Games often portray the dichotomous relationship between light and dark as a moral landscape. Light tends to personify the good and just, while dark embodies a certain subjective malevolence. Aragami uses the concept of light and its absence in a different, much less traditional way that challenges the philosophy’s typically associated ethical quandaries, and the result is fantastic.
Yamiko, an imprisoned damsel in distress, summons Aragami, the titular protagonist, from the shadow realm to employ his skills as her liberator. Whenever Yamiko projects herself from her prison to guide you, she usually unveils more information about the nature of your identity. Saving her from Kaiho, the army of Light, and unveiling the truth behind your existence act together as your motivation to persevere.
Finding certain objects will cause Aragami to experience visions of past events, simultaneously granting both character and player the same level of narrative understanding. A few abilities are introduced this way, namely the bell used to attract guards toward your direction. In this way, story elements fuse with gameplay mechanics to create a pretty entrancing experience. It’s a simple foundation, but there’s an air of existential contemplation emanating from Aragami’s very being that pervades every in-game moment.
As you go toe to toe behind the backs of Yamiko’s captors, the looming threat of instantaneous death is constant. In the eyes of an undead assassin comprised entirely of shadows (Aragami fits the bill), light brings about a sudden, indefinite nonexistence to an otherwise lonely acceptance of failure. Aragami dissipates when struck by a single enemy’s attack, making each and every decisive movement a matter of deliberate intention. As luck would have it, your shadow powers provide a wide variety of options to approach unsuspecting targets, prepare strings of traps, and can even be used (most assuredly) to teleport yourself out of a fatal situation. Blindly teleporting will often exacerbate this problem, however, especially if you’re unaware of your enemies’ locations.
These abilities, however simple, come at the cost of shadow essence. Aragami’s cloak actively displays how much shadow essence he has remaining–hiding in the shadows will replenish the well, but being exposed to the light will quickly bleed it dry. Each level’s shadows act as the environment’s negative space and demand focal prominence over the luminously detailed foreground. The core of the game’s stealthy gameplay and obscure narrative revolves around a balance between these two levels of illumination.
Bonfires, torches, flaming arrows–even the moon itself all play their part in manipulating each level into multiple puzzle-based scenarios. A strategic utilization of the placement of shadows is damn near mandatory in order to succeed, and the design of each level facilitates a creative usage of even the most basic abilities. Observing the opportunities created by the shadows cast by each light source is paramount, but successfully traversing the shadows without attracting the Kaiho’s attention is equally essential–the interactive dark to the game’s environmental light.
Each level contains a few hidden scrolls for players to discover, offering a skill point to those who take the time to find them. Collecting enough of these scrolls will allow Aragami to learn new abilities and augment already acquired powers. Shadow kunai can eliminate enemies from a distance, traps can be set to pull nearby enemies into a black hole, decoys and invisibility can be utilized to stay safe, and a few other abilities help to sculpt this title’s identity. Techniques are far from numerous, but they can be used in conjunction with most every other ability to create a myriad of surprisingly flexible styles of gameplay.
In addition to advancing your abilities, these scrolls provide bits of backstory that shed some light on the plot. Aragami‘s main story holds its own well enough, but it’s overall simplicity can turn the captivation stagnant when repeating the same part of a level for the tenth time. Reading the scrolls can offer some narrative development via recollections of past events, and doing so has the convenient tendency of breaking up the natural in-game tension at the player’s will.
Aragami’s bread-and-butter move is a simple, clean, and quiet assassination. Teleporting right next to an enemy within range and taking them out is an incredibly satisfying and fluid mechanic, and the game never forces players to relinquish control over the camera during these animations. This often leads to some pretty cinematic brutality, but it will leave you completely vulnerable until the assassination is complete. These killings must be executed in the most meticulous manner–one misstep or miscalculated assumption of an enemy’s position is all it takes to alert the guards. Survival is much more difficult to achieve when the army is on the prowl, and death serves as a bitter reminder of your failure as you restart the level from one of the stage’s few checkpoints.
If you’re not confident enough to use the bodies of slain guards as bait for traps, Aragami can learn how to dissolve bodies into the shadow realm in order to eliminate the possibility of anyone stumbling upon their fallen comrade. Killing the army of Light isn’t your only option, though–the game even awards players at the end of a level if no one was slain. Getting a graded rank at the end of each stage feels like an accurate critique of your performance and never feels discouraging. There’s so many different ways to go about progressing through each area, and each one is accompanied by a more creative curiosity than the last.
Aragami‘s gameplay and story is polished simplicity at its finest. Abilities aren’t necessary; they’re just helpful. The ability to create shadows on the fly by steadily depleting your shadow essence is sometimes needed to get into certain areas, but it’s mostly a luxurious power. Most of the basic actions available to Aragami can stand on their own, so abilities quickly become a convenient source of flourish instead of degrading into an abusive reliance of power.
Maneuvering around Aragami‘s world quickly becomes an elegant dance among the shadows, and a very, very addictive one at that. If you’re interested and willing to practice patience in a creatively brutal way that defies the conventional aspects of light and dark, this game comes highly recommended.
Review Statement: The author of this review received a PS4 code from the publisher for the purpose of this review.
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