For all the talk about how we’ve decided that video games are art, the actual gameplay aspect of games remains lightning that can be difficult to capture in a bottle. It’s been decades since we’ve seen the industry take off, but it remains tough to really nail down what makes a game enjoyable to interact with rather than just being a movie by another name. The rise and rapid proliferation of what we now call “walking simulators” was no doubt sparked by how difficult it can be to design and implement satisfying gameplay.
A game like Sanabi, then, that successfully fuses impressive storytelling and enjoyable game mechanics is quite the treasure worth discovering.
Fatherhood’s rarely easy. Kids can be rebellious, they can be messy, and – as an unnamed Brigadier General of the National Army discovers – they’re not particularly explosion-resistant. The Brigadier General was living an idyllic life with his daughter right up until she’s killed and their home destroyed by a terrorist bombing. The only clue is the culprit’s name: Sanabi. Armed with a chain-hooked cybernetic arm and a thirst for revenge, the Brigadier General sets off on a rampage that eventually leads him to the technological metropolis of Mago City, Sanabi’s last known location and the site of a recent mass disappearance event. He’ll team up with local engineer Mari as they search for Sanabi and maybe learn a little about what happened to Mago’s population along the way.
Mago’s in quite the state, as you’d probably guess given how millions of people vanished out of nowhere, so it’s going to take a little more effort to get around than just walking. Fortunately, the Brigadier General’s got that cybernetic arm we talked about. It’s an incredibly versatile tool, capable of swinging around as you’d expect, but also serving as a deadly weapon and remote manipulator for puzzle-solving. Sanabi takes a simple concept like swinging around on a grappling hook and explores just how far it’s possible to take it.
Early on, you’ll just be swinging over pits and clambering around on walls. That’s easy enough. Later, though, you’ll have to juggle dodging enemy fire, pushing cover around, avoiding damage zones and attacking your enemies’ weak points all at once. That might sound overwhelming, but the way Sanabi steadily builds on its mechanics ensures you’ll be well-prepared for each new challenge as it arises.
This is all rock-solid basic fun that would be enough to carry a game all on its lonesome, but Sanabi ups the ante with its plot. The actual goings-on in Mago City and the truth behind the terrorist bombing are both quite a bit more complex than one might expect. It’s a joy to get to the bottom of things along with the characters, and while some players might take issue with the amount of cutscenes that take place between action segments, Sanabi’s storytelling is pretty decent for a game that amounts to Bionic Commando. It’s well worth your time to put in the seven hours or so it takes to get through this one. A video game has never made me feel anything but hungry, but I needed to call up Uber Eats a few times while playing Sanabi.
Sanabi’s look and feel have a lot to do with that as well. Now, fair warning: this is one o’ them indie pixel art games. Much like walking simulators are common because gameplay is hard, it’s understandable to think that pixel art is common in indie games because graphics are hard. Sanabi’s here to dispel that notion, though, as it’s an absolutely gorgeous game that makes great use of a sense of scale to really drive home some impressive scenes. There’s something dramatic about battling a boss hundreds of times your size, after all. The thumping electronic soundtrack just reinforces the John Wick or Man On Fire style that the game’s going for.
You might look at the indie-standard visuals, the lack of hype, and the glut of exceptional games 2023 has brought and think Sanabi isn’t worth your time. If that’s the case, you’re dead wrong. Without spoiling anything about the plot or the intense action scenes, this one’s a Game of the Year contender that’s up there with the best of 2023, and that’s saying something. All that for less than twenty bucks! Find a free weekend and give this one a shot. You absolutely won’t regret it.