The look of the game will be familiar to anyone who has played Okamiden, except that it is presented as a two dimensional action title. You take on the role of Agura, who seems to be a particularly lazy Ink Demon. He would rather laze around sleeping all day than battling other (evil) demons roaming the land, but for whatever reason (the text is in Japanese only in this release) he is thrust into the limelight to save the day using his inky prowess. XSeed certainly seem to know their audience because they have included an English translation of the instruction manual. It makes for important reading because if you play Sumioni the wrong way it will only reveal a tenth of the charm it has to offer.
You can 'complete' Sumioni on your first play through in under an hour. You'll probably wander from left to right using square to attack, cross to jump and your finger to 'paint' the occasional platform for you to stand on before you stumble across a boss and then an unsatisfying ending. This doesn't take any skill - you can re-try a level until you plough through and it won't give off a good impression of Agura's adventures. But, as you stumble through your first go you'll notice that the game is divided into a number of routes and sub-levels that open up after you complete the first two stages. These alternate routes are unlocked through good performance, which is measured in both the damage and time taken to complete a level. Stages are short, particularly the first two, which consist of three or four screens of enemies and a similar looking boss fight. You will need to master the more advanced mechanics Sumioni has to offer before it surrenders its richest rewards.
As well as painting platforms for Agura you can protect him from projectile attacks by using water. This is activated with a press of circle or a tap in the corner of the touchscreen. Of course, any platforms that are doused in water will disappear so its use demands accuracy. Then you have a still-painting mode. When you press the 'L' trigger the action freezes and you have a couple of further modes of attack. Drawing a line in still mode will cause that line to burst into flames when you press 'L' again, holding your finger down in one place will create a thundercloud to appear and zap enemies when the action is unfrozen. You can also summon two Ink Gods, Shidou, a lion like creature and Yomihi, a fire bird. When summoned they will use devastating attacks at will until they need to recharge or take too much damage and have to retreat. You summon them by drawing a slightly different symbol each time over the shape of an hour glass.
It all adds up to a surprisingly unique and varied system that combines traditional controls with the touchscreen controls without ever feeling forced. It also requires a lot of skill to see all the endings (there are at least six of them) and should perhaps be treated as a score attack game rather than an adventure title. The difficulty level goes up dramatically on the harder paths whilst both the level design and the boss enemies really go through the roof in both their aesthetic and complexity. It gets very hectic and you need a cool head and a good reflex memory to complete some of the later stages.
There are a couple of quick notes that will be helpful to any non-Japanese speaking importers:
on the Game Over screen the middle option is to retry the current stage whereas the option on the left restarts your game from the first level;
Sumioni uses one 'save state' to keep track of progress, when loading a game it loads the background information (including and life and ink upgrades you collect) and you have to select new game (the top option on the menu screen) to continue play;
You can inflict a status aliment on smaller enemies which is probably explained in the in-game text by setting them on fire and them putting them out with water, this will then cause their attacks to be slowed; and
You won't understand the story.
Sumioni isn't the longest game in the world but it lasts a lot longer than it appears to on first inspection. Skilled players will see everything that is on offer in about five hours. That said, Sumioni is a stylish, original IP that will soon be available outside of Japan. Hopefully Sony's attitude towards the Vita will continue in this vein so that they can avoid one of the biggest problems of the original PSP: some unique (and some of the best) titles never made it to Western shores. In fact XSeed's efforts should be applauded. They have crafted a portable game that offers quick bursts of gameplay with hidden complexity. It is easy to come back to and it won't outstay its welcome. From rooting around the menu system it looks like DLC is incoming in the future, hopefully it will do well enough to support itself going forwards, it is exactly the kind of title that the industry needs right now.
+ Unique new IP
+ Excellent combination of control inputs
+ Accessible gameplay with hidden depth
- Not a lengthy game
- Could use better explanation for game mechanics
Developer: XSeed GamesJKS
Publisher: Acquire Corp.
Other Versions: USA (Digital Only)
Version Reviewed: Japan