Aragami: Shadow Edition Review

By Lucy Wood, 10 months ago
Inspired by Tenchu and Dishonored, Aragami: Shadow Edition is a third-person stealth-action game that bucks the trend of making open combat as viable as stealth gameplay. Players who haven't been hiding under a box for years will be struck by similarities to heavyweights of the stealth genre, but influence is not the same as imitation. Developer Lince Works has managed to build on some big influences to produce a smaller game with its own identity, but have they also managed to create something that works?

Aragami

Aragami: Shadow Edition offers a stylised take on an ancient Japanese fantasy setting with cel-shaded art influenced by Okami HD, Sly Cooper and Journey. A haunting original soundtrack by Two Feathers (Hammerwatch, Angry Birds 2) enhances the atmosphere and is a pleasure to listen to in its own right. It includes two campaigns-- Aragami, available on PlayStation and Steam since 2016, and the "Nightfall" expansion which is new to all platforms. The hero of the base game is Aragami, a vengeful spirit summoned to serve a young woman called Yamiko who is imprisoned in a distant fortress. Aragami starts out with no identity or direction beyond Yamiko's guidance, but eventually a sense of self surfaces and drives him to make his own choices. Meanwhile, Yamiko overturns the damsel in distress trope to emerge as a resourceful survivor driven by love and anger. The game is a nighttime adventure in which Aragami gathers the items needed to break the seals on Yamiko’s prison and journeys to release her.

The absence of combat mechanics makes Aragami both a one hit killer and a one-hit kill, a fragile hero shielded only by the shadows. There are no jumping or climbing mechanics so use of Shadow Leap is essential for teleporting between high and low areas. He can’t move bodies but can upgrade his shadow powers to consume bodies or summon a shadow dragon which leaves nothing behind when it kills. His abilities all depend on Shadow Essence, which is drained by bright light and recharges when in shadow. As a result, following the stealthy instinct to head for the rooftops occasionally renders Aragami helpless to do anything but walk towards the edge and fall off. Players can purchase various offensive and defensive techniques such as invisibility, tagging every enemy in the area, throwing kunai and setting traps that suck nearby enemies into the void. These techniques support a range of playstyles but have limited uses, encouraging strategic deployment and preventing the player from becoming overpowered.

Aragami provides players with neither map nor HUD, and instead uses Aragami’s cloak and a raven companion called Kurosu to give essential information. Hitting down on the D-pad causes Kurosu to briefly reveal the location of objectives, and even collectibles when fully upgraded. Aragami’s cloak shows what technique is equipped, how many uses of it remain, how much essence he has and whether he is in light or shade. It’s a clever idea for increasing immersion without reducing the player's situational awareness. Unfortunately, this system conflicts with Aragami’s costume design, as the cloth physics of his cloak frequently cause it to fold in ways that render it partially unreadable. Sometimes Aragami appears to be in shadow but his cloak disagrees, an issue which may be connected to some inconsistency in the ability of guards to detect him. A couple of other minor technical issues appeared while reviewing the game, such as distant guards disappearing on more complex levels or a random guard respawning in a previous area after dying and restarting a checkpoint.

Beware of archersBeware of archers

Progression through the game involves either killing or avoiding a host of enemy guards while completing objectives such as obtaining an item, dropping a barrier, escaping an area or battling a boss. There’s some repetition of mission objectives, but the environmental differences between chapters help to keep the game interesting. Boss fights require the player to make several successful attacks using the normal game mechanics then switch to cutscenes which combine combat cinematics with narrative elements. As a player it’s less satisfying to watch a final blow than deliver it, but this approach is a smart way for a small studio with limited resources to deliver some impressive action scenes.

Exploration is rewarded with the discovery of collectibles, hidden routes, hiding places and Easter eggs paying homage to the likes of Dark Souls and Metal Gear. Players are mostly free to choose their own approach, but some sections demand well-timed platforming to avoid being killed by environmental hazards. Aragami has a checkpoint system that sometimes makes the trial and error aspect of gameplay frustrating, as a mistake on one of the more complex levels may result in a significant loss of progress. For the most part the game feels fair, though there are times when archers seem to have both X-ray vision and the ability to shoot through solid rock.

