What is the concept? Blending Japanese folklore, sumptuous ink wash aesthetics, and a healthy amount of touchscreen control, recent PSN release Sumioni: Demon Arts seems poised to cultivate a modest, but fervent, cult following. The title’s opening cinematic shows a Heian-era government under siege by a once-aspirating politician. Japan’s sole hope rests in Agura no Sumioni- an indolent demon who uses calligraphy to undermine the enemy.
Although the anti-hero has a number of naginata-based melee attacks, from simple strikes to ground pounds and devastating dashes, the bulk of Agura’s onslaught emanates from his limited ink supply. Pressing the left trigger pauses the action, allowing the protagonist to smear swaths of black ink over enemies, while a long press summons an ominous dark mist. Once the action is resumed, the onyx-colored liquid transforms into searing fire capable of engulfing foes, while clouds release formidable arcs of lightning. Simply drawing on the screen without engaging the time-stopping mechanic builds airborne walkways for Agura to scamper across. Staying off the ground even augments his attack power, endowing the title with a few intriguing battle techniques.
With each stage teaming with archers, giant wheels, and explosives carried by birds, the player’s arsenal still struggles to keep pace with the relentless onslaught. Fortunately, the game allows players to summon two demoralizing deities: Yomihi the Pheonix and Shidou, a loyal attack dog. Mirroring an on-screen brushstrokes of simple figures beckons these two inkgods, who are capable of wreaking havoc on enemy forces.
What are the game’s strengths? Sumioni’s art style is nothing short of stunning, endowing the game with a pleasing organic vibe. From the translucent splashes of Agura’s walkways, the billowy gusts which accompany fallen foes, to the texture of backdrops which simulates the grain of rice paper, the game delivers an endless buffet of eye candy. Although some asset recycling is present, the game’s towering bosses help offset any indication of visual fatigue. Likewise, the game’s score is highlighted by a solid integration of traditional Japanese instruments, from gentle koto plucking to the urgent cadence of Wadaiko.
Although quick reflexes offer an advantage in Demon Arts, the game often allows players to adopt a more-methodical style using learning technique to dispatch the variety of antagonists. As such, these levels are some of the title’s best, offering than unlimited amount of time to counter every aggressor with a corresponding counterattack. To add a dose of variety, the title occasionally offers timed or survival-themed stages.
What are the game’s weaknesses? Likely, some players will take issue with Sumioni’s distinctive structure, which allows the game to be completed in about thirty minutes. Instead of presenting the title’s stages as a single procession of increasingly challenging levels, Demon Arts offers branching pathways which open up based on a player’s performance. As such, the most difficult route contains nearly half of the game’s thirty levels, meaning a bulk of the game’s content might only be enjoyed by most persistent players. As such, gamers hoping to see Sumioni’s best ending will have to commit to a regimen of methodical mastery.
Considering the game’s design approach, the absence of leaderboard support seems peculiar. Players habituated with besting their acquaintance’s scores in Super Stardust Delta and MotorStorm RC, know that this type of friendly competition can easily promote the play-time for a title.
While controlling Agura is typically spotless across the game’s four control methods, a few snags exist. Painting around the corners of the Vita screen can be spotty, inciting frustration when the reach of your opponent outstretches the scope of your inking abilities. Since your performance is based on evading damage, being hit by projectiles launched by off-screen foes can be vexing. Rubbing the rear touchscreen to recharge your supply of ink might seem like an inspired touch, but in execution the mechanic felt more gimmicky than satisfying- particularly with the sluggish refresh rate. Although minor, the double tap gesture to skip cinematics often proved to be unresponsive.
Would I enjoy the game? At twenty dollars, Sumioni: Demon Arts is an absorbing alternative to the full-priced, conventional offerings in the PSN Library. For players undaunted by an elevated difficulty level and a design philosophy which encourages expertism through repeat play, the title offers a remarkably deep experience which contradicts its hack-and-slack appearance. With a diminutive quarter gigabyte footprint, deserves a place on the memory card of every Japanophile.