Blockbuster videogames spark a trickle-down effect. When one game does something particularly well, other developers bolt those elements onto their titles. Call of Duty 4 sold so well that nearly every strand of its DNA became ubiquitous going forward—for better in some cases, for worse in others. As an example, Resident Evil 5 wiped away all but the faintest trace of survival horror tropes in favor of bombastic action and droves of firepower.
Stealth games, too, strayed further and further from their roots. In the earliest Splinter Cell titles, Sam Fisher was given a gun as a last resort. You weren't built to withstand wild west-style standoffs, but, hey, a peashooter is better than nothing. Thanks to the influence of Call of Duty and other action-heavy shooters that topped bestseller lists, going in guns blazing became more than an option in Splinter Cell. It became the best option.
Aragami by Lince Works is a love letter to unadulterated sneaking missions. Like the sword wielded by its vengeful protagonist, that return to form is double-edged.
Weapons and Equipment OSP
You play an aragami, a shadow summoned for the explicit purpose of slitting throats to enact vengeance by proxy. And you will slash lots of throats: Your benefactor has a grudge against an entire army, and one night in which you must pull off a very daring, very bloody rescue.
The rules are simple. Get close to an enemy, tap a button, and your body count increases by one. Likewise, you die in one hit, too. You can run away and hide while the target whose assassination you botched sounds an alarm, but get caught just once and you're finished.
Luckily, Aragami makes sneaking both easy and fun. Walking is one way to get around, but that's an antiquated modality of skulking. Just set your sights on a patch of darkness within a generous radius of your location and press a button to zip right to it. You can even paint ground in darkness to create landing spots, and the game's painterly art style and haunting soundtrack fit in with the fluidity of your movements.
Shadow powers play into the ways Aragami balances strength and frailty. Your shadow meter drains as you use abilities. Hiding in shadows replenishes your meter, while walking into light cast by lanterns or enemy projectiles drains it. Areas outside of light and darkness are neutral: You'll neither gain nor lose stamina, but guards can spot you.
Weighting your strength proportional to your weakness infuses Aragami with tension. You unlock more abilities by collecting scrolls, which function as experience points. Give it a few levels and you'll have a number of wonderful tools to choose from, like vortex traps that suck enemies into alternate dimensions and kunai that can be thrown at long distances to dispatch archers whose arrows light up surroundings.
Once you unlock a few skills, Aragami transforms into a stealth sandbox. Most levels are massive and arranged for you to tackle them in any way you choose. Kill everything that moves, or go the pacifist route and shadow-jump your way through levels with no one the wiser. Every mission can be played solo or online with a fellow spirit, and huge swathes of levels are completely optional but hold skill scrolls, a great temptation for those who want to test their mettle against some of the game's toughest encounters.
Aragami's skills are empowering. Each new toy I unlocked made me feel more and more powerful—until I grew overconfident and bumbled into a grunt who reminded me I'm as durable as he is. There's no feeling more exhilarating to fans of pure stealth experiences than scouting out enemy positions and pulling off a plan without a hitch. Aragami scratched that itch numerous times in every mission, so much so that I immediately began a second playthrough after finishing the game.
Aragami's balance of power is hampered by a half-baked checkpoint system that has a tendency to remember that you reached the site of an objective but not that you completed the objective it asked you to do.
In one instance I had to shatter a crystal orb to bring down a force field made of light. I broke the orb, died en route to the next objective, restarted at the checkpoint, and immediately set off again only to realize the game had saved after I reached the orb's location but before I destroyed it. Every time I respawned, I had to remind myself to hit the orb before setting off.
Lince Works took a quality-over-quantity approach to boss fights. The few placed in your path are cleverly designed, but the combination of shoddy checkpoints and the aragami's glass-cannon constitution left me so exasperated on two occasions that I considered walking away.
Aragami takes stealth games back into the shadows where they belong. That said, even diehard fans who wear pacifist-only runs like a badge of honor will find it brutally challenging. Those who prefer their get-out-of-jail-free cards come with an extra ammo clip might want to steer clear.
This review is based on a Steam code provided by the publisher. Aragami is available on Steam for PC and in retail and digital editions for PS4, for $19.99. The game is rated M.