The "Nightfall" expansion is set before the events of the base game and gives additional insight into the events and characters of Aragami. It follows a pair of assassins, Hyo and Shinobu, as they hunt down a mysterious Alchemist in an attempt to help a lost comrade. "Nightfall" is a shorter campaign with only four missions, so the pace picks up much faster than in Aragami. A different and more limited range of shadow techniques is provided, but all are unlocked from the start rather than having to find collectibles to get them. The costumes of Hyo and Shinobu make the information on their backs consistently readable, which is a big functional improvement even if they aren't quite as stylish as Aragami.

Online two-player co-op is available for every mission in both campaigns, with optional cross-platform connection between console and PC players. Co-op in the base game feels like it was tacked on as an afterthought, because everything is the same as solo play except there are two undead assassins hiding in the bushes rather than one. There are plenty of co-op execution opportunities and possibilities for players to work together such as coordinating use of shadow techniques or using one person to distract enemies while the other completes an objective. The greatest weakness of the co-op experience is the lack of a revive mechanism when one player is downed, as this leaves players in a no-win situation. It isn't fun to have to spectate until the next checkpoint, and the alternative of having the surviving player suicide to restart from the previous checkpoint together is frustrating.

Co-op play in Aragami may seem tacked on, but in contrast it seems built into the "Nightfall" expansion. The expansion has two playable characters, and it makes much more sense to see them sneaking around together than the Aragami twins in the base game. "Nightfall" levels tend to have broader environments and more complex objectives which would suit partners who prefer to coordinate efforts in different directions rather than sticking together. "Nightfall" is also designed in a way that prevents one player from triggering important checkpoints before the other has finished hunting for collectibles or making sure every last guard is dead.

Explosive kunai equipped and ready to goExplosive kunai equipped and ready to go

Achievements are awarded for story progression, earning medals, collectibles, using and upgrading powers, pulling off some interesting kills and failing in interesting ways. Achievement hunters will need at least two full playthroughs to obtain all the medals for completing levels with no kills, killing everybody and avoiding detection. Chapters can be replayed through level select, so players can tie up loose ends with a fully upgraded Aragami. There are no difficulty specific achievements, but cosmetic in-game rewards are available for playing on higher difficulties. Xbox gamers are more likely to freak out over the odd Gamerscore values of the achievements than struggle to meet their requirements.

Check out our Best Xbox Stealth Games Available in 2018 article for a compilation of other great games in this genre.

Summary

When developing Aragami: Shadow Edition Lince Works chose a familiar code: Keep It Simple, Sensei. The result is a well-crafted stealth game and a great example of how to make the most of a smaller budget. Overall this is a very good indie game, despite a few rough spots, offering anything from 10-30+ hours of gameplay depending on one's thoroughness. The challenges available suit a wide range of abilities, and players are free to kill or not without being disadvantaged or affecting the story. People who find trial and error frustrating should be aware that they cannot save scum, and there are some pretty long checkpoints in the more complex levels. Overall, though, it's a fun game of shadows that stealth fans will appreciate.
4 / 5
Aragami: Shadow Edition
Positives
  • Beautiful art and music
  • Supports both lethal and non-lethal play
  • Suitable for wide ability range
  • Online co-op usually makes it better
Negatives
  • Long checkpoints in complex levels
  • Can’t revive co-op partner
  • Co-op sometimes feels tacked-on
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent approximately 30 hours playing Aragami: Shadow Edition both solo and co-op, earning 41 out of 51 available achievements. An Xbox One code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Lucy Wood
Written by Lucy Wood
Lucy wasted her youth in the pursuit of music, art and stories. Eventually she discovered that video games combine all three with shooting and exploding stuff and a gamer was born.