Debuting in 1998, Tenchu was a true eye-opener for PlayStation fans, delighting those with a penchant for stealthy shenanigans with its acts of Ninja-flavoured murder set against the backdrop of feudal Japan. In 2016, Aragami hopes to perform that exact same feat, but instead of being a true spiritual successor to that beloved franchise, Aragami liberally cribs inspiration from other genre efforts to become something else quite different.
A surprisingly effective narrative
Cast as the spectral Aragami, a spirit of vengeance who has been resurrected by the imprisoned princess Yamiko, the narrative flips the script by putting the player in the shadowy shoes of a protagonist belonging to the forces of darkness who must use their shadowy abilities to defeat the ‘Kaiho’; a legion of light-bearing warriors who have conquered the land and murdered all of the shadow folk who dwelled there previously.
A surprisingly well-constructed plot, Aragami’s narrative unfurls across its thirteen or so chapters, taking in all manner of twists, turns and surprising swerves as the princess Yamiko frequently manifests herself to Aragami throughout the game in a fashion akin to some sort of twisted, supernatural buddy movie. Providing further texture to the narrative, is the incidental banter that you’ll occasionally eavesdrop from the various guards that you’ll encounter. Greatly elevated over the typically repetitive small talk that such grunts and goons usually perpetrate, the idle chatter in Aragami actually bears listening to as it frequently imparts key information about the setting, lore and overall plot.
One stealth cocktail to go
As alluded to already, one of the key inspirations that is keenly felt when playing Aragami are those pertaining to ninja stealth title Tenchu; something that Spanish developer Lince Works makes no attempt to deny. Indeed, Aragami certainly bares a number of resemblances to that highly regarded title, embracing a similar feudal Japanese setting replete with slowly falling cherry blossoms, pagoda roofs and ceremonial dojos with which to slaughter folk within. The audio side of things also matches up neatly with such inspirations; boasting a wonderful soundtrack that elicits deft use of strings and pipes, before knocking things up a gear with rock style serenades that are busted out for Aragami’s boss encounters.
When it comes to the important topic of stabbery, Aragami borrows yet further from that stealthy cult classic as the titular supernatural assassin can execute enemies in a number of violent ways, from cutting the tendons of his foes and then slitting their throat, through to a good old fashioned blade to the gut; all of these gory finishers will be familiar to those who have dabbled with Acquire’s 1998 PSOne classic. Oh, and they still feel as great to pull off today as they did all those years ago, too.
That however, is the point at which the comparisons end since rather than feeling like a feudal ninja assassin, encompassing the impressive acrobatics and dexterity that is synonymous with such a character, Aragami instead feels more physically limited in contrast; more akin to a cut-throat sorcerer than a nimble-footed savant of murder. Simply put, Aragami lacks many of the physical graces that we normally take for granted in these sorts of titles, he cannot swim (to do so means death), he cannot jump, he cannot climb and he cannot perform any of flashy acrobatics that were even commonplace back in the day with the original Tenchu.
Now if you’re sat there shaking your head thinking “what the heck sort of stealth game is this?”, you’ll be cheered to know that the answer is one that is perfectly satisfying. In the absence of familiar physicality, and again going back to the sorcerer comparison, Aragami instead relies on arcane and supernatural trickery to affect similar results to those shadowy, flesh and blood executioners that we’ve been used to in the past.
A being that has been fashioned out of pure shadow, Aragami is a creature that gains his power from the darkness. In a similar fashion to the Splinter Cell games then, it behooves the player to remain concealed away from the light, as it not only makes you more difficult to see, but becoming one with the shadows allows Aragami to unleash his formidable array of powers. The one that you will unquestionably use the most is the Shadow Step ability, as it allows him to instantly teleport into areas of shadow in a fashion not unlike the Blink ability in Bethesda’s Dishonoured. Also much like Sam Fisher in Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell games, Aragami has a number of visual aids built into his appearance (here it’s shiny runes on his cloak) to inform players on his level of concealment.
