**Review Copy Provided by the Publisher**
There aren’t enough stealth games. The Metal Gear Solid series is no more, at least as far as I’m concerned. It’s been a while since we’ve had a new Splinter Cell and even longer since we’ve had a Splinter Cell game that puts stealth before action. The Dishonored series can be played like stealth games and yet that series has also been put on hold. The sparsity of stealth games is even more apparent on the Switch. The most prominent stealth game on there is probably Mark of the Ninja, which is an excellent game, by the way, however, that’s a 2D side-scroller and therefore feels vastly different to the games that hooked me on the stealth genre in the first place.
Which is to say, I was really looking forward to playing Aragami on the Switch. Aragami is a 3D stealth game which firmly resists the temptation to let players take an all-out action approach. There’s a refreshing restriction on player choice here. You die in one hit and, with the exception of a few special moves, you can only takedown enemies from up close. In that respect, it plays like a puzzle game with only a handful of solutions and is more of a 3D Mark of the Ninja than a low-budget Metal Gear Solid.
The concept is promising. You play as an aragami, an undead assassin, who can move instantly between shadows and even create his own if necessary. Once you’ve leveled up, you can throw shadow darts to kill distant enemies and summon monsters to do the killing for you. There’s also a decent story spread out over a sensible run time of around six to eight hours, with chapters punctuated by some excellent artwork.
It’s a shame, therefore, that such a cool concept is wasted by a terrible Switch port that has distracting aliasing and flickering throughout, a draw distance that hides enemies until it’s too late, and a frame rate that becomes so bad in the latter half that Aragami becomes almost unplayable.
You play as an aragami, who I’m just going to call Aragami from now on, summoned by a woman called Yamiko to free her and take revenge on her captors, the Kaiho. Aragami are a bit of a mystery. Yamiko knew how to summon you in the first place but can’t tell you where you came from or what happens to you when you’ve accomplished your goal. All she can tell you is that aragami are weak to light and you will die when the sun rises. In other words, you have a life-span shorter than an under-performing EA developer.
Aragami is linked to Yamiko through the spell that created him in the first place and he, therefore, sees visions of her past that gradually explain how she came to be captured by the Kaiho via these stunning images. The themes of light and dark aren’t exactly subtle, not that you would expect them to be in a game specifically about manipulating shadows and being killed by actual light, however, the story is still quite touching given the short space of time the writers and artists had to work with.
The campaign is broken up into thirteen chapters which can last anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour, and most involve the same loop. Your way forward is blocked by barriers of light, so you hunt down the sources of power and destroy them to exit the level.
You can take down enemies once you’re up close and personal however as soon as they spot you they send a blast of light your way which kills you in one hit. In other words, you need to stay out of sight. This is relatively easy thanks to Aragami’s ability to leap between shadows with the tap of a button. If there’s no shadow available, then you can create a shadow of your own so long as it’s not in a brightly lit area such as next to a lantern or a fire. This provides the basic and yet incredibly satisfying mechanic of letting you create a shadow behind an enemy, leap to it, and instantly perform a stealth kill.
In most stealth games, when an enemy is looking directly at you, your options are typically to go another way, distract them so they go wandering off, or use a long range ability to take them out. I love how Aragami flips this on its head. A guard looking directly at you doesn’t need to be a threat at all. A guard could be standing in the doorway of a building you need to enter, but all you need to do is create a shadow under his feet, warp there, and kill him. Hell, you don’t even have to kill him. Create a shadow in the room behind him, grab what you need, and leave without him ever knowing you were there. If this all sounds a little familiar, then yes, I can confirm it is a lot like the Blink ability from Dishonored. You have limited use of your powers, as indicated by the cape flowing behind you. You powers are recharged by staying in shadows and drain completely if you enter sources of bright light.
As someone who loved using Blink in Dishonored, it was incredibly frustrating to find the shadow leap so limited here. It’s not just having to wait around for it to recharge, although that is annoying, it’s the limited level design that keeps so many options out of bounds. Most rooftops are off limits because you can’t climb uneven ledges, although this seems incredibly inconsistent in execution. What initially seems like huge freedom of movement is surprisingly restricted by the game stopping you from taking the most logical routes through levels.
Dotted around the maps are scrolls which can be used to unlock a bunch of passive and active abilities, such as regaining your shadow powers quicker, throwing darts at distant enemies, or turning invisible. Active abilities are limited to two uses until you reach a shrine which is good for one charge. There are typically a couple of shrines per level. This is nowhere near enough to really let loose with the abilities however you can regain one charge every time you use an ability that summons a monster from the earth to take out the enemy for you. This is a little trickier to pull off than a normal stealth attack because it requires more time, however, if you can manage it, you can effectively keep alternating between using a power and regaining the charge.
