Since the launch of the Playstation Vita, there have been a number of games that have attempted to accomplish two goals: address the handheld’s numerous capabilities and provide an entertaining experience. Certain games, like Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Touch My Katamari, tend to go to the extreme by implementing a large handful of mechanics that rely on the motion controls, camera and touch pads. Sumioni: Demon Arts strikes a bit of a balance as it offers solid touch controls and doesn’t force you into actions that are simply designed to show off the Vita’s functionality. It’s not the most graceful setup, but once you get the hang of the controls you’ll find the game is quite challenging.
The story presented in Sumioni is a bit convoluted, but centers around a Japanese chancellor who lusted for power and summoned dark forces to help secure his rule. The chancellor’s most trusted aide, Tengan, saw the evil that was engulfing the realm and after his daughter is held hostage, he seeks out a shrine that has imprisoned Agura, a demon. As per the ritual rites, Tengen had to sacrifice his life to bring Agura back to the living world, but leaves his own personal ink gods behind in order to help the demon. Unfortunately, Agura seems to be quite apathetic about the whole saving the world thing.
Sumioni is a side scrolling action game that owes a lot of its gameplay and visuals to the Clover Studio title, Okami. The game feels rooted in traditional design, as the levels tend to favor a basic straightforward structure filled with enemies, obstacles and end level bosses. At times, the game will mix things up by forcing you to flee from a large enemy or survive an endless wave of foes for a specific duration of time.
Like Okami, ink plays a big role in navigating and fighting through a level. If you drag your finger across the front touch screen, you’ll draw lines that Agura can use as platforms to reach higher enemies and avoid obstacles. Standing on these inky platforms can triple your attack power, a good way to fight end level bosses, but as soon as you hit the ground the effect is lost. The platforms aren’t permanent as they will vanish over time. Physically attacking enemies can be done from the face buttons or touch screen and you can switch between both schemes without having to change a setting in the options screen. Interestingly enough, neither offers a significant advantage over the other. Strictly using the touch screen is beneficial because your right hand is in a better position to draw platforms and direct water attacks (which will erase ink lines and certain projectiles), but combat is more comfortable when using the face buttons. Each has their pluses and minuses and your level of comfort will ultimately decide what works best. No matter which style you use, you’ll be moving the left analog stick around to jump and run left and right.
You won’t be fighting evil alone, as Tengan has given you his godly companions that will work with you. Summoning the ink-gods requires pressing the Left shoulder button to bring up the Draw Screen, where you can choose what companion you’d like to bring in the game followed by an overlay of a symbol that you must trace as directed (the symbol never changes, but the tracing paths do). No matter which you choose, they will be brought into the game and wreak havoc against your foes with light and heavy attacks. As handy as they are, you’ll find yourself hanging onto them in order to fight end level bosses, since that is when they prove themselves to be useful. The Draw Screen also gives you the ability to create an ink-based storm cloud by pressing and holding on any area of the screen. Ink is never in infinite supply and should you run out, you can refill the meter by collecting pick ups and rubbing the Vita’s rear touch pad.
Your performance in each level is fed into a rating that is influenced by the amount of time it took to finish the level and the amount of damage sustained. The score you get at the end of of certain levels is important, as it will dictate your path. When you begin a stage, an overlay of a branched level tree will display and highlight your position on it. Certain levels function as a fork in the road and if you perform well enough (by earning a three star rating), you’ll advance through a different branch. If you don’t do so well, you’ll keep going and eventually get to one of several bad endings. This sounds easy enough, but it is certainly a challenge. If you decide to breeze through the game and not care about your score, it’ll be over in about forty five minutes.
The visual appeal of Sumioni is that it looks very much like a Japanese sumi-e (“ink painting”) come to life. If you’re familiar with Okami, then you’ve seen it all before: bright colored objects and characters with thick and heavy black outlines. The game looks great in motion, especially when there’s a lot going on. Between giant spike wheels, bowmen, fire breathing birds and paint lines filling the screen, the action is hectic yet beautiful. There is a nice diversity in enemy types and for as small as they look on the Vita’s screen, they are quite detailed. In a neat little touch, the strokes that you draw on the screen will range in thickness depending on your finger movements.
I can see Sumioni being somewhat divisive among most people. Some people might enjoy the challenging nature of the game while others will be turned off by it and the controls. The in-game tutorial is quick and the mastering the controls feels like a daunting and overwhelming task. Advancing through the game is no picnic either because you’ll be forced to play as efficiently as possible in order to reach new levels and the best ending, which means levels will have to be repeated. Problem is, you can’t repeat levels unless you reload a save. There is no level select and if you opt to restart, it will take you back to the very beginning of the game. I won’t lie, I’ve been playing the game for almost two weeks and I still have yet to manage to get through the first tier of levels. And despite this, I’m still having fun and enjoying the challenge. I expect this game would do well with those who have tortured themselves on a regular basis with Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. Don’t come into Sumioni thinking it is going to be a simple action romp. Like the games mentioned before, you’re going to have to work for your glory.
If you know what you’re getting into, Sumioni has the potential to be an exciting game but the bottom line is that the game won’t be for everyone. Chances are you’re going to spend most of the time reloading saves or going back to the beginning in order to properly advance and avoid getting the bad endings. Be mindful of how you save, as there is nothing worse than losing all your progress from an accidental overwrite. Sumioni won’t set the world on fire, but it finds ways to be challenging and entertaining and I see it taking the road that leads it to becoming a cult classic.