Digimon. A respectable franchise that’s had little-to-no substantial activity in the West for a long time. If you’d have told me I’d be playing a Digimon game in 2016 that embraces its core audience as much as it does a new story-line, I may very well have brushed you off. Having had an entire week of my time devoured by this latest entry, however, I’m having a hard time understanding why this hasn’t been a bigger deal. That’s not to say there aren’t flaws – there are flaws aplenty – but the good far outweighs the bad in this traditional Japanese RPG that pops with faithful, anime art. And so, this is our Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth Review.
There’s much to appreciate from the anime-lover’s perspective in Digimon’s visual style. Even if you’re not in to anime, I don’t think it can be denied that this Vita game – and it is that – is pretty stunning. The bright colours and distinct character designs practically leap off the screen. It may not have the fidelity of a Naruto game, but it has its very own personality and seems to do a particularly good job of portraying a digital, fictional Japan. The cut-scenes are sparse but well-crafted whenever they do appear, and areas that I’d considered bland were eventually revealed to have a reason to be so through the plot, thus relieving me of any of my initial apprehensiveness. Granted, many of the smaller dungeons are similar in their appearance and get a little dull, but outside of that there’s a ton of lovable, colourful variety. If there were to be a real “criticism”, it’d be of the Digimon’s ability animations in combat. It’s not that they’re bad, but they’re dated. Whilst some special moves stand out, the impact of these abilities seem to fall flat on impact with the enemies. I’d like to see a more reactive, visually impressive response in future iterations, and a future this series should have for all of its merits.
A brief summary of the basic plot: In the online social world of EDEN, mysteries are commonplace, and three friends become enveloped in an unexpected scenario. Your player character is recruited by a detective agency, as a result of their new ability to traverse the digital world seemingly at will, and events unfold from there.
My feelings on Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth’s plot are mixed. On the one hand, it’s quite intelligent. It features much darker themes than I’d been expecting from its art style but still manages to inject some levity to keep it from feeling heavy. The characters themselves are well-performed with full voice-acting (with the exception of your own silent male or female protagonist and very minor characters) and their own stake in the plot. It’s a vibrant, joyful world packed with plenty of mysteries for the protagonist to solve as he or she discovers more about the people around them. For the most part, I felt engaged in the narrative and enjoyed the portrayals, particularly in regards to Nokia and Kyoko – later on, Arata as well.
On the other hand, the pacing felt off to me. There are many points in the story that have you running around in circles just trying to bump in to somebody that may or may not initiate a case prompt only when you return to the agency. Around the mid-game point, I’d felt it outstayed its welcome, but it gets something of a second when the story takes a turn shortly after. There’s a lot of story here, but some of it feels reminiscent of filler being jammed in to the main plot, and whilst it can indeed have some loose ties to the main narrative, I could have done without the Occult Club sections myself. Not that I’m entirely against the “get-to-know-your-pals” portion of a game, but these characters are the most minor of the minor, and it felt especially unnecessary. This as opposed to eating with Nokia and Yuuko, featuring surprisingly detailed descriptions of the delicacies by your own character (though he/she does not talk audibly, they do have something akin to an inner monologue) which felt useful to developing their ties to each other.
I found myself invested in the story even as I wavered in and out of of interest at the middle, but I found the “choices” your character could make during conversations pointless. Your answers don’t influence the resulting dialog, nor do they have an impact like they would in Persona or TellTale games. It felt like an inclusion for the sake of it, but if you’re going to give me decisions to make, make them mean something. I felt closer to Takumi (my male protagonist) when he’d have his own thoughts play out. If you don’t want to voice him, that’s fine – I’d prefer a voice, but hey – but don’t create an thinly-veiled illusion of choice without consequence. Either do it right or don’t do it at all in my opinion.
Ultimately, the story and characters carry this game’s narrative very well. I enjoyed them all, though I did feel as if it dragged its feet too often in sections that could easily have been relegated to side activities given that the main plot is beefy enough as it is.
In Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth you’ll be doing two things mainly: battling monsters and running around like a headless chicken. The battles are done using “Digimon”: virtual monsters encountered in the digital world and brought to your side after encountering them enough in the field.
Early on, you’re provided a Digimon Capture device by hackers in EDEN, and this gives you a percentage scan on Digimon every time you see them in battle up to 200%. Once you’ve reached at least 100%, you can visit the DigiLab to convert the acquired data in to the Digimon itself. As these Digimon level up and their statistics reach certain milestones, they can be evolved (Digivolved) in to several different forms, pushing the realm of choice well beyond a game like Pokemon – to which it is often compared -, and they can also be devolved in to their earlier forms to acquire higher level caps and statistics as they regain experience. For every evolution or devolution, the Digimon reverts to level 1 in exchange for a higher potential in everything else. There are four “types”: Virus, Data, Vaccine and Neutral. In the same rock-paper-scissors game you’ll find in Pokemon – the understandable comparison in this regard – one is more powerful than the other and results in double-damage. Virus against Data, Data against Vaccine, Vaccine against Virus and so on. Neutral types save themselves from extensive harm but won’t be as powerful in some regards. However, Digimon’s attribute game also includes elements that can push damage up to 3-times the amount or reduce it to almost nothing. These elements are identified by a corresponding colour on their type icon, for example, HiAndromon is a Mega level Vaccine type with an Electric attribute. Thus, his Vaccine icon will be the colour yellow on the screen in battle. This allows you to plan the attacks accordingly and provides depth to the gameplay. At least, it would, were the gameplay challenging. Yes, even the bosses in Digimon can be easily overcome with the help of a little level grinding and some useful items, even on Hard difficulty. I never felt challenged, but to be honest, I wasn’t looking to be. It’s just a shame that the interesting double-up of damage types weren’t more meaningful because it doesn’t go beyond the traditional turn based style in any way. It’s traditional to its own detriment, playing it perhaps a little too safe.
Still, most of my fun came from evolving and collecting as many Digimon as I could, and as I’d accomplish this, I’d undertake the cases found at the Detective Agency that you work at as the protagonist. There’s plenty of cases to do that aren’t part of the main plot, and whilst they’re not really necessary, they’ll provide you with a lot more to do if you’re seeking more time in the digital world.
It’s a shame that a game resembling a Persona title so heavily (seeing as the character designs were created by Shin Megami Tensei artist Suzuhito Yasuda) didn’t delve more deeply in to the bonding system. I’d love to have gotten to know the characters more individually, but that’s just a personal expectation and bares no impression on the game itself. Wishful thinking and all that. You can bond with your Digimon on the DigiFarm or in battle to raise their “CAM” but all this does is unlock different evolutions or increase the likelihood of a cross-combo attack in battle. The latter of which not being very interesting, and actually served to annoy me through the course of the game, as it interrupted the fluidity of the battles otherwise.
Yes, there’s a lot to say about the game-play but it succeeds as a collectathon and classic RPG with a modern look. It does nothing to reinvigorate the battle system in the way that something like Bravely Default did, nor does it add anything significant to alter the flow in the way that the Atelier games do, but it stays true to its roots and remains fun if not at all challenging throughout.
Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth is a stylish game with a great deal of freedom in its Digimon customisation. The way that you can revert to the old forms in order to raise the power makes every possible choice valid, but this is also in part due to the ease of the game itself. It remains cautious in its execution when it comes to the battle system, but the narrative and characters themselves make up for it and just because it’s not revolutionary, doesn’t mean it’s not a great experience. It slows down halfway through, but push on and you’ll find an interesting plot worthy of your time. Would I recommend it to a non-Digimon fan? Perhaps if you’re after a lengthy RPG without much challenge, but fans of the franchise are the target for this game and this entry does them a great justice. Here’s hoping to more on the Playstation 4 from Media. Vision. They’ve shown a lot of passion and potential with this project, even if its far from a perfect product.
Game: Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth
Review Format: Playstation 4