I'm always looking for new games to play and when something like Sumiori: Demon Arts comes along, with a beautiful art style and a control scheme that gives you the option of taking advantage of the Vita's touch controls, I knew I had to have it. Within half an hour of hearing about it I had researched, purchased, downloaded, and installed it with the intention of reviewing it, price-tag be damned. While the art direction is as beautiful as it looks and the gameplay itself has some features and options that were pleasant surprises, there are some significant gameplay issues, and no matter how you cut it the game is criminally lacking in content when compared to its $20 price tag.
Sumioni has some interesting gameplay mechanics, but the main selling point is clearly its art direction and how it affects the gameplay. The visual style is based on feudal Japanese Sumi-e ink wash painting, and much of the game revolves around how you and the ink-demon you control utilize it. Audio-wise, the game is about what you'd expect from a game made in that style; Japanese instrumental sound effects, slashes, and music that fits the theme as well as you'd hope, even if it gets a little repetitive at times.
Even the plot, a tale of demons and betrayal in an alternate feudal Japan, is about how demons are measured by their ability to paint. I admit it's a cute little story, but it's all told through a series of scrolling titles without so much as a single spoken word; it's not a bad way to tell a story, but it leaves the player disconnected from the characters and that makes the story little more than a side-note in the grand scheme of things. Relationships between the characters do change based on your skill and the path you take throughout the game, though, which is a nice touch.
The combat system is basic for an action platformer, and the game doesn't offer much in the way of platforming at all really. You're given an option to choose between various combinations of button and touch screen controls, so you can choose to attack by tapping the screen or pressing buttons; in a way it feels like it was meant to be an iOS game and was ported to the Vita. There are a few additional attacks, like a dashing slash dance and a slam attack, but it's all standard fare for action games.
The only way Sumioni excels is in how it utilizes the Vita's touch screen to emphasize the ink-wash motif. While playing, you can brush your finger across the screen to use up ink and make platforms that are required to avoid obstacles and fight the game's many bosses, or on the flipside you can use water, which deletes the ink and in some cases protects you from enemy attacks. While on the ink platforms you get an attack boost that intensifies the longer you stay on them, so you're encouraged to use them as often as you can. By pressing the L button, you can go into a pause-like screen to create oil-based shapes and lines that burst into flames and can be used offensively. The most powerful attacks in the game come from your beast companions, which can be summoned by tracing a symbol on the screen.
With the alternate control schemes and variety of abilities it's easy to get confused and overwhelmed, but the problem is that the controls themselves are pretty sloppy and clunky. Trying to alternate between jumping, tap-screen drawing, and attacking creates a momentary delay that can mean the difference between life and death in the hectic environment the game throws at you. Coupled with the game's emphasis on ranking and the penalties for a minor error that send you back to the beginning of the game, this really makes Sumioni frustrating and repetitive.
There are 30 levels in total, which sounds good until you realize all of them are very short; on average they're about 30-45 seconds a piece, with practically no obstacles or enemies. Many of these are capped off with a boss to even things out, but most of the bosses are identical and have entirely too much health, making them a test of endurance rather than skill. Above all else, the main issue with Sumioni: Demon Arts is the way the game is set up with branching level paths, ensuring you have to go through a series of hoops if you wish to play every level, repeating the game over and over again until you get the path you want. Branching paths sound like a great idea, and truth be told it pains me to complain about it, but in practice it just makes Sumioni even more tedious.
It should take you around 30 minutes to complete the first time around, but there are alternate endings to unlock. The problem is that the game doesn't actually tell you how to achieve the alternate routes and a single mess up means you have to play not just that level, but the entire game over again, because if you beat a key level on too low or high of a rank, you have to carry on through to the end and start over or create a new save file from level one, since there is no level select option.
Sumioni: Demon Arts has some truly great ideas to offer, but there are a lot of issues keeping it from reaching its potential. I played through the game half a dozen times and only got two of the six possible endings, but the frustrations of having to go through the whole game over and over again with only a small chance of unlocking a new ending is a painful chore. $20 bucks is also a lot of money for a PSN download that's this frustrating, short, and yet still repetitive; to be honest I'd much rather play Uncharted: Golden Abyss or Rayman Origins again.
This review is based on a digital copy of Sumioni: Demon Arts for the PS Vita.