Mar 282012

XSEED Games has been running on a solid, quality localization streak for quite a while now, not only bringing out trustworthy franchise titles (Ys, Lunar, Legend of Heroes) but also a slew of exciting new properties that would have otherwise gone unnoticed by North American gamers (Corpse Party, Retro Game Challenge, Half-Minute Hero). The sad truth that any localization company faces is that eventually, they’re going to get a hold of a dud. Sumioni: Demon Arts, XSEED’s debut PlayStation VITA release, has some neat ideas but ultimately falls directly into that category.

A static image and scrolling text make up the story scenes. What is this, a 90's fighting game?

On the surface, Sumioni is really cool. The look of the game is based on “Sumi-e,” a traditional style of ink painting in Japan. The music also fits the theme, utilizing traditional instruments along with more contemporary sounding beats that give the game a cool pseudo feudal Japan vibe. It’s very reminiscent of Capcom’s Okami series. The visuals, while stylish, aren’t terribly impressive in a technical sense considering the powerful hardware of the VITA. Sumioni was clearly developed on a budget but does fairly well with the limitations it has.

In terms of gameplay, Sumioni goes all-out with the VITA’s touch interfaces. The buttons are used minimally, and with the exception of the directional pad or analog stick, the game can be played entirely using the touch screen. Agura, the game’s hero of sorts, has ink-based powers that require extensive use of the touchscreen, but allow him to interact with the environment to help him destroy everything in his path. You can draw platforms, erase stray ink (and enemy bullets), attack, refill your ink, and summon giant creatures, all with the touch screens. As the game progresses, you’re going to need to master all of the techniques at your disposal and be able to use all of them on the fly to succeed. Oftentimes, you’re going to need to be able to do several things at once while managing and replenishing your ink. Sumioni is a busy game. It isn’t normally too difficult but sometimes trying to hold the VITA with one hand while going touch crazy all over the screen while trying not to hit the touch panel on the back until you need it is can get annoying. All in all, the game is pretty fun…for a while.

The summons are pretty cool until you realize there are only two of them and you have to summon them dozens of times

Sumioni‘s level progression splits into 6 paths, with each having a unique ending. The more difficult the ending to achieve, the happier it is. The worst ending requires no path branching and all of twenty minutes to complete. It’s also the ending and path you’ll be seeing the most while you’re stumbling around in the dark trying to figure out what triggers path changes. It’s incredibly unclear how to score an alternate level path, and by that I mean the game doesn’t even bother mentioning it. Sure, having secrets spoon-fed to you would ruin all the fun, but if having the game last longer than 20 minutes and a poop ending is at stake, some sort of hint would be nice. It seems to have something to do with the rating you get on branch levels, but there’s no way to retry a level once you finish it. If you mess up, you have the option to either continue or go all the way back to level one. This is pretty much artificial game length padding at its worst.

Not only will you play this level a few times, but once you get to another section of the game you'll play more just like it and repeat them several times too!

That wouldn’t be too terrible if Sumioni remained as fun as it seems at the beginning, or if the game had something really compelling about it that kept things interesting, but the ugly truth is that it gets repetitive rather quickly, especially when you have to constantly replay stages while trying to unlock new ones. The levels are all short and copies of one another, just with more stuff to fight. Agura’s ink abilities are cool, but his physical abilities just involve mashing the square button or tapping the screen for the same attack with no sort of combo system or anything like in similar games. He has a multi hit dash attack and an aerial ground slam as well, but there’s nothing interesting about the combat.

The story and presentation thereof is also problematic. A few times in the game, a static (though well-drawn) image is shown, dimmed, and then boring text scrolls for several minutes. This is unacceptable for an action game on a system as versatile as the VITA. The story doesn’t need to be interesting or well-written, as Sumioni is largely a throwback to arcade style action sidescrollers, but having brainless “cutscenes” with zero interesting content halt the action the way that they do really hurts the experience, and getting more of them as a reward for beating your head against the wall of this game until you get what you need to progress just isn’t worth it.

Sumioni is a well-meaning game with neat ideas and a cool aesthetic, but is sloppily executed. Multiple endings are always a neat idea, but funneling players into the shortest route and worst ending unless they achieve ill-defined goals, ultimately forcing them to play the same unexciting stages over and over again for an unsatisfying payoff just won’t cut it, even for a lower twenty dollar price point. If you have the extra dough in your wallet you’d be better off going for Corpse Party instead. PSP emulation on the VITA is pretty excellent.

Sumioni: Demon Arts

ProsNeat aesthetic, cool music, and lots of non-gimmicky touchscreen use
ConsRepetitive, and the awkward branched paths make it even worse. Boring plot presentation doesn't make replaying boring stages worth the effort
VerdictPass unless you're really curious

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