April 25, 2012
In Sumioni, players take control of the demonic Agura, an "ink demon" summoned to save ancient Japan from the effects of the evil forces that want to destroy it. You move with the analog stick or directional pad and use the face buttons to jump, dash, and slash with Agura's trusty bisento. There's a number of advanced techniques such as air dashing and comboing attacks with Agura's bisento available to the player, but most players will generally stick to the basics.
Taking advantage of the Vita's touch-based controls, Sumioni lets you draw a line on the system's screen to create platforms or turn into fire that damages enemies and even lets you summon "ink gods" by following specific patterns. The catch is that you only have a limited supply of ink and have to refill it by either picking up power-ups on the field or taking time away from the action by rubbing the Vita's rear touchpad.
So far, this would sound like more than the average side-scrolling adventure game for most gamers just in its gameplay mechanics alone. And it would be, except that for everything Sumioni does right, it also does many things wrong. Like most side-scrollers, Sumioni is divided into 30 individual stages along six separate tracks each of which has its own unique ending. Initially the player is guided towards the "worst" and shortest ending but can alter their path depending on how they perform during the battle.
To branch off into another ending path requires that you get three perfect star ratings upon completion of a branching stage. This generally requires the player to get through the stage as quickly as possible, while taking as little damage as possible.
This sounds like a good idea from the outset, but how Sumioni approaches it is incredibly frustrating. Unlike most modern games, which let you return to a node once you've reached that point at least once, Sumioni requires you to go through the entire list of stages all over again. Well, if you can perfect clear them all over again. Because all of the moves are available to you from the outset, and the only unlockables are to increase your health and ink gauges, as you get deeper into the game and see all of the different enemy types, the only thing the game can give you is harder and more difficult versions of what have already seen before. This lessens the reason for all but the hardcore to continue on and see everything the game has in store.
This is a sad thing indeed as the graphics and music are surprisingly decent for a budget release, like Sumioni: Demon Arts is in North America. Modeled after the distinct sumi-e art style, the game is quite striking on the Vita's OLED screen and comes to life especially when the fire and ink gods are drawn onto the screen. The music, while not memorable, fits very well with the ancient Japan feel and doesn't grate on your nerves.
Sumioni is the kind of game you'd love to enjoy, but just can't help but feel like something is missing due to its faults. This isn't to say it's a bad game, as the core gameplay mechanics and artistic direction are very impressive, but its issues drag down what would otherwise be a instant budget purchase. If you are willing to overlook Sumioni's flaws there's a competent game underneath, it's just sad it holds that back from showing itself.