The demo for Sonzai has been out for a little while now. While that would normally mean I’d be frantically scraping together a review to meet deadlines, with Sonzai I’ve purposefully taken my time. I have a very personal history with Sonzai which I have documented in an article you can read here. It is fair to say that my expectations for Sonzai are quite high. That’s not to say I was expecting a demo of an unfinished game to be a masterpiece already. Rather, I was hoping that the elements I had dreamed would be featured would be present. Fortunately, not only did Sonzai’s demo far surpass my expectations, but it has also cemented itself as one of my top ten games already.
“Sonzai’s charming and distinctive characters are expertly designed.”
I’ll preface this preview by stating the obvious: Sonzai is a gorgeous looking game. Its beautifully hand-drawn visuals coupled with exceptionally smooth animations and a brilliantly realised setting make it one of the most visually impressive games of the year. Exploring the various areas available in the demo is a visually arresting delight. The developers at 2 Odd Diodes have intricately designed each and every one of them so that they not only feel incredibly detailed but also uniquely distinct from one another.
The character and monster designs are also astonishingly unique. Borrowing heavily from Japanese mythology, Sonzai’s beautifully designed enemies are at times monstrously grotesque. They perfectly encapsulate the horror element of Japan’s visceral folklore all while remaining entirely unique in their own right. Their attacks, along with the player’s, are all beautifully animated, which helps combat feel frantic, fun and unbelievably slick.
Similarly, Sonzai’s charming and distinctive characters are expertly designed. The central cast of characters were not only memorable for their excellent dialogue, but also for their appearance. It not only helps them stand out against the overwhelmingly beautiful backgrounds but also helps the player create an immediate attachment to them. To the credit of the developer, I also found myself warming to the rest of the game’s eclectic cast. From the mysterious librarian to the comforting teacher, the side characters all have their own quirks and charms that make the game’s world feel far more alive and vibrant.
“It was fulfilling to explore some of Sonzai’s more reflective, thoughtful and memorable moments.”
In terms of gameplay, Sonzai feels like a combination between the fantastic The friends of Ringo Ishikawa and Persona 5. Although the game does offer a comprehensive tutorial at the beginning, it does throw you in media res. However, this means that, for the most part, you’re free to wander around its stunning world. You can converse with its colourful cast of characters, get jobs, go to school and fight monsters whenever you’d like.
The game’s more free form structure reminded me of the philosophical and thoughtful The friends of Ringo Ishikawa, while the game’s social systems and combat reminded me of Persona. However, while combat is a prominent feature, players will mostly be delving into the quieter moments of Sonzai. For example, Sonzai has a fairly comprehensive social system that requires the player to rank up in various areas to improve their relationships with their fellow classmates and other side characters.
Players can increase their social standing through numerous different ways such as by reading books at home and working jobs. There are different jobs that can be found across each area that often entails turning up at a specific time. Each one offers a notable increase in a certain social stat as well as money.
This aspect of Sonzai is incredible as it offers players a satisfying feedback loop of engaging with the world, its characters and norms all while giving them gameplay rewards. However, on a more personal level, I found it to be just as fulfilling to engage with these features as they offer some of Sonzai’s more reflective, thoughtful and memorable moments.
“The amount of variety in moves available in Sonzai makes fighting against the game’s many enemy types exhilarating.”
Sonzai’s combat also plays a huge role in the player’s overall experience. Once the player has wrapped up school, they can head to a forest by the suburbs and fight monsters. While the game’s world is brought to life thanks to the many varied animations scattered across each location, it is during the combat segments that the animation quality shines.
When fighting enemies, the player can string together a series of stunning attacks of which there are dozens. The amount of variety in moves available just in the demo was incredible. As a result, fighting against the game’s many enemy types is exhilarating. The player can also equip various runes to give themselves a helping hand in combat. One such rune sees your damage output increase the more you vary your combos.
My only issue was that, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to defeat a single enemy. At first, I chalked it up to my inability to string together combos or correctly utilise my various buffs. However, even after I improved significantly, the enemies I fought still refused to die.
I’m willing to pass this off as a possible bug, or perhaps that I didn’t progress far enough through the game’s demo to learn new abilities or increase my damage. However, even my inability to defeat enemies didn’t ruin my overall experience. I still found myself thoroughly entertained by the game’s incredibly comprehensive combat.
“I implore anyone who thinks Sonzai looks remotely interesting to try it out.”
In all honesty, I went into Sonzai expecting the worst. I didn’t go in expecting it to be bad, rather I went in expecting to be disappointed. In recent memory, the majority of games I’ve been excited for have been major disappointments. I mean, it took changing the game’s language to get even a sliver of enjoyment from one of my most anticipated games.
However, I can confidently say that despite my fears and reservations, Sonzai is not only a phenomenally unique and exceptional game but also one of the best I’ve played all year. I cannot wait to play the full release and I implore anyone who thinks this looks remotely interesting to try it out.
Be sure to head on over to Sonzai’s store page to try the demo out for yourself. You can also wishlist it on Steam to be notified of any future updates.