As consoles strive to push gaming graphics further and further towards photo realism, it’s always refreshing to see a developer opt for the more artistic approach. The traditional Japanese ink wash style of sumi-e is becoming an increasingly popular alternative visual style from the norm, particularly thanks to the cult PlayStation 2 classic Okami and various Japanese role-playing games. Now the classic 2D platformer gets an ink-washed makeover thanks to developer Acquire and publisher XSeed Games with Sumioni: Demon Arts, finally making its way to the European PlayStation Vita almost a year after it was released across the rest of the world.
Taking place in feudal Japan, Sumioni: Demon Arts tells the story of an ancient inkmaster who intends to use his wisdom to rejuvenate his failing capital city and make it prosperous once more. Ignorantly accepting aid from some greedy land barons, the inkmaster places a curse on them after they use him as a puppet to perform their wicked bidding. However in doing so, he also tears open a gateway between the human world and the demon realm, unleashing all sorts of chaos upon his homeland. In order to put his wrongs to right, he summons the ancient blood red horned (and lazy) demon Agura to stop his home from falling into the hands of the demon realm. The plot doesn’t really make a lick of sense but thankfully isn’t too distracting once the game finally begins.
Players take control of Agura in this 2D side-scrolling platformer. The left analogue stick controls Agura’s movements, whilst X and Square make the little red demon jump and attack respectively. Throughout each level are a number of enemies, traps and towers to destroy in order to reach the end. Whilst attacking is the most obvious way to get through these obstacles, players can also make use of the PlayStation Vita’s touch screen to utilize the mysterious powers of the inkwell.
Drawing on the screen creates a black brush-stroke platform that Agura can jump onto to avoid enemies and traps or reach power-ups that are a little out of arm's reach. Alternatively, the ink well can be switched to a blue which acts as an eraser to get rid of platforms players have made or even “rub out” projectiles fired by enemies. Ink can be restored by rubbing the back touch pad, although this does become very awkward when trying to dodge arrows, avoid traps and attack enemy soldiers. Still, it’s nice to see a game take advantage of the PlayStation Vita’s touch screen in such a unique way.
Levels are broken up into three variations. The first and most regular type is the standard 2D side-scrolling level where Agura must fight his way from the start of the level to the finish, before facing one of the game’s few boss types (usually a large tower complete with unlimited soldiers and annoying projectiles). The second type is a time attack mode, where the screen scrolls slowly from left to right whilst what looks like a ghostly giant (you can never really tell) chases Agura. Much like the first type, the object of these missions is to fight your way to the end, only with the added peril that you might get caught by whatever is actually chasing you. Finally, the third level type is a survival mode where Agura must survive for an allotted time in order to proceed to the next stage. It may seem like a nice variation, but for a game in the twenty-first century, you’d expect a whole lot more innovation.
Agura is not alone as he is aided by two ink gods on his quest, which can be summoned by sketching an hourglass shape on the Vita’s touch screen after pressing the left shoulder button. There are two ink gods to choose from: The lion Shimou who charges enemies on the ground, or the phoenix Yohimi who shoots fiery projectiles from her beak. Supposedly essential for getting out of tight spots, the game doesn’t throw too many curve balls your way so more than often, these ink gods are kept under lock and key until a boss fight. They can unleash some spectacular special moves on Agura’s foes but annoyingly have a habit of staying perfectly idle for most of the duration they’re on screen.
An initial play through of Sumioni: Demon Arts takes approximately thirty minutes. The bite size levels make this an easy game to pick up and play, particularly when on the move. However, a player’s feeling of completeness is short-lived as a quick look at the game map reveals there are many more levels to unlock in order to master the game. In order to progress into the deeper levels of the game, passing some of these levels without a scratch as quickly as possible is critical. A rating is generated based on how much damage Agura takes, how many kills he can muster and how quick he can finish the level. To make things a little less complicated this boils down to awarding players up to three stars depending on their performance. It extends the life of the game to a degree but having to constantly repeat levels over and over again becomes more a chore than a reward. There’s no level selection available either so if you manage to complete a level without meeting the required criteria, you’ll end up constantly looping through the game’s first six stages over and over again.
It’s hard not to recognise the game’s gorgeous art style, almost making you crave the days when artistic direction took precedence over state-of-the-art graphical realism. The ink strokes that players can swipe across their Vita screens gel perfectly with the rest of the game and don’t look out of place at all. Agura and the other character models move a little like paper puppets and are visually striking when placed against the ink-washed watery backdrops. It’s just a shame the rest of the game isn’t up to scratch as the style just isn’t enough to propel the game into the same levels of graphical splendour like Okami. Backdrops are often repeated, the variety of enemies is severely limited and sometimes levels look sparse with little standing in the way between Agura and the finish line, giving the impression that Sumioni: Demon Arts is a half finished game.
Sumioni: Demon Arts is a beautiful game to look at, but horribly flawed deep down. The art style and good use of the Vita’s touch screen is enough to draw you in, but the poor story and constant repetition will certainly alienate players before the game really has a chance to truly get started.