Sumi-e is a form of ‘ink wash painting’ popularised in Asia approximately 1,400 years ago. It’s a striking art form that aims to capture the soul of its subject rather than attempt photo-realism and has been used to great effect in videogames before, with Okami being a notable example. Developers are always looking for unique art styles to make their games stand out, but does Sumioni: Demon Arts provide a satisfying gameplay experience as well as interesting visuals, or is the game's appeal merely surface deep?
Given the pedigree of Okami, we began Sumioni with high hopes – but it wasn't long before our bar was considerably lowered. Without getting bogged down in intricacies, you command the role of Agura, a demon summoned by a powerful ‘Inkmaster’ who got himself in a spot of bother with two individuals who conspired to kill him. With the last of his strength, he summons Agura along with two ‘ink gods’ to destroy the evil that the conspirators are inflicting upon ‘the capital’ – note the quotation marks, as these characters and locations are not well explained.
Sumioni is little more than a very simplistic side-scroller. Besides the art style, the game’s only other striking feature is its touch screen integration. Utilising the front touch screen, you ‘paint’ ink bridges, which you can jump on and walk across, allowing you to pass dangerous obstacles. Once your ink-meter is depleted, you must massage the rear (don’t laugh) touch pad to refill it. Unfortunately, this often forces you to hold the console at an awkward angle and leaves you open to attacks. A water option is also available and grants you the ability to wash away any unwanted ink and swipe enemy projectiles out of the air. Thankfully, there is a little variety: some levels you must make your way through the stage to defeat a boss at the end, some force you to survive for a certain amount of time, and a few task you with simply making it from the beginning to the end.
Pressing L brings up a screen where you can use magic, which consumes ink. Wherever you paint lines on the screen will turn to fire, damaging anything that travels into it, whereas holding down one spot will call forth a powerful lightning bolt. You can also summon the aforementioned ‘ink gods’ as a one-use-per-level bonus. To do so, you must trace the shape of an hourglass (although what significance this has is unclear) and they’ll swoop in, dealing massive damage. From the way they’re depicted in the ‘cutscenes’, the ink gods are supposedly all powerful, so why they only contribute for 20 seconds before buggering off is a mystery to us. What’s more, using magic made us feel far too overpowered, although on the odd occasion we were bested, it was often due to a boss. In those instances, the lack of a checkpoint system makes the trek back through the level incredibly frustrating.
The story is “advanced” every few levels via a wall of text with a static image behind it, which is fairly unsatisfying. To make matters worse, the pictures don't always represent what's being depicted in the writing. Sumioni’s attempt at building a believable setting is lazy and at times it seems the developers had such little faith in their own designs that they daren’t realise them, even in picture form.
The title's progression system is also baffling. Our first playthrough finished after just 48 minutes. After much brow furrowing, we consulted the Internet for help. It turned out that Sumioni: Demon Arts has multiple endings. Who knew? We certainly didn’t. Not only is there no explanation of how it works, but there was also some disparity when we reached out to the developer. From what we could piece together, the score awarded at the end of each level directly influences your progression down a ‘plane’. If you earn the full three stars, you move onto the next plane and so on. In principle, this is a good idea, but with a game as dull and uninspired as this, you’re not likely to be sufficiently enthused to replay stages and the ‘ultimate ending’ is essentially held hostage.
If you have to give Sumioni: Demon Arts something, it’s that it’s a beautifully flawed game. The bold art direction makes way for occasionally uninspiring backdrops, repetitive gameplay, and irritating music. The nonsensical story provides characters you don’t care about and a world you must save that you know nothing of. The developers clearly thought that the art style and touch screen controls were enough to make up for the issues, but they're not. This is a let down on nearly every level.