Wednesday, 16 May 2018

My Usual Spiel - Aragami: Back to the stealth

Release date: October 7, 2016
Genre: Action-Adventure, Stealth

Publisher: Lince Works, Merge games
Developer: Lince Works
Engine: Unity
Platforms: Windows, Linux, PS4, OSX
Modes: Single Player or Coop Campaign

I have fond memories of stealth games, or simply choosing the stealthy option in games such as Skyrim and Far Cry, I even refused to play the Witcher series simply because you couldn’t really stealth. Though the greatest of all stealth games in my view was Tenchu, playing Tenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth Assassins on the PS1 and Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven on the PS2, lately I have had the good fortune to be gifted an Xbox 360 from a  friend and now have the ability to play Tenchu Z though It’s not exactly of the quality of the previous games I’ve mentioned it’s at least something. 

It is I, the Aragami
But this was actually before I had the Ex-bax Tree-Sixty and was having a long drought of stealth games, I had tried to go back to Tenchu 2 using an emulator on my android tablet but it just didn’t really feel the same (does it ever?). So when I saw Aragami on Steam I was fairly interested. Why wouldn’t I? it had a Japanese theme, a cool looking ninja-like character and of course stealth and stealth kills, it was cel-shaded but looked absolutely amazing so there was nothing wrong with that. The setting for Aragami is in a sort of fantasy feudal japan with lots of mystical magic elements, it tells a somewhat cliched story that you, the Aragami, or ‘an’ Aragami I’m not sure, were summoned by an ‘astral projection’ of Yamiko, a girl whose ‘Nisshoku’ kingdom of shadow was defeated by the ‘Kaiho’ kingdom of the light and she is now held prisoner by the Kaiho and she has summoned you to take her revenge and rescue her, and I’ve only just realised now this was all done in one night.

Yamiko as she appears in one of the graphic novel cutscenes
Yamiko returns on occasion to give you advice and show you the way towards the main castle, you do actually converse with her sometimes which apart from overhearing the guards conversation is the only comic relief in the game. So anyway you have the setting, the story, the struggle between kingdoms, the bad guys, the damsel in distress and you, the unlikely hero etc, so now this is where it starts to differ from Tenchu and I’ll try to not compare them over the course of this review hah. 

Yamiko in the game world, she appears and dissapears at will, often just speaking in your head.
As the Aragami you are a being made of shadow and vengeful spirit, and thus your powers come from shadow and your weakness is light, you must always keep to the shadows. For reasons I’m not sure why your character can’t actually jump instead you use the right mouse button and click another patch of darkness to “Shadow Leap” through to it (similar to Dishonored), allowing you to silently move to ledges or through light sources to stay in the shadows. Of course to do this you need shadow power, shadow power is accrued (surprise, surprise) when you are in the shadows and it’s level is cleverly displayed on your cape, moving too close to light sources drains your shadow power but you can gain it back easily. Though I’ve had some scary moments where you can get caught out in the open when an enemy walking towards you and end up frenzily clicking around looking for a shadow to jump to, but this gets easier when you start to gain more ability such as the one where you can ‘summon’ a shadow in a particular area as an escape route.

I achieve the highest rank 'S' in the first level by complete stealth, this was the only level I was able to manage it XD
Moving near any light sources drain your shadow energy so it’s no wonder enemies walk around or near them to make it more difficult for you to get past, the ‘Kaiho’ soldiers have light embued weapons and if you do get spotted they can kill you with one hit, so usually when spotted I often just give up and start again from the quicksave if I can’t get away in time. There are only a few variations of enemies, there are the basic light-sword wielding enemies (who also have a medium range light-beam slash) and then there are the archers who aim beams of light as if they were snipers, shooting a ball of light in a location if they detect something. These balls of light act like mines and can kill you if you stray too close and be found more frequently in the later levels, blocking off paths and forcing you to shadow leap through them or take a different path. some enemies actually walk around with these ball of light surrounding them making them difficult to stealth kill.

