When my editor sent me the review code for Aragami Nightfall—the DLC for the base stealth action game —I realized that I had absentmindedly purchased the original game months before and that it was waiting among the treasure trove of “what-is-this-indie?” gems in my PS4 library. I was originally drawn to the game because of the intriguing premise: in Aragami you play as a spirit assassin who has been summoned by the astral projection of a girl named Yamiko who claims she is held captive by the Kaiho army. The cell-shaded graphics make for a sleek, stylistic presentation, and lurking among the shadows while ganking enemies brought back memories of playing Splinter Cell when I was a teenager.
I actually feel relieved that I did not write an initial review for Aragami because for all my excitement the game showcases some glaring flaws I feel prevented it from being an instant classic. It is a conflict I am sure other game reviewers face—typically I have way more critiques to offer for a game I’d rank a 7 or 8 than a game I’d rank a 5 or a 6, because those tiny missteps have hindered what could otherwise be a great game. Considering that DLC releases are typically extensions of games and not substantive overhauls, I was skeptical that Nightfall would improve upon the issues that prevented me from fully enjoying my playtime. However, after playing Nightfall I was thoroughly surprised about the extent that developer Lince Works has improved upon the areas that held Aragami back. The noticeable changes in Nightfall suggest that the team at Lince Works has made a concerted effort to listen to fan feedback to improve their product, which has left me feeling incredibly optimistic about the potential future of the Aragami franchise.
As I previously mentioned, Aragami was a decent game—I probably would have scored it a 7 or 7.5. While there are many positive qualities to talk about in the original game, I’d like to take a moment to discuss a few of the shortcomings in the base game in order to analyze the improvements in mechanics and storytelling elements in Nightfall. First, considering he is a cool-spirit-assassin-guy, the character Aragami was surprisingly sluggish to play as a protagonist. Aragami’s lethargic movement stood at odds with its most prevalent shadow teleportation mechanic, resulting in another game that equates “slowness” with “stealth.” Second, other reviewers have critiqued the original for how underpowered Aragami is at the start of the game. In the 30-year old stealth genre we have seen a slew of sneaky mechanics ranging from ledge kills to crossbows with poison-tipped arrows. Players begin Aragami with an incredibly limited skillset—your shadow teleportation mechanic, and a stealth kill option when you are close to enemies. While you can collect (hard-to-locate) power ups that give you more tools, the result is that the first levels of Aragami are somewhat of a slogfest where the player has limited agency. And while the shadow-centric gaming mechanic is the greatest strength in Aragami, in a way the gimmick hindered the storytelling of the game. In theory it sounds rad that an astral projection summoned an undead spirit warrior, but when the two main characters are both wispy specters with moany dialogue then it can be challenging to find humanistic moments of the narrative to latch onto. Immediately, the DLC Nightfall solves the latter critique by presenting two new playable protagonists—Hyo and Shinobu—two human characters that I feel are much easier to root for and invest in. I won’t clarify how these two fit into the story, but Nightfall is a prequel narrative that explains how Aragami came to be an undead assassin.
Though both characters are human, and more relatable, they utilize the same Shadow Techniques as the titular specter warrior, and zipping from shadow to shadow is just as fun as in the original game. The improved narrative is also bolstered by scrolls of text laying around each level, which share the backstory of characters and events in a much more presentable and digestible format. I played as Shinobu—the female character—and the first thing I noticed is that her movements are much less constrained than Aragami’s were. Having the improved ability to dart past guards and flee at the sight of trouble was not only freeing, but also gave me more options for how to approach stealth in the game. Instead of requiring players to lurch through levels finding power ups to improve their character, Nightfall initially provides characters with a wealth of interesting gadgets and tools, ranging from smoke grenades to exploding throwing knives. Players who enjoyed the challenge of the original Aragami may be concerned that the new mechanics could neutralize the difficulty the game is known for. But let me assure you that Nightfall ramps up the hardness in a way that is welcoming and not-overly frustrating. For example, your character now has access to projectiles that can take out tower guards, so best believe you’ll see increased patrol loops and crow’s nests with multiple enemies instead of one.
The stakes remain high: all it takes is a one-hit kill after a guard has spotted you to send you back to the checkpoint. This degree of difficulty presents a double edged sword. On the one hand, stealth junkies who enjoy executing perfect runs will love the lack of forgiveness. On the other hand, the one hit kills mean a lot of the gameplay resorts to trial and error. I must confess that both Aragami and Nightfall are missing my favorite part of the stealth genre: when the alarm goes off and you must dispose of enemy waves in a mad dash toward freedom. Nightfall presents 4 new chapters, of roughly 2 – 3 hours of gameplay, with levels that are much more expansive sandboxes than the 13 chapters in Aragami. I unfortunately did not get a chance to play the game’s online co-op mode for this review, but the varied paths in each level leave me eager to go back and play with a friend. Nightfall didn’t solve every issue I had with Aragami—I still don’t see why I can’t chain together stealth kills to take out two guards at the same time. But still, I feel comfortable saying that the massive advancements of the DLC leave us with a much- improved experience now and hope for an even better future for shadow assassins.