Review | 10/15/2016 at 1:00 PM

Aragami Co-Op Review

What lies in the shadows?

When at their best, stealth games feel like a mixture of logical puzzle-solving and pure, chaotic improvisation.  They feel alive, and yet decipherable in ways real life can't be.  They let the player feel both control over a situation and a degree of wariness, of uncertainty.

In their purest form, stealth games make the player feel both all-powerful and crushingly vulnerable.

Creating a stealth game, then, is an act of balancing both sides of the equation.  Stray too far on the side of logic, and the game becomes rote, a simple exercise in pattern recognition.  Stray too far on the side of chaos, and the game feels impenetrable, with the player left betrayed by their gained knowledge.  It is on this logical side of the margin that Aragami stakes its claim, and while the game itself is solid and, in some ways, intensely clever, it seems to be afraid of itself; afraid of delving too deeply into certain mechanics, and of allowing the player anything more than a glimpse at some much-needed chaos.

Aragami's core gameplay isn't terribly different from its predecessors.  For large swaths of the campaign, objectives alternate between reaching the far end of a stage and destroying an object somewhere within it, slaying or slipping past wandering guards all the while.  To aid the player in this task, the titular aragami can employ a number of obtainable powers to blind, distract, or consume his foes.  Most of this is to be expected of a standard stealth experience, but developer Lince Works then twists the formula slightly by enforcing an intense reliance on darkness; not only must the aragami stick to the shadows to avoid discovery, he can also use them to teleport throughout the level and charge various abilities.  It's a fun augmentation, but rather than subvert any traditional approaches to the stealth genre, it mostly serves to reinforce existing notions.  Despite a bit of frustration stemming from the need for precision (especially in regards to ledges and the shadows of very small objects), the actual act of leaping from shadow to shadow feels quite sharp and opens stages up in unexpected ways.  

Melee combat is absent in the traditional sense.  In its place is a single, context-sensitive button that sends the aragami into a canned (and initially enjoyable) takedown animation.  On its own, this is a non-issue and, in fact, should've assisted in enforcing the notion of vulnerability.  However, the problem lies in its ability to be enacted on a foe from almost any angle or level of awareness.  While the takedown is a much more difficult task to perform on a guard in active combat, it means that savvy users must do little more than simply be within a few feet of an unaware, or even semi-aware, victim to silently remove them from existence.  Were the player faced with a more complex situation, such as a front-facing attack creating a large deal of sound or allowing for a higher potential of counterattack, the subsequent decision would've felt much tougher and, thus, more enjoyable.  Compound this with the player's ability to create shadows at will (meaning that they can appear beside a foe at a moment's notice), and you're left with a combat mechanic offering the player little more than a rudimentary challenge.

The lack of complexity is especially regrettable when considering the abilities at the aragami's disposal.  Six limited-use powers can be acquired on top of the three granted through the early stages of the campaign.   Each of these nine powers can be "bought" or upgraded with scrolls hidden throughout each stage.  In theory, the player is faced with a diverse array of techniques to aid them in dispatching or avoiding their foes.  In actuality, though, the aforementioned non-difficulty in combat means that only a few of these are truly necessary for success.  Since the scrolls can be easily tracked and obtained using a quickly-bought upgrade, I found myself in the latter stages of the campaign buying powers and upgrades without any sort of need (and subsequently, desire), but simply because I needed to spend points.

Let me mention two things Aragami does exceedingly well and pushes its own boundaries on: visual cues and stage design.  Nearly everything you could possibly need to know about the aragami's status is cleverly displayed on his actual person.  As he moves from light into darkness, or vice versa, his palette shifts from a full array of colors to the stark contrast of black and white, which naturally clues the player in on his chances of being seen.  Thanks to the designs on the back of his cape, one can also easily surmise both his remaining resources and active power.  Outside of the bizarre decision to make said cape obey the laws of physics and, thus, occasionally get caught on the aragami's sheath, it's a truly elegant way of displaying information to the player.  The game’s stages feature similar elegance in their visuals - both in aesthetics and cues - but occasionally suffer from the same shallowness seen elsewhere.  At its best, Aragami presents the player with a semi-open environment and allows them to decide the best method of approach.  The freedom to decide which targets must be eliminated (or avoided) first, second, and so on offered my co-op partner and I the chance to feel like genuine badasses upon successfully completing a stage.  Unfortunately, these locations are contracted and expanded throughout the experience, meaning that more than a few felt simple by comparison.

I should preface this next portion with a simple declaration:  I know next to nothing about artificial intelligence.  I know that it is an exceedingly complex subject, and I know that the prospect of designing and embedding it into a video game and then letting the general public poke around with it is horrifying to me.  Nevertheless, a game whose primary activity centers around interacting with artificial intelligence - and subsequently gauging its logic and reactions - must be judged upon it.  Unfortunately, Aragami offers little beyond the basic industry standard.  Guards largely exist in one of three states: wholly unaware, curious, and alerted.  Briefly pass through a guard's vision or create enough sound, and he'll become curious, which essentially means that he'll beeline for your last known location, peer around for a moment, and then return to his patrol route.  Stay in his vision long enough, and he'll become alerted, which results in him immediately attacking you or retrieving a horn to alert his pals.  As you might expect, the lack of complex awareness levels becomes easily exploitable at an early stage.  Assuming you're at least partially careful, you can use a number of methods to single guards out, draw them in, dispose of them, and repeat ad nauseum.  Add on the fact that, about midway through the campaign, your aragami is verging upon all-powerful killing machine, and the tension is quickly sapped from the experience.

Fortunately, Aragami allows the entire campaign to be played with an online partner, and it's all the better for it.  While this effect lessened as the game went on, the scarcity of skill points available in the early stages of the game meant that my partner and I were forced to take on very distinct roles when tackling each area.  Being forced to use our own unique abilities to both coordinate takedowns and protect each other when our plans went awry resulted in more than a few memorable hijinx.  As you might expect, though, our powers eventually began to homogenize.  Once our co-dependence lessened, we began inadvertently forging our own paths through each stage, relegating the late-game experience from cooperative to simply shared.

It's difficult to portray, especially when listing these flaws out on the page, but the act of playing Aragami moment-to-moment is genuinely pretty fun.  The game has a number of ideas that, if fully realized, would have easily set new standards in the genre.  It's wholly unfair to compare Aragami to its high-budget colleagues, such as Dishonored or Metal Gear Solid V, but the gulf in complexity between the titles leaves a disappointing taste in the mouth nonetheless.  Aragami is begging for a sequel, one that expands on its combat, stage design, and AI.  In its current state, though, it is a solid but fairly forgettable experience.