Archers were particularly dangerous if not taken out first
An emphasis on stealth in this game is paramount primarily because you cannot even swing your weapon in normal combat as you are only seen using it in stealth kills or sometimes destroying glowing orbs that control force fields. Unlike the Tenchu games if you are spotted there is not staying to fight and finish them off unless you are quick with your abilities as you can be killed in seconds. There are only two “boss fights” in the game and neither of them have you engaging in full-on combat, it’s really down to stealth and using your powers. Speaking of which you use these powers for pretty much anything, you can’t jump, open doors, climb ledges or up ladders, you are relying on shadows for everything more complicated then walking and running which makes you feel a bit fragile, which you are I guess you’re just a damn shadow heh. Conveniently you start in a very dark graveyard, then as the game progress there becomes less and less shadows with you having to rely on your ‘shadow-creation’ ability to get places.
Ares like this required careful planning and tagging of enemies (if you had the ability) to see their movement around obstacles, especially if you were doing a complete stealth run without eliminating any enemies.

Your main arsenal are your abilities which include offensive, defensive and Aragami abilities. These available are gained by finding scrolls hidden throughout the levels, the more you find, the more abilities you can unlock so being the only the collectible in the game too they are fairly important. The Aragami abilities include very useful skills, such as hiding bodies, ability to cast shadows and allowing your Raven companion to keep track of enemies and even revealing the location of hidden scrolls. The defensive abilities include summoning decoys, invisibility and revealing enemies through walls. The offensive techniques include a lethal shadow dart, a blinding wave of shadows and an entertaining ‘mine’ type trap which pulls enemies into the void. These abilities can usually only be used twice before requiring a cooldown but can be accessed again by performing a “Shadow kill” which is sort of like an advanced stealth kill which takes about 1.5 seconds to activate and then unleashes shadow dragon head which swallows an enemy whole in spectacular fashion. As you can guess all these abilities work well when used wisely though I didn’t use many at all, only when I was in a tight spot, but only now watching a video of someone else using them I understand a bit more.

Here I try out a custom map and use a few shadow abilities, I also try out the map editor

I tried to play this one the usual way I play Tenchu, lots of stealth killing, minimal weapon/item use but I quickly found that it was actually more encouraged to go complete stealth though it was harder. There were a few bonuses including not dying and respawning, not alerting enemies and complete stealth and I’ve actually just learned now that you cannot obtain the highest “S” rank if you kill any enemies. I thought this was a bit annoying but it’s ok I guess as it’s much harder to stealth through the level avoiding the enemies instead of eliminating them as you go, I did still get a good score by defeating every enemy but I guess that’s still not the point. This is a good change as historically with the Tenchu series it didn’t seem to matter how many times you were spotted as long as you did enough stealth kills to bump your score up so you got Grand Master every time. 

Got spotted way too many times here.
Like Tenchu also I found myself getting too impatient and getting caught out leading to some bad scores, sometimes I tried to avoid but the amount of enemies in a level was quite large some places it seemed almost impossible to get past without getting rid of at least one enemy. As you progressed it got harder leading to more mistakes, you start of the first few level being very careful then after the 6th level you just want to get through it as your objectives don’t really change, each level involves getting from one place to another without being spotted or dying and involves stealthing or killing enemies and also clearing “force fields” that block your way by finding the orbs of light that generate them. There’s only 12 levels but it did get slightly repetitive.

Chapter VI: Mausoleum of the Fallen was a difficult one, it was like a huge museum filled with light and archers and guards everywhere and made movement difficult, ended up trying to kill everything and got a horrible score.
 Probably the best thing about the game is the graphics, the cel-shaded loveliness of this game is amazing, not to mention the beautifully drawn comic-style cutscenes. Unlike games which are trying to be photorealistic and end up overdoing it sometimes the visuals are sharp and just flows and I’m going to stop before I sound like an artistic wanker. There’s not exactly much colour in the visuals as the game takes place over one (very long) night but it’s anything but dark, the moon is always out and shining bright enough to cast moonshadows everywhere (which you need) and the enemies are champions of the light so there’s candles and lanterns and fires and glowing swords and bows and orbs all over the place all of which makes a very bright night, of course if it was an incredibly dark clouded-over night then the game would be too easy wouldn’t it? You progress though several different areas, including, graveyards, towns, forests, lakes, castles and temples and I noticed the colour hue of the visuals change, from blue in the graveyards to green in the forest for example. 

