Of the numerous independent titles I have played this year, Aragami has undoubtedly been one of my favorites. A third-person stealth action game from Spain-based developer Linceworks, Aragami is a love letter to the stealth genre that borrows as much from classics like Metal Gear Solid, as much as it does from more modern titles like Dishonored or the Arkham series. What really makes Aragami impressive though, is that it never feels uninspired, and manages to deftly blend its influences into a consistently engaging experience.
The story starts off fairly simple, and doesn’t waste time in getting into the action. You play as the titular Aragami, a kind of vengeful spirit who has been summoned by a girl named Yamiko, who needs your help in seeking vengeance upon the clan who destroyed her village. Across the time of a single night, you need to gather a series of talismans that are being used to keep Yamiko prisoner, and set her free before the sun rises and Aragami is destroyed. The story itself, while interesting, might be the weakest part of Aragami. Told mostly through dialogue boxes between the main characters, it presents some interesting ideas, but due to a bit of predictability, never quite reaches it’s full potential.
But the real meat of the Aragami experience, as with any good stealth game, lies in its gameplay. Similar to the Arkham series, players are easily able to alternate between crouching and running for navigation. Aragami also has the ability to control the shadows, which manifests itself in a variety of cool abilities. Players are able to teleport from shadow to shadow, similarly to the blink ability in Dishonored, and staying in dark areas recharges your ability to create shadows, so players are always looking out for the next area to hide in. Stray into the path of a light source however, and you will find yourself helpless to escape, and easily visible to any patrolling guards. This light and dark mechanic is the most unique element in the game, and while it is reminiscent of mechanics used in Splinter Cell and Manhunt, Aragami‘s additional supernatural abilities manage to further set it apart from its numerous influences. Aragami also deserves praise for its almost instantaneous checkpointing, which takes a matter of seconds to reload after death. In a game like this, where being hit results in immediate death, a loading screen could have been an absolute death blow, but instead I was always right back in the action, ready to try again.
Mixing up the basic set of abilities that Aragami has are the offensive and defensive techniques that are unlocked by finding special scrolls scattered throughout the levels. Some of these abilities are a bit more passive, such as the ability to hide bodies and tag and track enemies a la Far Cry. But the best ones require the use of techniques, which are cleanly represented by sigils on Aragami’s cloak. Divided into offensive and defensive techniques, they are tailored to the player’s choice to either kill or not kill, or possibly a mix of both. You can summon a shadow clone to distract your enemies, and choose to either walk by them, or summon a trap that sucks them into another direction. As more abilities are unlocked through exploration, levels become easier to navigate, and players get to take on challenges on their own terms, instead of having to work with the cards they’re dealt. Additionally, all techniques can be upgraded, often to spectacular effect. My personal favorite is the basic stealth kill which, once upgraded, summons a shadow demon that leaves no trace of your victim’s body and recharges one use of your equipped technique.
Environment design in Aragami is a bit of a mixed bag, but for the most part is a solid example of how to properly make an open-ended stealth game. Many environments are easy to navigate thanks to a handy objective system, but sometimes this gets a bit confusing when multiple objectives are displayed, particularly in the games sixth chapter. Thankfully, environments are distinct enough that is is easy to tell where you have already been with relative ease. Speaking of distinction, there is a fair amount of diversity across the levels, taking place in palaces, graveyards, lakeside villages, mountain passes and more, meaning that despite the consistent art style and gameplay loop, there is always something new and interesting surrounding you. Aragami also deserves praise for encouraging exploration, as seeking out scrolls not only serves as the game’s collectible hunt, but also as the only method to build your list of abilities. Players could feasibly go through the entire game without doing so, but I don’t recommend it.
Aragami also shines in terms of art design. Cel shading and heavy feudal-era Japanese tones combine to create an always colorful experience that makes the most of the game’s otherwise humble graphical style, masking the occasional blurry or janky background texture with heaps of color. While some elements, especially rocky hillsides and mountains look pretty rough, environments and animations are pleasing enough that you will soon forget about any missteps in fidelity. Unfortunately, the same variety of environments and abilities doesn’t extend to enemy design, as there are essentially only four types found throughout the campaign, with the exception of bosses. Like everything, Aragami uses these archetypes to maximum efficiency, but it still gets a bit old killing the same characters again and again across the game’s ten or so hour campaign.
Possibly the most surprising standout element of Aragami is the sound design. Each sound is pitch perfect, from the sheathing of a blade, to the whoosh of teleporting into a shadow. Little touches like these ensure that each kill is satisfying, and each escape is thrilling, even on a second play through. Backing up the already solid soundscape is an absolutely wonderful soundtrack, coming from Two Feathers. The soundtrack is mostly classical Asian-inspired themes that go well with sneaking through the shadows, but every now and then there is a true standout, particularly a track that plays across all of stage 13. You’ll know it when you hear it.
Aragami is a rare game in the independent space. In a market full of projects that play it safe, and throwbacks that fail to understand what made their inspirations great, Aragami is neither. It is an impressive, ambitious first effort that pays homage to classic stealth games, but still forges it’s own path with it’s engaging gameplay and wonderful art style. It’s an absolute must play for any fan of the genre, and in a season full of big budget AAA titles, it stands tall as a pleasant surprise. I can’t wait to see what Linceworks come up with next.