Recommending Sonny

My series of browser game reviews continues.

The two Sonny games are console adventure games (CRPGs, as they’re called) in style, closely akin to Final Fantasy and the like. Now, I don’t remember that I’d have spilled my full invective against the genre here at the blog, but those who know me might have heard me say some very unflattering things about the combination of passive consumership, bad writing and atrociously grinding gameplay typical of this Japanese genre of games. Thus it is all the more surprising that I actually like Sonny – it might be the best game (series) in the genre that I’ve ever played (depending on how you define the boundaries of the genre, anyway); and it achieves this by being sensible and matter-of-fact about the core activity of this type of game, rather than by pushing out into other types of game like some other good runners do.

The Sonny games stand out positively in the genre due to four main features:

  • No-nonsense plotting doesn’t take itself too seriously, and doesn’t waste the player’s time. Sparse cutscenes and a few lines of dialogue here and there serve to contextualize the game, but at no point does the designer imagine that he is writing literature. The game is very genre-conscious while also being subtly original and irreverent towards the same; most importantly, the lyrical (as opposed to dramatic, plot-related) content, such as graphics and literary concepts, are well-made, complimenting the actual gameplay content and giving the games a very personal, flavorful overall look.
  • There is no meaningless running around in the game world or encountering random encounters. In fact, there is no running around at all – the main interface consists of a button for shopping, a button for character inventory, a button for having a training combat (for grinding experience) and a button for fighting the next plot fight. There are no renevable resources, even, so no time is wasted on healing the party between fights. Fight all the plot fights successfully, and you win the game. But to do this you need to equip the right equipment, the right team and the right skills.
  • The game’s core activity, as befits the genre, is optimizing a team of fighters for the round-based, largely numeric fighting game that matches the player against increasingly difficult opponents. The player gets to optimize his own character’s skills, as well as the equipment for the whole team. Both optimization problems are ever-changing and have no absolute answers, you just have to work constantly to keep ahead of the (at times steep) enemy power curve. You get to change your own character’s configuration around pretty flexibly, which means that you can and will have to change him up for different fights.
  • The fight scenes themselves are quick and simple insofar as the game controls and user interface go, but actually pretty complex rules-wise when compared to what you usually get in this genre. For instance, temporary conditions caused by both attacks and buffs are much more important than usually in the genre, and there are many tools for manipulating those. It seems that there are no enemies that would be immune to status attacks, too, so this is one of those rare games in the genre that seems to play fairly with its own rules. (A typical cop-out in the genre is to make the most difficult or plot-important enemies immune to status attacks that’d cripple them, making for the old jungle saying that you should never invest in anything but damage-per-round in these games; you’ll never get to use that blinding attack in an actually difficult fight, anyway.)

Based on the above it might seem that less is again more with this browser game, and I guess that is true – the genre in question suffers horridly because the core activity is usually encumbered with half-wit attempts at purple prose and transparent speedbumbs in the form of random fights. Sonny in comparison has a flavourful setting (with zombies and stuff; no rason to explain in detail, it’s ultimately secondary in this genre), but the attention is totally focused to making the fights and character optimization for them work for themselves: once again the core activity wins the day in game design, making for a much more compelling game than the last Final Fantasy I bothered with.

The two Sonny games are pretty similar, the second just improves on the first in all of the above four categories except the second one – the games are identical in what you actually do in them. It’s entirely feasible to play the first game through (it’s not very long) to learn the basics and enjoy the plot (such as it is), especially as the second game seems to be considerably more difficult and much longer.

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3 Responses to “Recommending Sonny”

  1. Skill Games Says:

    Very informative stuff. Thanks very much.

    Keep it up!

    Regards
    Tom

  2. Jasper Flick Says:

    I agree, the Sonny games definitely stands out! It’s like you say, it stays away from most things I dislike about games of its kind. There are, however, two practices that I rather had it did away with.

    First is gear collection and management. The whole concept never survives a reality check, plus the interface is always a nightmare. Personally I just dislike this micromanagement. Specifically for Sonny, it’s the most limiting part of your character (you can completely switch from strength to focus based, but then you’re stuck with bad gear, or have to do a very tedious reshuffle of party wardrobe).

    Second is bosses that just take too long to kill (when using the fastest or only viable strategy). The Sonny games have some of those, though admittedly they’re beyond the “you’ve won the game” point, except for The Baron in Sonny 2.

    Overall, they’re awesome games of their kind. Did you finish them (at highest difficulty)?

  3. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    I don’t mind the gear management part that much – it is annoying to have to sort through the stuff and sell it, but the payoff is that the gear actually has a pretty big impact in character effectiveness, so it’s not entirely an empty ritual like it is in many games of this ilk. I do agree that the game would be improved by simplifying and/or automatizing the matter, though. Even removing the layered sources of effectiveness is an option, although that might lose some viable content from the game.

    I haven’t finished Sonny 2 yet, I’ve had some other things on my plate. I’ve been playing both games on “normal” difficulty at this point, we’ll see if I’ll upgrade at some point. I’m a bit skeptical, as I might not like this genre enough to stick out with another playthrough. Then again, the character classes in Sonny 2 are pretty impressive, it might be worthwhile to try out another one.


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