Aragami

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Description

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Complete Review & Description

It’s been many years since we’ve had a new Tenchu game, and many more since we’ve had a good Tenchu game. From Software seems content to let the franchise fade away, and even the spiritual sequel Shinobido has gone dark. Luckily, indie studio Lince Works is here to save the day with Aragami, a faithful homage to Tenchu that also manages to bring some fresh new ideas to the “3D ninja simulator” genre.
Aragami is all about sneaking around, hiding in the shadows, and stealthily killing or avoiding guards as you make your way to the goal. Maps are wide open, with plenty of roofs to clamber across, crawlspaces to prowl through, and watchtowers to scale for a better view. Even the more enclosed levels have at least a few different paths to take, so you always have at least some degree of freedom in how you approach a given situation. A variety of ninja tools – kunai, decoys, traps, and so on – can help you, but you’ll mostly be relying on your own cunning and awareness. If that isn’t Tenchu-like enough for you, the feudal Japan-inspired setting should seal the deal: shrines, pagodas, castles, and an Edo-like city are your ninja playgrounds.

The reason for all this sneaking and assassinating is that you’ve been summoned to rescue one Princess Yamiko, who’s being held captive by the evil Kaiho clan. When I say “summoned”, I mean that in the most magical sense: you’re Aragami, a vengeful spirit called into being through a magical ritual, for the sole purpose of freeing Yamiko and getting bloody revenge on the Kaiho. Being a spirit comes with its perks; namely, the ability to manipulate shadows, which is where Aragami carves its own niche within that Tenchu-like framework.
You have no grappling hook, and you can’t even jump, but neither of those is necessary when you can teleport to any shadowed surface. Zapping around from shadow to shadow is the cornerstone of playing Aragami. It’s your defence and your offence; a way of quickly closing in on a target, and of quickly getting away again. As you progress, you unlock even more powerful skills, like the ability to temporarily create a shadow where there otherwise wouldn’t be one. Pacifist runs notwithstanding, the thrill of a ninja stealth game is setting up those satisfying stealth kills, and Aragami gives you a great set of tools to do just that. Two guards talking to one another? Kunai in the face of one, then drop a shadow behind the other, teleport to it, and cut his throat before he can react.

Of course, if shadow is your best friend, then light is your worst enemy. Light is always going to be an obstacle in a stealth game, but Aragami goes one further: standing in the glow of a lantern or fire doesn’t just make you more visible, it drains the energy you need to use your abilities. Spend too long near a source of light, and you’ll become a sitting duck, just waiting to get executed by Kaiho soldiers. And make no mistake, they will execute you; for all your mystic power, you’re incredibly frail. A single hit is all it takes, and all enemies – even the sword-wielding ones – can attack from range. In almost all cases, getting spotted is instant death.
This brings us to the biggest problem with Aragami: it’s unforgiving, which makes it incredibly frustrating, given how scarce checkpoints are and how slow-going the game is when you’re meticulously sneaking through a level. A single mistake is often all it takes to undo a good half an hour of progress. Games like Tenchu balance out the slow nature of the stealth genre by putting a focus on adaptability; escaping and pivoting to turbulent situations is a big part of their design, and dying is quite rare. With its single hit point hero, though, Aragami is less about creatively digging yourself out of a whole when things go wrong, and more about trial and error.

This is at its worst in the game’s few boss battles. Since you can’t fight head on, these encounters are all about sneaking around and finding a way to hit the boss’s weak point. The boss always knows more or less where you are and will keep hunting you down, so you’re always on the move, and you have to deal with regular guards as well through all this. Of course, as soon as anyone – boss or guard – sees you, it’s an instant game over, and you start the fight over from scratch. The second boss (of three) is especially bad, because you have to slowly inch forward while trying to stay out of sight of her bow. Progress is agonisingly slow, and she has a nasty habit of shooting through walls, and the whole fight is far, far too long.
If you can persevere through that, the prize is an enjoyable but rather shallow story about revenge and warring clans. Such a thing could be saved by interesting characters or good writing, but Aragami has neither. Aragami and Yamiko are really the only characters of note, and they’re completely one-dimensional and have no sort of chemistry. There’s a big twist towards the end that would have been noteworthy if it wasn’t so heavily telegraphed, and if Aragami had come out 10 years ago – before other games had run this gambit, and done far better with it.
On the other hand, it looks and sounds amazing. It has a heavily stylised, cartoony look that makes everything pop. Sneaking around is fun enough as it is, but all the more so when it feels like you’re inside a comic book. The soundtrack, inspired by traditional Japanese music, always manages to create a presence despite being quite understated, fleshing out the tone wonderfully.

Aragami is the best modern Tenchu-like ninja stealth game. Admittedly, it’s the only one around, but it’s a game made by a team that clearly loves the genre and knows what makes it tick. It’s a shame about the poor balancing and abysmal boss fights, but if you can endure through them, Aragami is an enjoyable game that calls to mind a great series and manages to build on those ideas.

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