Just looking at screenshots for Sumioni: The Demon Arts will tell you pretty much everything you need to know about what the game aims to be: Okami as a 2-D platformer.
That's certainly a noble enough goal. Too few games effectively crib from the ancient aesthetic of ink wash painting (Sumi-e), and Sumioni does the job well enough.
It's just too bad that that's pretty much all it does well.
Sumioni: The Demon Arts (PS Vita)
That ink wash style serves as the game's core conceit as well as its visual calling card. Conveyed via stylized event scenes overlaid by scrolling text, Sumioni's story stars Agura, a lazy oni demon pressed into service by the spirit of a dead sage and compelled to journey to the capital with Shidou and Yomihi, a pair of ink gods, and there exorcise a vague evil that has infested the land.
It's a plot of fairy tale simplicity, lacks the all-important fairy tale messaging or moral lessons, at least judging by what little of it I saw.
"As far as I've seen of it" is something to note here, as the game branches off half a dozen times, allowing for up to six different endings and a taste of Acquire's traditional penchant for emphasizing nonlinear play. The bad news here is that I have found it nigh-impossible to actually get any ending other than the worst one, due to the way the game - and its branching plot - is structured.
Sumioni's thirty-odd levels are arranged in a branching progression, and which branches the player takes depends mainly on getting a perfect three-star rating on predetermined levels. Missing the target score results in progression along the shorter branches. The worst-ending plot branch is just six levels long, and for the vast majority of my play time, it was just those six levels I saw, simply because I couldn't land three stars at the points it mattered. I practically lucked into landing on the second-best ending path, at which point I finally felt ready to write this review.
This implies that I found Sumioni very difficult, but in truth it isn't, not in the satisfying, challenging fashion that the likes of Super Meat Boy, Trials or Demon's Souls are. It's not so much hard but very tough to actually play, thanks to awkward control gimmickry and some baffling design decisions.
While basic movement and attacks are handled on the analog sticks and face buttons, Sumioni's big party trick involves the PS Vita's touch screens. As might be expected from a game with brush art as a major motif, players can drag their fingers over the screen to draw pretty ink lines any which way. The lines manifest in the game as physical structures that Agura can walk and jump on, providing paths over impassable obstacles and a way to target flying foes. Staying on the lines and not touching the ground boosts Agura's attack power, so there's a strong incentive to keep the demon in the air. The lines draw from a limited supply of ink, however, which can be replaced by collecting items from fallen enemies or, more commonly, stroking the Vita's rear touchpad like one might grind an inkstone.
Ink is used for more than traversal, though. Tapping a shoulder button freezes time and allows players to draw on the screen, with the lines burning or electrocuting enemies once time resumes. Drawing special symbols on the screen also summons the ink gods to inflict heavy damage and shield Agura from harm.
All of these tricks sound simple in practice, but it's putting them all together in pursuit of the elusive three-star ranking that causes collapse. Moving Agura with the analog stick, triggering melee attacks with the face buttons (tapping can be used, but too often registers as a new drawing), and then drawing platforms and magic attacks all at the same time, then pausing to furiously rub the back pad like it were kindling for a fire, all the while under time pressure and defending against damage (often by using a special brush to erase incoming enemy fire) is an exercise in wrist stress, especially considering the usual need to keep the Vita in hand, and the occasionally precarious balancing positions that one encounters while gaming on portables. Were one to digitally remove the Vita from footage of a person playing Sumioni, it would look like performance art.
Worse still, the game's progression encourages grinding and repetition. Players can increase Agura's health and ink supply by collecting items in the world, but it's more or less guaranteed that they'll repeat a story one or two (or twenty) times, simply because the supplies are too pitiful to stand up to usage at speed.
The stages themselves can't be restarted at will, and score isn't tallied until the end of the level, meaning that until they finish the stage players will never know if they got the rating they need to branch into a better part of the story, and if they don't, they can't go back without repeating the entire chain up to that point. Each stage is blessedly short, and often can be completed in a couple of minutes, but the level designs and enemies lack in variety, based on the two ending paths I encountered. The boss fight in the worst ending was only slightly different from the one in the second best, except the boss was a slightly different color.
Being nominally a fan of Acquire's previous works, such as Gladiator Begins and the Way of the Samurai series, I can see what they were going for when they structured Sumioni this way, but that kind of cyclical, repetitious design only works if the game has a lot of depth. Sumioni's design is as anemic as its storytelling.
In the end, Sumioni: The Demon Arts felt like a gimmick in search of a game, with far too little content spread too thinly onto a structure too large for its concept.
3 -- Poor (3s went wrong somewhere along the line. The original idea might have promise, but in practice the game has failed. Threatens to be interesting sometimes, but rarely.)
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