In a bid to foster the emerging Japanese indie scene, Asobu launched last year showcasing the diverse and delightful creations coming from indie developers based in Japan, and one game that I remembered catching my eye was the children’s storybook charm of Sumire. While GameTomo is actually founded by ex-pats in close collaboration with other Japanese developers in Tokyo, the love for the culture is all on display in this exquisite narrative adventure.
It’s a literal day-in-the-life as you wake up to an early morning when stars are still visible in the sky. You play as Sumire, a young girl facing her own melancholy and anxieties, who suddenly gets help from an enchanted talking flower asking her to show them a perfect day. With a backpack and notebook to hand, what unfolds feels like one of those children’s picture books the teacher used to read in class where the character makes a list of things they want to do and all the shenanigans that follow.
Although there’s a more linear narrative to follow, the structure reminds me of A Short Hike, in that Sumire has one main goal, to see her recently deceased grandmother again, but you have many bite-sized delightful diversions along the way, whether it’s helping a scarecrow being bullied by crows or passing a gift on behalf of another neighbour. Some of these are also dependent on the time of day, which you can only tell by how the sky is looking, though I don’t think it’s counting down in real-time so you’re not really in a rush to get things done, even if you’re reminded that you only have one day to do all that you can.
Still, that one day limit does lend a sense of urgency to events that may seem otherwise low-stakes. This isn’t about saving the world, or even climbing a mountain, but about being able to convey your feelings to your depressed mother and distant father, patching things up with a former best friend who’s turned into a mean girl, or confessing your love to your crush. Of course, all of these things can mean everything in the world for a pre-teen girl, and Sumire fully immerses you in what this feels like.
That’s largely thanks to the gorgeous hand-drawn art and picture-book animations, and while it’s largely viewed as a 2D game that occasionally lets you move in the y-axis, what stands out is the way Sumire isn’t a side-scroller but like she’s on a rotating globe, giving the sense that this really is a small world you’re in. Then there’s the absolutely enchanting score from Japanese ethnic folk band Tow that really draws you into the pastoral setting, starting from just a few plucks of acoustic guitar strings to something more ethereal. It exquisitely balances between the game’s moments of whimsy to darker melancholy, also conjured up by the purplish hue that dominates the game (Sumire being Japanese for violet).
In the game’s relatively short runtime, it’s lovely how Sumire packs in so many familiar elements from Japanese games without outstaying its welcome, from fetch quests have that trading element reminiscent of Link’s Awakening to a sojourn into a spooky abandoned house. While a few mini-games are overly rudimentary, they’re outweighed by stronger ones like a card battle game with characters based on the locals or what I’m assuming is a traditional Japanese board game played with a four-sided dice – and of course they even manage to fit in a fishing mini-game.
If at times it feels like Sumire is ticking off all the elements and tropes you would expect from a pastoral Japanese game – shrines, Jizo statues, a gacha machine, even an onsen scene – it’s nonetheless faithfully realised by Japanese artists with a style not beholden to Studio Ghibli or other traditional anime, but still just as enchanting, having me smile and misty-eyed in equal measure.
The game also offers narrative choices, some which ultimately affect your karma and your relationship with other characters. That said, I also had no problem completing all of the main tasks on the first playthrough, feeling completely fulfilled with my decisions for Sumire. The alternatives would have otherwise been to not repair certain relationships, which would probably leave Sumire feeling worse off at the end of the day, and while I suppose it’s good that those choices exist to allow for replayability, why would I want to replay a worse day?
A novel change from the usual male-centric high-school themed Japanese games (although there is a clever jab at otaku culture with one character), Sumire does a beautiful job of weaving a heartfelt story while putting you in the shoes of a young girl who still has her whole life ahead of her, but has the chance to live a day that can mean everything.