Mar 23, 2012

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Sumioni: Demon Arts Review

Acquire and XSEED’s first Vita title is the PSN-exclusive Sumioni: Demon Arts, featuring the sumi-e style of art and taking advantage of the Vita’s unique dual touch screens, is this a must-own title, or are you better giving it a pass?

The story of Sumioni is simple: two jealous nobles plot to overthrow two other nobles. Their plan succeeds, but then one betrays the other. Angry at being betrayed, the noble summons evil magic and transforms himself into a powerful demon that threatens to destroy the world. A wise old man sympathetic to those who were plotted against gives his life to summon Agura, the ink demon, hoping that he, with the help of the bird and lion ink gods, will be able to defeat evil and save the world. Although Agura is innately lazy, he is goaded into helping, and it is him which you play for the duration of the game. The story is told through beautiful, but static cutscenes and text, at the beginning of the game and before and after each ending.

At its heart, Sumioni is basically a hack-and-slash title with an arcade feel. You guide Agura through various short levels, defeating minions, with each level ending in a boss fight, often with a tower. The controls are simple: use the left stick to move Agura, and the touch screen to attack and paint platforms with your ink. You can also use the x button to attack or jump if you prefer. The left shoulder button enters you into paint mode and lets you use your ink attacks or summon your ink gods. Lines you paint in this mode will turn into walls of flames (destroying and injuring enemies but not harming you) when you return to the game, and you can also press and hold to unleash a powerful thunder attack that drains your ink supply (which you can replenish by standing still and swiping the back touch screen).

Summoning your ink god helpers is easy, but they can they can take a while to charge back up once you use them, so it’s best to reserve them for the boss. To do so, you have to mimic the way the hourglass symbol is drawn; do it correctly, and they will be summoned, mess up, and you will be penalized ink (but can try again). The ink gods are temporary assistants, but they are very powerful and can turn the tide of battle.

The game doesn’t have any complicated attack combos to learn; Agura can only perform a few moves in addition to his regular attack, including a dash attack (which takes him a little while to recover from), and a ground-pound attack. However, what you’ll probably find yourself taking advantage of most is the fact that his attacks become increasingly more powerful when he’s attacking while standing on an ink platform. The longer he stands on the platform without being hit (or falling), the increasingly more powerful his attacks will be. This technique becomes very important when fighting some of the harder bosses, especially if you are trying to get the three-star rating.

Instead of having a typical linear progression, or a game-plus, or  even a “find an alternate exit” type of strategy for unlocking later levels, the game relies upon a tiered-stage system (see above screenshot). In this system, earning three stars at the end of certain levels will allow you to branch out and progress to a different level. For example, the first time you play you will probably breeze through the first six “A” levels in about thirty minutes. The second time, if you get three stars on level 4-A, you can proceed to 5-B instead of 5-A and progress to see the second ending. This series of paths will ultimately lead you to six total endings.

As a result, you’ll get to experience different stages and endings with each path, progressing from the worst, first ending in which the world is destroyed, ultimately to the best, final ending. It’s a unique approach, and one that rewards skill and dedication. However, this system isn’t without its issues.

For one, the game never explains what is needed to unlock the other paths; either you’ll find it through trial-and-error, or by reading a review or guide that tells you that’s what’s required. Honestly, it would have been very easy to add a little explanation or hint (even if they didn’t spell it out exactly) after you see the first ending. I could definitely see people finish watching the credits after the first ending and think to themselves, “Wow? That’s it?”

If that isn’t bad enough, the game never gives you any kind of indication as to how you earn a three-star rating, which can be frustrating. And because the game encourages you to earn all the endings on one save, it means you’ll probably end up playing a lot of the same levels over and over again trying to unlock all the stages and endings, which, with gameplay that doesn’t really change or progress (other than increasingly more enemies, bullet-hell style), can get tedious.

What I found is the key to three-star ratings isn’t so much how fast you progress through a level or how much damage you do (two stats you’re given at the end, along with your star rating), but rather, the top rating is more connected to how little damage you took in the level. This makes the game require a very high level of skill, especially for the later levels, because you might be able to blast through the stage quickly, or defeat the boss with huge damage numbers, but you will only get a one- or two-star rating because you took too much damage or fubbed an ink god summons (another element I found affects your rating).

So what it comes down to is a lot of repetition; even if you beat a level, you may have to play it several more times until you get that three-star rating, and then you’ll have to go back to the beginning again to try to get the next ending. While I do think the tiered level concept is an interesting one, and while I did enjoy the gameplay overall despite its repetitive nature, the fact that you don’t see any progression is a problem in and of itself. You don’t learn new moves or unlock new powers or even meet new ink gods as you move through the game. As a result, nothing changes other than the amount of enemy attacks and your skill. Unless you really, really love the gameplay or are a very motivated player when it comes to earning all the trophies/endings, there’s not much motivation to keep playing.

Although Sumioni has a great concept and utilizes the controls of the Vita well, with beautiful art and music, it feels more like a mini or a $5 mobile game.  As much as I hate IAP, the game could almost benefit from those here, allowing less skilled gamers the chance to unlock some of the other stages or even offer some sort of reduced difficulty. There’s nothing wrong with a steep challenge, but when you have this kind of old-school approach that bars your paying player from 90% of your game unless they can beat a level nearly flawlessly, then perhaps you need to re-evaluate, especially when the path to those levels is as brutally tedious as Sumioni makes it. Although you can ultimately get many hours of play time depending on your skill, the lack of any kind of bonus features to unlock or leaderboards (as in the Japanese version), makes even the “low” $20 price seem a bit steep.

Generally, I was disappointed by Sumioni, because with its interesting gameplay and beautiful visuals, it could have been really great. As much as I enjoyed the gameplay, I’m not sure if I can recommend it unless you are the type of person who misses the days of the brutally hard arcade games that required you to repeat stages over and over again. If you are the type who thinks games today are too soft and hand over everything too easily, who loves a test of pure skill, then you’ll love Sumioni. If not, you might be best waiting this one out.

Sumioni: Demon Arts
Platform: PS Vita
Genre: Hack-and-Slash
Release Date: 03/20/12
Developer: Acquire
Publisher: XSEED
ESRB Rating: T (Teen)
MSRP: $19.99


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About Rebecca Quintana

Currently playing SMT Nocturne and working through my backlog. I've fallen in love with twitter; follow me if you're interested in some good game-, writing-, or book-related conversation: @rrquinta.