Consequently, much of the game is about sniffing out an optimal route between clusters of shadow. At first this is a little tricky, but once you've got a handle on it, it's possible to flit through the shadows very quickly. Aragami is therefore capable of navigating environments with remarkable speed, and you'll probably blast through the first few levels within an hour or so. But Lince Works soon begins layering in the complexity. The environments become larger, and the game intersperses standard patrolling guards with eagle-eyed archers, progress-obstructing light barriers, and a bunch of other hazards that need to be either avoided or neutralised.
As a stealth game Aragami is supremely well balanced. Aragami's supernatural nature makes him far more powerful than standard stealth protagonists. He is able to nimbly evade guards, and dispatch them with a range of brutal executions before dissolving the body with a shadowy touch. It's worth noting that, although you can 'ghost' each mission of the game, there are no non-lethal attacks. If you want to get rid of a guard, it's going to involve bloodshed, which, let's face it, is in perfect alignment with the notion of being a vengeful spirit.
Despite Aragami's sneaking prowess, his opponents are equally adept. Even when in shadow, a guard will still spot Aragami if he is close enough. They also possess keen hearing, homing in on Aragami's footsteps and investigating if they hear an ally being killed. Their patrols are cleverly layered over one another, so trying to dispatch them one by one is quite tricky, but it's equally difficult to rely on simple evasion. If you're spotted, a guard can kill you with a single swipe of his light-sword, and will attempt to alert the rest of the camp through a blast of his horn. It is possible to evade your enemies if your presence is revealed, but generally I found that discovery very quickly led to death. Aragami is definitely a game about avoiding detection, not dealing with the consequences once you've been seen.
Usually the lack of a proper 'evasion' stage in a stealth game bothers me, but in Aragami it doesn't. I think this is because Aragami allows you to express your creativity in other ways. The levels are fairly open ended, usually allowing you to tackle your objective from at least three angles, and encouraging you to use all the skills at your disposal to gain the upper hand. Lince Works also manages to squeeze out plenty of variety from its feudal-Japan setting. One missions sees you sneaking through an idyllic water temple, while another involves solving a giant puzzle inside a fortress-like mausoleum. There's one particularly impressive mission that begins in a dilapidated graveyard, before transitioning into a giant army camp, and finally into the outskirts of a fortified city.
From a structural perspective, these are good wholesome designs that bring to mind some of the best stealth missions, such as Thief II's Life of the Party. But on closer inspection, they lack the finer details and the organic flow that games such as Thief and Dishonored possess. The blocky architecture combined with how the environments direct and funnel you make them feel like mazes designed for you to complete, rather than places for you to explore. This is a shame, because one of the ways Lince Works encourages exploration is by hiding upgrade points around the environments. Obtaining each of these is often a miniature stealth challenge in and of itself, and a smart way to reward the more investigative player.
The other thing Aragami is missing compared to the aforementioned stealth icons is a well told story. Pretty much everything about Aragami's narrative is half-baked. The plot is confusing and meandering; the writing is flat and laden with jarring modern colloquialisms. The dialogue is painfully expositional, and Aragami and Yamiko both lack substance as lead characters. It's by far the weakest element of the game, and the only reason it doesn't damage the experience too much is because it rarely intrudes upon the act of play.
The absence of a compelling narrative, alongside that lack of refinement in the level design, means that Aragami isn't quite up there with the greats. Nevertheless, it's an entertaining, inventive and challenging stealth game that, for me, has proved to be one of the more pleasant surprises of this year. Well worth a look for the asking price.