Saturday, June 07, 2008


(Oh, if you haven't noticed yet, the post title is a link to the game. Hopefully you have.)

OK, so as of this writing, Sonny is currently the highest-rated game on Kongregate. I have simply one question: Why? Not that Sonny is a terrible game, but if it has the highest rating, this says something not terribly good about either the quality of games on Kongregate or the tastes of the people who vote (in my opinion, a little bit of both).

Sonny is a very traditional turn-based RPG which should seem familiar to anyone who's ever played a bit of the genre. You have a character (of 1 of 4 possible classes) with some attributes, some hit points and some points which he uses to cast spells ("Focus" in this game). You fight enemies, either hitting them with whatever weapon you happen to have on hand or with a variety of spells. As you gain experience, your stats increase and you get more skills available. You get various equipment which you can equip on various parts of your body; your party gains more people who will help you out (although you can control their equipment, you can't control their skills or their actions in battle, which can be frustrating). In between battles, there's no larger map or anything; all there is is a screen where you can visit the item shop (actually an equipment shop), a "Next Battle" button, and a "Training Battle" option (which is convenient if you're stuck on a boss; you can just level up a bit and try again).

One distinctive feature of Sonny is the skills system. The skill tree is pretty deep and varied (although, alas, it is the same for all four classes of characters). As the name implies, it is a tree, so some useful skills at the bottom of the tree you'll have to acquire several skills before reaching. (No skill has more than one direct prerequisite, though some skills are prerequisites to more than one skill, so it is a proper tree. Well, more precisely, a set of trees, since it's composed of several disjoint sets.) Some skills have many levels, becoming more powerful with each level you acquire, while some just have one level and you're done. The usage of these skills is also somewhat innovative; you can put eight skills on your action ring at any one time. You can put multiple copies of a single skill on your ring, which is useful, because skills, in addition to their MP (excuse me, Focus) cost also have a "charge time" -- an interval after you use a copy of a skill that you can't use it again. That is, if a skill has a charge time of 8, you'll have to wait eight rounds after using it before you can use it again. But if you put multiple copies on your action bar, then you can have it available more often. You can rearrange skills on your bar at any time between battles; you can also do a complete reset of your skills and get all of your skill points back to re-spend as you want. This is useful if you find that one of your skills is a complete clunker, or if you need a skill at the bottom of a neglected branch to deal with a boss (which happens not infrequently). The downside is that the skill tree is simply too deep; a lot of the skills you'll never see unless you make an explicit effort to try and see every skill in the game, which will require a lot of resetting and playing around which probably isn't worth the effort in the end. You could probably prune a substantial fraction of the skill tree without most people noticing.

To distinguish the various attack skills from each other, nearly every attack skill comes along with a status effect. So in combat, you'll often see four or five effects stacked onto a single character. The variety of skills and their effects, along with the charge time limitation, tends to make combat much more tactical and interesting than a typical Final Fantasy combat, which is good, given that you spend nearly all of your time in combat. Somewhat oddly, given the plethora of status effects, there aren't any combat items; most conspicuously, there's no Phoenix Down equivalent, so if a character goes down he stays down for the rest of the battle. On the other hand, at the end of battle all characters are restored to full HP and MP.

OK, I think that covers the mechanics. Now, on to the plot. The blurb for the game makes a big deal out of the fact that you are, apparently, a zombie. (Or something of that nature -- all you learn in the game is that you were apparently dead before the beginning of the game, and then you're not. There's someone who might be able explain it to you but doesn't, and there's a tape which might have an explanation, but its contents never get revealed.) But, does the fact that you are a zombie (or whatever) affect the game in any way? No. You can't eat people's brains to gain their abilities; you can't turn other people into zombies; healing spells still heal you; in short, the "being a zombie" thing doesn't affect gameplay one bit. Anyway, there is a plot of some sort, but it's pretty thin. You're apparently trying to return to civilization, but you have to hack your way through various enemies first. These enemies have some personality, but it's not clear why you couldn't, say, just go around. It also feels like they ran out of time on the plot -- in addition to the aforementioned tape, which is just left hanging, the most conspicuous clue is that the story ends at the end of Level 3 -- Level 4 is just a bunch of bonus extra monsters without any plot at all. Ultimately, the questions of why you're fighting all of these enemies, or what you're gaining by doing so, are pretty much left unanswered.

Finally, the presentation. The presentation is top-notch (which is undoubtedly part of the reason this game ends up being rated so highly). The graphics are crisp and well-done, and the animation is nice and smooth; the sound effects are a cut above the generic terrible Flash game sound effects; there's even voice acting, which is nicely done (of course, "better than laughably terrible" already puts it way ahead of nearly all Flash games, but this is definitely good work). The music is also good (it strangely reminds me of the Heroes of Might and Magic 3 music), although it's a little too short given the number of times you'll hear it repeated.

Anyway, the initial parts of the game are pretty fun, but if you want to beat the whole game, it eventually turns into a kind of a slog. Especially if you want to beat the extra bosses in the 4th zone, which requires a lot of tedious leveling up. Still, it is a very well-crafted game, so I have to give it points for that.

(If you've read this far, here's my list of recommended skills, in no particular order: Break, for dealing with enemies that power up. Shatter Bolt, ditto. Electro Bolt, really useful for blowing off those annoying Interventions. Block, a nice all-purpose skill when you need to protect yourself. Regeneration (as many levels as you can spare), so you don't have to worry about your Focus. Heroic Intervention (level 2 is really nice), for getting rid of pesky bad status effects. You'll also want Disruption and Subversion for use against particular bosses, but you don't need them all the time.)

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