At first glance, Sumioni: Demon Arts seemed like it had what it took to become a cult favorite. It’s a side-scrolling platformer that stands out among the Vita’s early lineup. The Japanese ink wash painting art and characters are evocative of the painterly splendor of Okami, and with colorful, screen-filling bosses and the end of most levels. And perhaps most intriguing of all, it’s one of the first PlayStation Vita games in which the touchscreen is integral to the mechanics; as anyone who played Kirby: Canvas Curse years ago can attest, it’s often more fun to draw your own path than to walk on the one given to you. However, I’m sad to report that after an enjoyable first hour, Sumioni runs out of tricks. At this point, it can barely sustain my interest, much less hold a candle to Okami.
As an Oni demon (and his two “Inkgod”comrades), you are tasked with saving a kingdom from an evil presence, which you unfortunately learn from walls of scrolling text. Once you clear the tutorial stage, there are sixth paths you can take to victory. The branches you can choose are tied to your end-of-level grades, which means only the most efficient players will ever make it to the “good” endings. While I’m never a fan of playing through the same set of levels several times, the structure promises new sights and challenges each time you play. In practice however, the levels are so dull and short that I struggled to keep playing. The levels are only ever as tall as the Vita’s screen itself, meaning that you never have much room to draw your bridges and ramps, and in most instances, you won’t need to, because levels rarely extend beyond a couple screens. With a handheld game, developers usually aim for shorter play sessions, but Sumioni takes that to an extreme.
Even if can get over the brief levels, the enemies and obstacles just don’t complement the mechanics well. Random foot soldiers will blindly walk into the stationary flames you can draw, while bosses can fill the screen with projectiles that make it too difficult to find an attack window. Even summoning your Inkgod lion or phoenix is dull, as you’re just drawing the same hourglass every time. Okami‘s calligraphy worked because there was so much variety – bombs, vines, cherry blossoms, lily pads. Sumioni didn’t need to recreate that necessarily, but the game never develops beyond the opening tutorial. It’s a shame too, because there’s absolutely potential here. It’s a shame that Acquire pushed this out for the launch window, because Sumioni is a shell of a game in its current state.