Sumioni stood out the second I saw it because it appeared to blend traditional action platforming with Okami's sumi-e art style and the paint brush-related aspects of its gameplay. I initially had high hopes for it given its great beauty and seemingly can't-miss gameplay blending. Unfortunately, the final product disappoints and winds up failing to live up to the game's theoretical potential.
The idea of having a platformer that had button controls and also used a touchscreen to aim projectile attacks and such is a great one. Unfortunately, there isn't really much platforming to be had here. Outside of relatively brief sections where you craft platforms, this is really an all-action game. Instead of stages being composed of carefully-placed platforms, you instead have large obstacles that need to be taken down for you to progress.
Doing so will require you to tackle waves of enemies wielding swords, flicking arrows, and dropping fire at and upon you. In order to defend yourself, you can slash ground enemies up with your sword, but it's how you attack higher enemies that really makes things interesting. Say you've got either an item or enemy that is just out of your reach. Normally, you'd be SOL, but not here – you can simply draw a platform line on the screen and use that to attack. If you've got a really tough enemy, like a boss, you can summon the help of a giant celestial creature by tracing an on-screen design in a rather lengthy game of "Simon Says.
The touchscreen attacks are hit and miss, as the easy flame and thunder attacks that just require you to aim once work really well, but the complicated tracing ones are a serious pain in the ass. You only have one shot to nail the design or else it resets, resulting in it sometimes taking forever to summon a creature. Every time you use the brush, you use up ink. You have a fairly limited supply of it, but fallen power-ups allow it to refill, and you can move your finger across the back screen and refill it faster.
While the touch screen is quite responsive, I wish the menus weren't touch screen-only. They're so simply laid out that it makes no real sense not to support using traditional controls for them. The only part of the game that really uses traditional controls is the swordplay and the few platforming sections that don't require using the self-created platforms. The stages themselves are short and remind me a lot of shoot-em-ups because they're brief and are seemingly just there to give you something to do before a boss battle. Also like a shooter, you'll have some massive bullet hell sections that will test your precision platforming skills to avoid. However, while it's a good test of your skills, it's also a bit annoying because you can't duck, so you're always a rather large target on the screen, which results in you taking more damage than you should.
In a way, the level structure is perfect for a portable game because you can knock out each stage in a few minutes on a good run. However, this also leads to things feeling quite repetitious during longer ones since the format never really changes. You have a handful of things to avoid, some enemies to kill, and then a boss battle – repeat over dozens of possible stages on a level tree, mix in some cutscenes, and you've got the game in a nutshell. It's still a lot of fun, but given how well done the action-platforming gameplay is, it feels like a bit of a waste to only showcase it in tiny stages.
While the gameplay disappoints a bit, the graphics don't. Just like in Okami, the sumi-e art style is absolutely gorgeous and helps the game stand out the second you first lay eyes on it. Characters, backgrounds, and the environments as a whole are beautiful. The only real flaw they have is somewhat limited animation. It's not terrible, but doesn't seem to be as smooth as it could be. The flute-filled soundtrack is pretty awesome. There aren't many songs, but what's here is great stuff and will have you humming along throughout the game.
All in all, Sumioni is a very good game, but one hurt by its limited scope. It allows you to do a nice variety of things with the touch screen, and even made great use of the back panel, but its strict formula gets old pretty quickly. Its $20 price tag feels a tad steep given that, but most of what's offered is done really well, so I think you'll get your money's worth out of it if you like hack and slash games with some platforming and even a touch of bullet hell shooter gameplay thrown in.
This review is based on a digital copy of Sumioni: Demon Arts for the PlayStation Vita provided by XSEED Games.