi-monopoly.

  5. Astatine says:

    I tried this at EGX and wanted to like it, because the art is beautiful. The paper thin veil between “unseen” and “dead” was too much of a hurdle for me though. (Perhaps it should be called “Origami”? Ahahahahah… I’ll get my coat.)

    Entertaining review, though!

  6. Kefren says:

    Thief (original) got a good balance between hiding and sometimes being able to survive being discovered – it always felt epic if you fought, or ran, or flash-bombed and hid successfully. And usually it left you weaker (in health or resources) for the next encounter.

    Being first person made it more tense, too.

    This ninja game though – why would a ninja have a glowing light strapped to his back? Seems like a newbie error.

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      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      He must have learned stealth from the same place that Splinter Cell man did.

  7. zsd says:

    “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.”

    How does the stealth of Aragami compare with the stealth of Mark of the Ninja, which also does this and you seem to remember charitably in a Have You Played?

    There are obvious differences between a 2D platformer and a game with 3D levels, of course, but I remember MotN’s quick-fail quick-try-again pacing to be a delightful departure from the fail-and-replay-the-level-from-the-beginning paradigm of every other stealth game. What makes Aragami’s implementation less satisfying?

  8. DeadCanDance says:

    I’m sorry but this is nothing like tenchu. It was the staple of stealth on PS.

  9. Malagate says:

    The blurb for this caught my attention, “undead assassin” in particular, then I realised it was more Ninja-ry than I was imagining and interest diminished – then vanished when I saw it in motion.

    Compared to Tenchu? A weak sauce indeed, albeit Tenchu itself became a thin gruel in later installments (the rot set in some time after Wrath of Heaven, Tenchu Z really did it in and anything after that isn’t really Tenchu anymore).

    Personally, I’d say the richest broth of stealth ninja-idge was Shinobido, had a lot going on and was a lot more fluid and dynamic than Tenchu. That even extended to the story too, sometimes it was a bit cliché but was enjoyable nevertheless. Oh and it didn’t really have a US release, so all the voice acting was dubbed by Brits.

    …so yeah, I think I’ll crack open Shinobido again before I try Aragami. Although I would love to try an undead-assassin-stealth-em-up that WASN’T ninja based, like a Skeleton Altair or a Vampiric Garrett.

    • CaidKean says:

      You speak words of wisdom and truth.

      Shinobido is something everyone who loves ninja-stealth games should check out. It is the spiritual successor to the original Tenchu games, being made by the same developer.

      The first two Shinobido titles can be emulated, being for the PS2 and PSP respectively. And if you do have a Vita you really should pick up Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen, it really is an improvement on Shinobido in every respect, except that it got rid of the whole defending your home bit but I was never too fond of that.

  10. DarkMalice says:

    Sad news, it looked so pretty too.
    Hopefully From Software pick up Tenchu again, and release it on PC this time round.

  11. a very affectionate parrot says:

    I wish the Tenchu series wasn’t dead in the water, They did the ninja game better than anyone else.
    It still let you fight enemies, although it would be extremely difficult to complete a mission by fighting your way through. The main thing is escaping from enemies was often a lot of fun and the game gave you all sorts of tools like caltrops and poisoned rice balls to generally make the guards’ lives into a waking nightmare consisting of stomach pain and foot punctures.

    edit (holy shit an edit button): I see i’m not the only one pining for another Tenchu game in the comments.

  12. CartonofMilk says:

    the first two Tenchu were the first great stealth games. Some would say Thief but i never could get into this series somehow (i have to say having the main goal of a game be stealing things always seemed a little underwhelming to me). This definitely doesn’t sound much like Tenchu to me. I’d like to see tenchu come back but i’ll pass on this one

  13. Hawke says:

    Completed the playthrough. Aragami is a fine stealth game. Somehow it’s easier to go “full ghost”, instead of leaving trails of bodies. Also invisibility (“Kage”) becomes available early and makes the game almost a cakewalk. Except the boss battles, when the bosses can sense you through walls and shadows, because plot (really, it’s explained in-game).

    As downside, the story is quite simple and predictable, even if you don’t collect information through levels.

  14. Louis Mayall says:

    Ah good old reliable damsel-ing. I’d love a game where you’re the damsel and you have break out of the tower and resist the advances of annoying shiny men who keep floridly proposing to you. Or something.