Sometimes, a good idea can only take you so far. A lot of people say that the hardest part of a project is coming up with the idea, and perhaps even laying the initial foundation. What happens when you have all of that; you nail the idea, you have a concrete foundation, and everything else fails to take shape? I will tell you what happens. You end up with something like Sumioni: Demon Arts.
Developed by ACQUIRE, Corp. and published by XSEED Games, Sumioni follows in the footsteps of other action games such as Shinobido, Tenchu, and Way of the Samurai. In concept, Sumioni is a great idea. Based on the traditional Japanese “sumi-e” ink art style, the game tells the tale of a lazy in demon named Agura. Agura, along with two Ink Gods, was summoned to end the treacherous reign of a corrupt leader. It is a very convoluted story that really tried to hard; it draws itself out and over-complicated things immensely to set the foundation for the adventure. All that you need to know is that the real world and the “ink world” have started to merge, and Agura has the ability to interact with both. Using his ability to control the ink, the player will assist Agura and his companions in combating a variety of enemies and huge bosses in stylized and interesting ways.
At its core, Sumioni is a side-scrolling action game similar to many classic arcade games like Legend of Kage or Shinobi. Agura can run, jump, and attack his enemies with a sword. It plays out like the simplest of action games, utilizing the directional pad and the Vita’s face buttons. Where things get novel and interesting are the implementation of the use of ink and water in the game world. The crux of the gameply lies on the interaction of these two elements along with the touch screen abilities of the Vita.
At any given time during your game, the player can use ink and water to draw / erase items in the game world. If an enemy or object is too high to reach, simply draw a platform (or series of them) with your ink brush to assist you in reaching them. If an enemy is bombarding you with projectiles, use the water brush to block them by erasing them. Both brushes are fueled by an ink gauge that depletes as you draw on the screen. It can be refilled by either collecting jars of ink found throughout the game world or by rubbing the rear touch panel of the Vita, although you will find this to be the less feasible of the two options (which I will explain later).Your ink reserves can also be used to summon your companion Ink Gods into battle as well.
The act of drawing platforms for traversing and blocking enemy projectiles can be done at any time by simply swiping your finger across the screen. In order to activate some of your more advanced ink-fueled abilities, you will need to enter into draw mode by pressing the right trigger. Once this mode is activated, everything within the game world freezes for a few brief moments. You can then either draw lines which will burst into flames once gameplay resumes or summon one of the two Ink Gods. When you summon either the Water or Black Ink God, you will be asked to match a design drawn on the screen with your finger. The more accurate you trace / recreate the design shown, the more powerful your companion will be and the longer they will fight alongside you.
While this gameplay mechanic is great in concept and has a firm foundation, the implementation causes the overall experience to plummet downhill. The drawing mechanics work like a charm, particularly in the platforming aspect(s); it is truly a joy to quickly spawn a platform, or series of them, which you can use to navigate the screen, especially against the bosses. It is very easy to quickly dash a line across the screen and jump back to using the directional pad and face buttons.
The problems arise when you have to pause the action and use the screen to select between the different styles of ink and selecting which Ink God to summon. Freezing the action to activate one of your stronger powers completely brings the game to a halt; it really takes away from the fast paced charm of the game. Having to touch a specific point on the screen for either really limits the flow and feel of the game. The rest of the action is so fast paced, slowing down the focus in on a very specific spot really grinds things to a halt. Had those options been mapped to the trigger buttons, things would have played out a lot better.
The regenerative ability of your ink reserves also brings the game’s action to a grinding halt. For some strange reason, the developers have elected to make it so that Agura must be standing still in order to refill your ink gauge using a rubbing motion on the back touch panel. Considering that the game strives to keep you moving given the constant barrage of enemies and projectiles, this becomes increasingly difficult and more of a chore as the game progresses. Some may call that design decision strategic, but I found it to be simply annoying and counter productive to the overall experience.
The game tries to give you a bit of variety in the form of numerous branching paths and alternate endings. These are all fueled by a rating system that scores your performance on each level in the game. The problem with this mechanic is the player’s inability to pick and choose levels to play at your will. The game pushes you to achieve 3-star ratings on each and every level, it would have made more sense to allow players to selectively replay levels in which they need to improve their performance. You don’t get a chance to do that here; if a you want to retry a particular level, you will need to play through the game again from the beginning and meet the various conditions required for the games many, branching paths to get back to the specific stage in question.
There are roughly 30 of these stages featured throughout the game, and 6 different endings depending on you performance as you run through them. Another huge issue lies in the fact that there is very little variety in the levels aside from the boss battles; even those become a bit monotonous by the end of the game. There is no variety in the things that Sumioni asks you to do; you go from point A to point B, and kill everyone in between. It is too simplistic and repetitive given the novel drawing ideas presented in its gameplay; the idea of crafting your own platforms opens the door for some great platform / puzzle scenarios, neither of which are ever realized.
It is clear to see what the developers wanted to accomplish with Sumioni, but unfortunately they missed their mark (ink-related pun intended). The core mechanics behind the game are solid and could have fueled a much bigger and better game than what we ended up with. Instead of putting the rock solid drawing mechanics to use in conjunction with the fast paced gameplay, they are implemented in a way that slows everything down and detracts from the experience. This idea was clearly meant for bigger and better things than what we have here. Sumioni could be so much better than it is.