Sumo! Review

Sumo! is a simple game that involves two sumo wrestlers vying for control of a bridge spanning a river. The wrestlers start at either end of the bridge, and their goal is to advance as far as possible while pushing their opponent backwards. You and your opponent move by playing numbered tiles out of your hand in alternating fashion until the tiles run out, or one wrestler is forced off the edge of the bridge. These simple mechanics conceal a deeper level of strategy, and the skilled AI opponents will make you want to improve your play. However, after a handful of games, the game’s puzzling array of bugs and idiosyncrasies will leave you hoping that the developer has more substantial fixes in the works.

You play Sumo! with a deck of 30 tiles, containing six groups of five tiles marked with each number from 0 to 5. Each tile represents the number of planks that you can move forward or backwards on the bridge. The tiles are also used in attack and defense. You launch an attack by playing one or more tiles of the number that would move you onto the plank occupied by your opponent. Your opponent can then play an equal number of the same tile to block the attack. For example, if your sumo is three spaces away from your opponent, you can play any number of tiles marked ’3′ to attack. If the opponent can play the same number of 3′s, he blocks the attack, the the tiles are discarded, and both players stay in their original position. If not, your attack is successful, and you throw your opponent head-over-heels towards their starting position.

Each player maintains a 5-tile hand that replenishes after you move or attack. You cannot play a tile that would move you past your opponent, so the game’s strategy comes from jockeying for position to maintain a distance that favors your tiles. If you are close to your opponent and cannot play a legal forward move or a ’0′ tile, you must move backwards, giving up valuable space and potentially opening yourself up for attack. A round ends when a wrestler is thrown backwards past their starting point, or when the deck of tiles runs out. Points are awarded for launching a successful attack, for throwing your opponent off the bridge, or for being the most advanced wrestler when the tiles run out.

Sumo’s design is very appropriate for short play sessions on the iPhone. Games can usually be completed in about 5 minutes, and all the game’s touch buttons are conveniently located near your thumb. In addition, the visuals are nice and clean, and the corpulent combatants have an undeniable charm. In other words, the stage is set for a fun little package…up until the game actually starts moving. The timing of the game events and animation have the feel of rushed coding, or a sloppy port from another platform. Your player has at least rudimentary animation while walking forward, but your opponent has no animation at all, giving him an ethereal, sliding locomotion unbefitting for a 400 pound wrestler. The animation is not a necessity for the core gameplay, so the existing two or three-frame animations would have been sufficient, had they been consistently applied.

Furthermore, the notification messages that pop up to award you points do not tightly correspond to the action on screen, so you might get a flood of them popping up haphazardly after playing a tile. These are appropriately verbose for the first few play-throughs, but they become an unnecessary distraction once you get a feel for the scoring. The sound feels a bit tacked on as well. The game has only a few low-fidelity sound effects, and lack background music entirely. It adds nothing to the experience.

Other bugs go beyond presentation, altering the gameplay for the worse. For instance, the rather important in-game manual disappeared for a number of days during our review period, before magically returning. Also, that same manual specifies that only one tile can be played to move, which is simply not true; you can play as many same-numbered tiles as you want to execute a move, and it often benefits you to do so. The most egregious bug occurs after the computer lands a successful attack. Rather than waiting for your turn, the AI player waits a moment and then simply plays another tile, barreling towards you to finish the job. If you are quick enough to play a tile, the AI will still play this second tile simultaneously, which will occasionally cause the wrestlers to pass each other, breaking the game.

We simply can’t recommend Sumo! in its present form, as much as we’d like to. If it were free, we would suggest that you give it a try, since it’s a fun little game and the bugs don’t obstruct basic play. However, paid games must pass a certain QA and polish threshold that Sumo! hasn’t yet reached. We hope to post a more favorable update in the near future, once the developer squashes some of the game’s outstanding bugs and other issues.

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