Ink as a weapon. Only through divine intervention could a tool for creative expression be used in acts of aggression. In Sumioni: Demon Arts--through the blessing of the gods--you paint destruction with the flick of your fingertips. Fire erupts and allies are summoned as you call forth the power of a higher being. And you feel this power coursing through you. Even the act of building platforms with the swipe of a finger creates a feeling that you have strong friends in high places.
Too bad it doesn't last.
The motivation for the ink-infused battles is one of Sumioni's most glaring weaknesses. Slow-scrolling text attempts to breathe life into the characters and events but fails miserably. The kinetic action needed a storytelling method that could complement rather than detract from its feel, and the text crawl only elicits mighty yawns. One positive aspect of this dull delivery is the dynamic nature your conquests take. The story twists and turns in concordance with the path you take through levels, and six unique endings give proper narrative resolution to every branch you venture down.
Once the text fades away and the action takes its rightful place at the forefront, the inkling that something magical is about to happen begins to blossom. Sumioni is an action-focused 2D adventure in which you walk from left to right vanquishing every foe in your way. You have only one attack that isn't aided by your blessed ink powers: a sword strike. You perform this on the ground, in the air, or while dashing, and all are effective ways to bring down foes. Because of the smooth movement controls, you can avoid attacks, retaliate with authority, and hack down those who dare to challenge you. It's not a diverse assortment of moves, but tearing through the enemies makes you feel like an unhinged demon slayer on a mission to stop the rising evil.
It's when you move beyond the standard attacks that things become more interesting. By pausing the game, you freeze the creatures in place while you ready special ink attacks. Draw a design with your finger that bursts into flame when you resume the action, burning troops and towers alike with just a casual gesture. Or summon bestial buddies to do your dirty work for you. A celestial bird and cat can be conjured by tracing the outline of an hourglass. This technique is limited, so you can't rely on it all the time, but letting your animalistic pals work on the offensive side of things while you dance away from potential death is a satisfying endeavor. Swiping the screen also draws a platform for you to stand on. This is handy when trying to cross a bed of spikes or slash an exceedingly tall monster in the face, and you build up attack power for every second you stand on this weight-bearing ink.
Fantastical ink-based powers mixed with the precise controls of your standard attacks ensures that the early hours offer nonstop excitement. Downed angry beasts expel trinkets to expand your health and ink bars, and raising your maximum levels makes it much easier to take down the tougher foes. Stage structure is more complicated than the standard linear progression. Depending on how well you perform (one to three stars), you can move to a higher difficulty at certain branching points. Fail to get a high mark, and you automatically set off down the easier path, so it takes time and practice to become proficient enough to embark on the harder levels.
All of these moments are well realized enough to keep you invested in the proceedings, but that engagement lasts for only so long. Your character doesn't grow in meaningful ways, so while you can live longer with each power-up you collect, your move list never expands. And you aren't given many attacks to begin with. This means that you perform the same basic actions repeatedly throughout the adventure. When an end-of-stage tower halts your progress, you summon your feral friends to attack, draw platforms to reach obvious weak spots, and repeat until the tower topples. Shaving off a second or two may open up the next stage, but striving for efficiency is tiresome after just a couple of attempts.
Enemy types fail to enliven the experience. The same assortment of birds, soldiers, and oxcarts roll out en masse, and there isn't much strategy in cutting them to shreds. Bosses come in only a couple of varieties. A floating eye develops different attack patterns the second time you see it, forcing you to slightly alter your initial technique, though not impressively so. Tearing through every level could take up to a dozen hours depending on your skill level, but your character reaches his maximum health/ink cap just a few hours into the adventure. Once progression is halted, you dutifully attempt and reattempt each stage for higher scores without any meaningful changes to keep you engaged.
Attempts to inject variety are appreciated, though they don't resonate enough to overshadow the sameness in other areas. In certain levels, speed is your guiding force. A towering beast slowly chases after you, so you sprint through levels pell-mell to escape his monstrous wrath. There is some thrill in burning enemies while you sprint past, or deftly jumping over spiked pits by drawing platforms in midair to keep you safe, but the levels play out so similarly that the initial appeal fades away. In other stages, hordes of enemies flood the screen and you have to survive for one minute. The added difficulty in these stages keeps you fully engaged, but you can rely on the same techniques ad nauseam to come out on top.
Sumioni is a game you want to enjoy. The delicate artistic style and novel ink mechanics offer an enticing introduction, but the momentum halts after just a few hours. Once the novelty wears off, you're left with a competent brawler that repeatedly peddles the same recycled content instead of injecting new ideas to keep you invested. Sumioni: Demon Arts lets you use magical ink to paint victory, but it really needed to draw a few new ideas onto the sturdy foundation.