What are the ingredients for the perfect stealth game?
The answers, of course, vary from person to person, but some of the main points that would consistently come up would have to be: choice, AI, lighting, and sound. Choice can be given in various loadouts chosen for a mission, multiple paths to reach your objective, or even multiple ways of satisfying completion conditions. Guard AI is always of great import, as dumb guards make for a boring game, but hyper-vigilant guards who are omniscient to your every move is too frustrating. Guards need some form of path to guard but must be able to do so naturally and spontaneously, not mechanically and predictable. Lighting is of utmost importance in games in general, but all the more so regarding the stealth genre, as they primarily take place at night, where agents of the dark are most secure and shadows are plentiful. Sound is another generally important aspect of all games but within stealth, its value skyrockets. Each step a player takes should be carefully calculated, as any noise should be able to potentially alert nearby guards, depending on how loud it is. Enemy footsteps need to be present, becoming clearer the closer they are, then fading away as they move on into the distance. Sound may very well be one of the most important on this list, among other key elements I may not have mentioned. In any event, the perfect stealth game must be planned and carefully executed.
Is Aragami? To answer that, we’ll first ask, what is Aragami.
An action stealth game by Lince Works, Aragami tells the story of a vengeful spirit summoned by a captured girl to help free her and her people. As a spirit, Aragami has the supernatural ability to control shadows, enabling him to instantly teleport from shadow to shadow, create spots of shadows where none were, and many other powers, both defensive and offensive. To keep players from spamming abilities non-stop, Aragami has a meter of sorts that depletes as you use skills. Depending on where your character is, the surrounding lighting dictates how your powers recharge, if at all: Darkness charges, light depletes, and intermediate areas do neither. Scrolls can be found to unlock and/or upgrade skills and augment some of these rules, strengthening your Aragami’s abilities. Thanks to these powers, the player immediately has a choice: focus on offensive abilities and clear out all enemies, or focus on defensive abilities in order to distract and move past hostile targets. More choice is given as we move on to level design, as each stage is able to be completed by each style. Areas are wide and open with multiple paths that connect and wind between and around targets. Verticality comes into play almost immediately, further expanding potential paths to take with towers, bridges, and attics that Aragami can flash to. Regardless of your playstyle, sneaking will always be a must, and because of this you’ll greatly appreciate the amount of shadows you’ll find. If you choose to take the violent path, eliminating the enemy presence completely, you’ll still need to perform stealth kills, as enemies can one-shot Aragami as soon as they spot him, or else they’ll alert the entire area. And this brings us to our second point, enemy AI.
Guards are fairly well implemented, but are at a severe disadvantage due to their supernatural enemy. As a corporeal spirit, Aragami has a greater chance of becoming invisible to the enemy while crouching in a shadow. Because of this, guards are laid out in a specific way within each stage, forcing you to track your prey until they’ve isolated themselves from the line of sight of a friend. Anytime you see a guard, chances are you’ll see another one watching that one if you take the time to look around. I particularly enjoyed the challenge this created, forcing a player to contemplate kills to avoid being killed themselves.
Once a guard has been slain, another guard will typically find them through their normal routine, immediately alerting every guard in the surrounding area to hone in on the murder, if left unchecked. Also of note, once guards have been alerted they will draw their swords, which are light weapons, and I’m not referring to their weight. Guard swords and arrows emit light and create a glowing aura that can easily make a hiding spot useless.This further discourages heroic play styles, as any one on one duel with a guard is an almost guaranteed loss to you and your score. While guards may have a difficult time seeing you, if you properly use the shadows, they also have the option to hear you.
Sneaking, walking and running all make varied amounts of noise, and if you aren’t careful (unless you mean to do so), a guard may overhear your unkempt footsteps and become suspicious. I found the AI to be both challenging and forgiving, as a suspicious guard does not equal an alerted guard, helping forgive any mistakes you may make. Regarding story, additional tidbits can be found by eavesdropping on chatty guards who will speak of anything from the history of the current war to their family back home.
Lighting and Sound
I touched on both earlier, but due to their importance in such a title, I’ll speak more of them here. Aragami takes place overnight, with the natural darkness providing much cover for our vengeful protagonist, but the presence of the full moon and enemy camps create many breaks in the scenery. This forces the player to consider their options of how to tackle a particular scenario, especially when going the pacifist route.
Being able to identify shadows, or edges thereof, realize when a shadow must be created, and using all of this knowledge to jump from spot to spot are skills necessary to survive. Because shadows are needed in order to perform a jump (your primary means of silent transportation), creativity is a must. No shadow on the ground? Jump to the ceiling and drop silently behind an enemy. No shadow to reach a ledge? Teleport to the shadow on the wall to reach the spot. A gate/fence/grating in the way? Teleport through it onto a shadow on the other side. Shadows are such a huge dimension of Aragami, and because of this the developer’s choices of where to place them, and not place them, helps greatly with level design and progression.
Sonically, Aragami hits all the right spots, without going overboard with them.
Guard footsteps and Aragami’s own footsteps make adequate noise, dependant on how close or far away they are from you. Directional sound is well implemented, helping further immerse you into the missions. Characters speak Japanese, with the main cast speaking in quick whispers that fade in and out briefly, as you would expect a haunting spirit to do, and the guards speaking clearly to themselves or their peers. Music is subtle and accommodating to the tension a proper stealth game commands, with gentle beats and soft Japanese melodies lead by shakuhachi and what sounds like simple guzheng playing. Never is it distracting nor so loud that it drowns out important environmental clues to your enemy whereabouts. Sounds of the actual environment Aragami takes place in are appropriate, with wispy breezes gently stirring tree branches, leaves softly crunching underfoot, and waterways muffling most suspicious activity with their deceptive power. Overall, Aragami sounds just as it should.
In summation, Aragmai has all the elements of a perfect stealth game, and does so very well in an attractive package. Great level design that encourages multiple playthroughs in various styles to achieve all win conditions, environments that encourage exploration through hidden upgrades, enemy AI that is fairly balanced so player mistakes are obvious, minimizing frustrations, and a sound and lighting system that complements all of the above. Add to all of this a story that is interesting and intriguing, as the player discovers the events surrounding this Aragami’s being summoned, as well as his own past, and you get a title that is enjoyable from every angle. While I may not believe Aragami to be the ‘be all end all’ of the stealth genre, I do most certainly believe it to be a stellar entry in the action stealth genre, one that certainly deserves attention to any looking to scratch that itch, or even explore the genre for the first time.