The sumi-e style of art is both simple and beautiful, but it's quite difficult to emulate in video game form. In 2006, however, the Asian ink form of painting was finally re-created well enough in Okami, which featured the ability to transform brushstrokes into weapons, platforms, and other devices to purify the land from evil. Since then, we've seen a few developers try to move away from realistic graphics to artistic interpretation, and while most of them got the look right, the gameplay wasn't always there. Such is the case for Sumioni: Demon Arts, a digital title for the PS Vita that looks great but doesn't have enough in the gameplay department to back up the asking price.
In ancient Japan, the inkmaster Tengan tried to stop the rising tide of evil from taking over the country. He failed, but instead of being put to death, he's sent away to a penal colony while evil forces plunged Japan into darkness. Now an old man and having just received word that the spirit realm is about to collide with the real world, Tengan is even more determined to banish the evil forces. With his last gasp of life, he summoned an ink demon named Agura. While the demon had no interest in saving the country, the prodding of the ink gods Yomihi and Shidou forces him to be the hero after all.
The plot is fairly standard, but it's instantly forgettable due to the story presentation. Instead of going for a full cinematic presentation, the game opts for the slow text crawl and static background pictures. Without even a few voices to go along with the opening and ending cinematics, it feels like the developers took the easy way out in this department. It's a step down from what Vita owners are used to seeing in other titles.
Sumioni: Demon Arts is your basic side-scrolling platformer. Agura slashes and dashes across the environment, taking down enemies and structures along the way while avoiding things like arrows, spike traps, and sharp wheels of death. Though the basic slash will serve you well, you can perform other moves using your bladed staff to hit multiple enemies from all angles.
As an ink demon, you'll be able to use that element in several different ways during combat. You can use your ink to paint platforms. While they don't block enemies, they let you avoid obstacles and help you strengthen your attacks as long as you stay on said platforms. With the flick of a button, you can pause the action and let your ink become a deadly weapon. Strokes painted on-screen become trails of fire when the action resumes, and a cloud of ink that was formed while you were focused on one spot becomes the source of a powerful lightning strike. During this state, you can also draw symbols on-screen to summon one of the ink gods to come to your aid, though it requires a great deal of ink to summon the deity in the first place. Also at your disposal is water, a purely defensive element that you can use to block enemy projectiles.
As you play through the game, you'll notice a few odd things. The levels are quite short, so depending on your skill, you can spend between 5-10 minutes on a level before beating it, getting a rank, and moving on. The levels feature branching paths. Depending on your ranking in certain levels, which is dependent on the time you spent in a level and the amount of damage you've taken, your quest can split off to an alternate path and ultimately toward a different final boss and ending. As expected, getting to the best endings and bosses means you'll face tougher opposition, but it gives the game some variety, which is sorely needed since the game is somewhat short. On average, it takes half an hour to get to one ending in the game, and while you expect the more difficult paths to take longer, you'll spend no more than an hour from beginning to end. In a way, the game feels like a platforming version of a shooter, but with better endings as a reward instead of higher scores.
The concept would be fine if Sumioni didn't suffer a few big flaws. The biggest issue is that there's hardly any variety in most of the levels. You go right, kill a few people, kill enough enemies to avoid a checkpoint, go further right, and then meet up with a boss. There might be a trap or two to avoid, and the enemies will vary a bit, but most of the levels feel like carbon copies. This is especially true of the boss encounters, which are nothing more than a tower that needs multiple hits to take down. The armaments might change in terms of placement, but you can pretty much guarantee that the boss is a tower with sharp claws, rotating saw blades, cannons, and a few archers. The only time you get something different is with the final boss; it's shameful since that's when things begin to get interesting and require tactics. With the final act always being the most exciting one, you feel like you're simply grinding to get through the game. This shouldn't be the case for a platformer.
Of everything the game offers up, the graphics are undoubtedly the best part. The backgrounds look gorgeous thanks to the paper texture and the simple ink drawings. Having several layers of the background moving along at different speeds gives depth to these paintings and serves as a nice contrast to the ink. When some of your ink platforms are doused in water, it makes the ink dissipate wonderfully. The characters look fine, but the bosses and your ink gods look beautiful. The watercolor style is quite vibrant and makes the animations stand out; the particle effects from flames and bullet charges are nicely detailed and perfectly match the game's style. It's eye-catching and serves as a fine example of a good OLED screen.
The sound is serviceable. As mentioned before, there are no voices in the cut scenes, and there are also no voices during gameplay. The battle calls of the ink gods and the chants of some of the enemy monks are the only voices you'll hear, as all of the soldiers seem to fall silent upon their deaths. The effects come through clearly while the music is the same modern action score with a Japanese flair. It works, but it isn't remotely memorable.
The controls work, though they could have received some improvements in a few areas. Square performs an attack while the X button makes you jump and L switches between regular gameplay and the special summoning mode. Both the analog stick and the d-pad let you move around the screen, but since you jump by hitting Up on the stick and it's very easy to accidentally do that, you're better off using the d-pad instead. The touch-screen lets you paint things in the environment, but it also lets you attack; it's nice if you paint in front of an enemy, but that's about it. Meanwhile, rubbing the back panel lets you refill your ink meter — but only if you're standing still.
Sumioni: Demon Arts could have been better. The multiple endings give the game some replay value while the beautiful art style shows off the system's screen. However, the seemingly shallow gameplay with its short levels and predictable patterns isn't very exciting, and the boss fights are the only things that drive you to keep playing. Were this priced right, the bite-sized platforming combat would be worth checking out, but $20 is a little too steep. Unless you're really hungry for some new Vita games, it's best to wait for a sale before giving it a shot.
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