Extra abilities which can be gained from collecting magic scrolls hidden around every level can make your stealthy shenanigans easier to pull off too. Shadow Creation for example, allows you to cast pools of shadow on any unlit surface and so increases the number of paths you can take through any given area, while more powerful, finite use abilities such as Shadow Kill ensnares your unwitting foe in an obsidian snake that devours them whole and in turn restores one use of your more powerful skills.
Some chap once said “with great power, comes great responsibility” and it’s a maxim that holds a lot of truth in Aragami as well. Killing enemies in the light for example, makes things much more difficult as bodies which are bathed in light cannot be hidden with your Shadow technique, and equally, can then be spotted by the enemy who will then raise an alarm, sending the remaining guards into a frenzy as they comb the world in a desperate effort to find you. Make no mistake too; in Aragami you’ll have no quarter for direct confrontation as the Kaiho soldiers can kill you in a single hit and even if you should attempt to flee, their swords can blast out a wave of pure light that proves impossible to outrun. Thankfully, and in a fashion akin to Metal Gear Solid V, if you are spotted, the game will slow down to a crawl for a couple seconds to allow you to decide on the next course of action; providing a much needed moment of respite as a result.
Even though Aragami frequently concerns itself with matters of the supernatural, there are still a myriad of more earthly concerns that must be considered if you want to make it through any given level in one piece. First off, you need to be mindful of the sound that you make; whether it’s your audible sound print as you stalk your foe, or the scream of a distant enemy who has been dispatched by a ranged strike, sound creates suspicion, and suspicion creates problems. Something else that you’ll have to be aware of, is the fact that you don’t actually have a radar and so the positions of the various guards and sentries must be memorised until you choose to unlock the requisite ability that highlights their locations.
Each of the levels in Aragami, with the exception of the entertaining boss encounters, are designed to be non-linear affairs that can accommodate a number of different play styles. Players can for example, murder their way through a level, sneak past everyone, or, affect some sort of combination of the two to get the job done. Regardless, the game awards ranks for your performance at the conclusion of each chapter, dishing out points for avoiding detection and time of completion, but detracting them for alerts triggered, bodies found and suspicions raised. In addition to such rankings, Trophy hunters are given their figurative carrot-on-a-stick in the form of ‘seals’ which demand that the player conquer a level either by killing absolutely everybody, or, by getting through to the end without spilling a drop of blood; feats that are easier said than done on Aragami’s challenging later levels.
Far from perfect
Taking into account the numerous ways to tackle each level, not to mention the rewards that are dished out as a result provide a moderate incentive to replay Aragami’s campaign, it becomes clear that there are precious few reasons to revisit the game once you have beaten it. Admittedly, being able to tackle the campaign co-operatively online adds some additional lustre to the proceedings, but ultimately, the lack of any sort of extra modes beyond the campaign significantly hurts Aragami in the longevity stakes.
Another serious issue is one that manifests from the technical realm. Simply, Aragami’s frame rate is all over the shop and fails to match the heady, artistic flair seen elsewhere. Uncapped with vertical sync enabled (you can toggle this in the options), the frame rate fluctuates hugely from hovering around 30 FPS in some scenes, to plummeting far below that in more busy areas. One such example is the fifth chapter, The Shaded Woods, in which a great deal of lighting effects and geometrical sophistication forces the Unity engine to its breaking point, thus creating a sometimes less than ideal experience as a result.
Even though it draws some obvious parallels, Aragami isn’t the second coming of Tenchu as some believe, because its amalgamation of more contemporary influences ensures that simply isn’t the case. Nonetheless, while the game suffers from a bi-polar frame rate and a lack of extra content, its stylish flair, co-operative campaign, great story and emphasis on player creativity, all help to ensure that Aragami secures its place as a highly enjoyable stealth adventure on PS4.