The game had this beautful haunting feel, this shot is mostly dark but I think it looks really good.
Though your character was well detailed the enemies I loved the effects of the shadow abilities and just the way you and your cape shimmers in the darkness and light and I could probably say this is my favourite cel-shaded game, though I haven’t played much apart from Katamari Forever which I didn’t really like with that sort of graphical style. As for the music and sound it’s fitting of the subject material, I was impressed with the way the voice acting was all in Japanese as this definitely wasn’t the case in Tenchu though having all Japanese voice acting did make the storyline sound a bit dull as everything had this sort of formal tone to it. There isn’t much music but when there is it’s appropriate, it’s more like ambient sounds then the occasional spasm of music, no that doesn’t sound right, tremor of music? Anyway it really did sound like a game set in Japan and the haunting sound effects and Japanese cultural themed soundtrack was great.

One of my favourite places to hide heh especially good for listening to enemies conversations, I was impressed that they did have Japanese voice actors.
Aragami also has a two-player co-op mode which is pretty cool as you don’t see it much anymore, though I’ve yet to try it, I’ve seen it in action in some videos and like the Sniper Elite games doing stealth co-op requires some practice, probably even more so as you’re relatively close to the enemy. There is also a fairly detailed level editor, which harks me back to the days of messing around with the Tenchu 2 level editor though I’m not sure if this one is more detailed but it certainly is polished with the items you set on the ground coming falling down and bouncing onto the ground with a satisfying ‘plunk’ I’ve played some (quite hard) user-created missions with it and yes I’m proud to say someone has attempted to remake one of the most famous Tenchu missions though not correctly as it’s rock hard, and then there are your usual experimental challenge levels where you have to get from one side to another alive. I didn’t spend too much time with the editor as I didn’t have any big plans for it though If I really wanted to I could re-create a Tenchu 3 mission though that would require a lot of screenshots which I can’t get on the PS3 and screenshotting a youtube video would just take too long and be too annoying.

Here I try out several fan-made levels and also make an experimental archer-infested custom map

Overall Aragami is one of those games that I almost love/hate to play similar to L. A. Noire, Katamari Forever and of course Tenchu. I wanted to do so well but ended up getting impatient and not doing well enough though this could be down to the fact that I wanted to play it just like I did Tenchu with my “weapons and abilities are for the weak” mindset where I try to stealth kill everything and everyone which of course always seems to end up with me being spotted multiple times. But this always comes down to how the game is scored which is different from the Tenchu games where as I’ve said before this one is focused on stealth as a necessity for survival rather than a way of making things easier for yourself. 

Well, I've really messed things up now.
When you were spotted in Tenchu you had more than enough health points, combat abilities and even armor in some cases to be a force to be reckoned with, especially Tenchu Z which has so many combat moves you can unlock though there’s only 2 boss fights in the entire game. Aragami Is a stealth game very much based in the mystical ancient world, you aren’t a Ninja in the traditional aspect, you’re a creature of shadow and all of this is fine, I’m just glad stealth games are still being made. And what's more I hear there's a prequel expansion in the works..



Things I liked:

Genuine Stealth game

Excellent Cel-shaded visuals

Smooth Liquidy animation

Cool abilities

Things I didn’t like:

Very fragile protagonist

Lack of objective variety in levels

Too much reliance on shadow abilities

Aragami release trailer

Oh, I'm bein' followed by a moonshadow, leapin and hoppin' on a moonshadow…

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