The limits on the use of your basic shadow abilities and the extra attacks are clearly in place to manage the campaign’s difficulty. If you could just throw a one-hit kill shadow dart at everyone then every level would be easy. Likewise, if you could use all the rooftops and weren’t limited in the number of shadows you could create, you could zip to the end of the level without a sweat. Rather than placing arbitrary and strict limits on the use of your powers, I’d have preferred a solution along the lines of more interesting level design and more sophisticated enemy AI.
Likewise, mission objectives could have been spiced up a bit by having us assassinate certain targets, perhaps with restrictions in place such as remaining undetected or by not killing any guards. There are rewards at the end of each chapter for killing everyone and not being spotted at all, but these are extremes that I don’t find especially interesting.
Another niggle related to the movement is that it’s so incredibly finicky. With a Pro Controller, trying to get the aim into the exact point that triggers a ledge climb is unreasonably difficult and often unintuitive because you have to aim well below the actual ledge most of the time. Plus, the marker is tiny and it’s hard to spot the exact moment the dot changes to an up arrow. Even the basic act of moving to shadows is harder than it should be due to the precision often required.
Aragami doesn’t have much in the way of sound cues, so you can’t track enemies by the noise they make. Sound is a crucial part of stealth and, unless there’s a good reason for not being able to hear the guards, such as playing as a deaf protagonist, the lack of enemy noise feels like a missed feature. That said, the sound of your executions cutting through the otherwise silent night is pretty special.
Aragami is a decent stealth game with a few annoying limitations and flaws, however, those of us who enjoy stealth games generally have to take what we can get. But… there have to be limits and the shocking quality of this Switch port goes beyond what is acceptable for all but the most desperate shadow-dwellers.
Aragami doesn’t look good on Switch. This is not a simple case of a lower resolution Switch edition, which is to expected. I can live with lower resolutions and less graphical fidelity overall if necessary, however, there comes a point when it negatively affects your experience and Aragami goes well past that line.
The first thing I noticed was the aliasing everywhere. Every edge is jagged, it doesn’t matter if it’s up close or in the distance. This leads to an abundance of flickering which is distracting at best, and headache-inducing at worst. Aliasing is one of those things you don’t always notice if it’s just on distant objects or you’re moving quickly, but this is on every single edge, no matter how close or far away. If this were the only problem, I would adapt and move on, but things get a lot worse.
Enemies in the distance become so low res they look like pixel art and they move at such a low frame rate it’s almost a slide show. Again, this just about falls into the category of being distracting more than game-breaking however when you’re trying to immerse yourself into a new experience, these distractions start adding up. It’s a stealth game and you need to be aware of your surroundings and where enemies are located. Straining your eyes to look at Minecraft assets is not ideal.
Then you have the problem of the poor draw distance. You can see enemies pop in and out of view depending on how close they are. In a stealth game, this is a huge deal. I missed an archer because the roof looked empty only for an archer to pop in once it was too late.
And we finally get to the major problem: the frame rate. This was a problem from the moment I started, but for the first half of the story it wasn’t a huge issue. Aragami definitely wasn’t a locked thirty frames per second, but I could cope. Enter chapter seven, when the frame rate plummeted, presumably due to the large outdoor map and increased lighting and weather effects in play. I say “weather effects,” however I’m not sure what weather condition the lines down the screen here are trying to replicate. I’ve never seen rain like that before and I’m British. I’ve seen all the rain.
By the time I reached chapter eleven, I considered abandoning my playthrough. The frame drops were becoming more severe and were a constant issue during moments where I moved quickly. Not ideal for a game that has you zipping between shadows. I died a couple of times due to huge freezes in the action that stopped me executing a stealth kill after teleporting. A late-game boss required me to quickly move from shadow to shadow, which was a disaster.
These issues are also present in handheld mode, although you don’t notice the jaggies quite so much on the smaller screen, nor the issues with draw distance. However, handheld mode makes some issues worse. The cursor that you use to aim at shadows is now ridiculously small and hard to aim, especially when using the joy con which are not a good fit for precise aiming unless there’s motion control which there isn’t in this case. I played for an hour in handheld mode and was relieved to get back to the controller.
I appreciate that the Switch isn’t that powerful. Hell, I’m a fairly big critic of it most of the time, and I can’t understand the desire to play major triple-A games on what is effectively a handheld that you can hook up to the TV. However, to give the Switch its dues, it’s capable of much more than this.
The poor performance is disappointing because Aragami is a solid stealth game with interesting ideas, lovely artwork, and a touching story. The Shadow Edition on Switch also includes the expansion Nightfall which is a bunch of prequel missions to the main campaign where you play as different characters. It looks like a good fit for co-op although I wasn’t able to try that out. There are also loads of unlockable costumes and you can replay chapters to improve your ranking. There’s plenty here to justify a $30 price tag.
If you desperately need a stealth hit, then stick to the PS4 or PC versions which are likely cheaper by now anyway. Aragami: Shadow Edition is a bad port that feels like a rushed attempt to cash in on the Switch’s popularity. Both the Switch and the game deserve better than this terrible port.