When the world is drowned in darkness unlikely heroes tend to appear. Apparently when the world is an alternate version of ancient Japan, unlikely heroes tend to be even more peculiar, like Agura, a lazy and indolent ink demon dragged against his better judgment into the usual world-saving adventure.
While the adventure may be usual Agura’s powers are the geometrical opposite of normal. As the demonic embodyment of the adage “The pen is mightier than the sword” that Edward Bulwer-Lytton made famous with his Richelieu, Agura is able to use ink to create physical objects and as a deadly weapon. And they say that Japanese developers are running out of ideas… Yeah, sure…
The first thing that meets the eye when loading Sumioni is its absolutely beautiful art style, inspired by the traditional Sumi-e ink wash technique, that gives the game an unique look and atmosphere. While the graphics are entirely 2D and don’t represent any kind of technical marvel, the art direction and style will leave most players enchanted, turning Sumioni in one of the most visually appealing games on the PS Vita.
Unfortunately progressing through the game unveils the fact that many of the enemy sprites have been recycled almost endlessly, which is a pity, considering the possibilities offered by the sumi-e paintings, that would have allowed the designers to come up with some really imaginative enemies.
This is not to say that the ones you’ll find are uninspired, quite the contrary, they look awesome, but they are few, and after fighting against them a gazillion times they’ll start to become quite boring.
The production values of Sumioni are completed by a lovely sountrack inspired by traditional Japanese music, that complements the art style perfectly and contributes to creating an atmosphere that is really hard not to love, especially if you appreciate Japanese culture and folklore.
Considering the nature of the protagonist and of his powers, gameplay is definitely the most prominent and original element of the game, that uses the Vita’s touch controls extensively and masterfully in order to let us go wild with the power of the ink.
Touching the screen lets the player draw platforms and slopes he can use to avoid obstacles and to reach apparently unreachable areas, including the weak spots of many bosses. Using the shoulder button freezes the screen, and allows us to unlock Agura’s most powerful arts: drawing on the screen will summon deadly trails of fire that will burn enemies and buildings alike, while pressing and holding in one spot will call lightning upon it.
Players will also be able to summon one of the two available ink gods by drawing a peculiar pattern on the screen. They’re extremely powerful and will provide an excellent damage boost (not to mention a shield against enemy attacks) for a short while.
Every time ink is used, the ink bar will decrease, requiring the player to kill more enemies or to rub the back touch pad in order to replenish it. A water brush is also available to delete our “creations” or to parry incoming fire-based attacks. A few melee attacks and combos can be used and are definitely useful, but they’re overshadowed by the intuitive beauty of the ink-based attacks.
The whole control system and the ways in which our ink demon can best his opponents create a charming and novel way to enjoy action platforming, bringing a breath of fresh air to a genre that often tends to be quite a bit fossilized. It also creates a fast and challenging style of gameplay that requires precision and dedication, and has the potential to be very rewarding when mastered. Unfortunately it’s not as fleshed out as it could have been.
The variety of attacks and arts available at the beginning of the game is definitely great, but there’s absolutely no progression. While a few bonuses here and there can increase the capacity of our ink and life bars, there are no new techniques to be learned or otherwise acquired through the whole rest of the adventure, meaning that the novelty will probably wear out for most after a while. Considering the endless possibilities offered by the ink system, I honestly can’t understand the reason why it hasn’t been developed further.
In a few promotional screens of the game and even in the tutorial, I’ve seen the Japanese kanji “”Hi” (Fire) ignited into a flame, and this leads me to believe that at least in the initial phases of development the player was supposed to actually draw the Kanji on the screen to summon elemental attacks. That kind of system, with different symbols corresponding to a wider variety of different attacks, would have created a much more interesting and long-lasting experience, especially paired with a progression system allowing to learn those attacks with time.
While this isn’t an enormous flaw, as much as a missed opportunity, there’s another element that flaws the whole game almost irrimediably. The branching level progression system.
The game has a total of 30 levels and six endings, ranging from the worst to the best. During certain stages achieving a three stars rating will let the player move to an alternative branch, progressing towards one of the better endings. There are a few critical problems with this.
First of all getting three stars can be very hard, even more so considering that the game will not tell you how to achieve them. From my experience completing levels receiving very little damage is the most important factor, but I may be wrong, which is understandable since official information about the grading system can’t be found anywhere.
Secondly, this locks too much content away from the player. The basic branch includes only six levels, which means that a whopping 80% of the game will be unavailable to you unless you’re either very good at it, or you have the patience to try the branching levels endless times until you get three stars, result that most of the times isn’t easy to achieve at all.
The situation is worsened even further by the fact that the option to retry a level is available only if you die. If you complete a branching level with only two stars, too bad, you’ll either have to continue on the worse branch (that most possibly you have already played) or completely restart the game in order to reload your save, which is a cumbersome and absolutely unnecessary process.
This creates a disproportionate amount of repetition and trial and error, that will probably frustrate many players out of what would be otherwise a very enjoyable experience, locking them away from the majority of the content of the game.
Sumioni: Demon Arts is a charming but tragically flawed game. It honestly pains me to close this review on such a sour note, because it truly had the potential to be an absolute masterpiece, thanks to the beautiful art and the refreshing ink painting mechanics.
Unfortunately the lack of variety and progression and the unfairly unforgiving level branching system turn the game into a mediocre experience, that will entertain most for a very limited amount of time and will truly reward only the most patient and determined. I’m quite sure some will consider this a good thing.