Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth
Developer: Media Vision
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Release Date: 02/02/16
If I’m being honest, I was never a Digimon kid growing up; Pokemon was where it was at, as far as I was concerned, and I never got into the games based around that concept as much as I did the original series that started it all. However, while the handheld games were fine, I always held out hope for a console version of the monster collecting RPG, Nintendo was never very keen on delivering this thing; the closest they’ve come was Pokemon XD: Gale of Darkness, which is a game you think is wonderful if you love the heck out of Pokemon. Bandai Namco has no such moral opposition to this thing, however, and after fans around the world asked for a true console RPG in the Digimon universe, they delivered with the game we’re looking into today, Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth. I spent some time with the game a few months ago in a pre-release state and found the product quite promising, largely because it was everything I wanted (a monster collecting/evolving game on the console) as well as everything I never knew I wanted: a monster collecting RPG that felt as much like Shin Megami Tensei as it did Digimon. While some folks have compared Digimon Story to Persona, that’s not really the truth of the matter; it’s more fair to say it feels like an Atlus RPG in general, to the point where the character work is even done by Suzuhito Yasuda (of Devil Survivor fame), and the game honestly feels like it’s meant both for newcomers and fans of the now fifteen year old franchise. It’s not a perfect game by any means, but it is very much a game I can’t recommend enough if you like monster collecting games, so long as you can accept some of the hiccups that come along with that genre.
On digital monsters and cyberspace
You take on the role of a somewhat silent protagonist (who can be male or female at your discretion), who lives in a future where cyberspace VR is not only a reality, but is basically an everyday fixture of regular life. As the game begins, your character is hanging out in a chatroom with your friends in this VR world, dubbed EDEN, when Mr. Navit, the mascot of EDEN, shows up… only it’s not Mr. Navit, but a hacker pretending to be him. Said hacker issues a challenge: show up tomorrow or I’ll hack you, which scares off all but two of your friends, and the three of you decide to go to see what’s up. This goes badly almost from jump, as not only are your friends (Nokia, a somewhat narcissistic girl and Arata, a somewhat selfish jerky boy) somewhat harsh, but you’re hacked and forced to take a Digimon training app against your will. Oh, and a monster eats your data and leaves you in a broken cyberspace body out in the real world, so… bad times all around. Fortunately, you get picked up by one Kyoko, a cyberspace detective who figures that your new form isn’t all bad, since you can now jump directly into EDEN more or less at will (among other things), and from there, you take on the role of her protégé (or “Watson” as she describes it), performing detective duties while trying to fix your less than ideal situation. If you’re wondering where in that plot the Digimon come into play, well, in the beginning of the game they don’t so much; you’re introduced to them by way of a “pick the one you want” scenario, but otherwise, the story is mostly focused on the protagonist. As the game progresses, however, the Digital World and Digimon become much more of a focal point, until the plot ultimately builds to a point that actually sees you aiming to save not only the Human World, but the Digital World as well, which is interesting, if not surprising.
As game plots go, the plot in Digimon Story is pretty well put together, mostly because it focuses more on the characters than anything else. The cast is a lot of fun to follow around through the game, partly because it features an even mix of humans and Digimon protagonists (including fairly big roles for both Agumon and Gabumon for long time series fans), and partly because everyone has distinct personalities that keep things interesting. It also helps that the events of the game are a bit more complex and mature than you’d expect from a game featuring collecting digital monsters, leaving the game feeling less like a “kids game” and more like an RPG storyline that stands on its own instead of on its gimmick. The late game plot, in particular, is really dense conceptually, but in a way that’s not challenging to follow, and the story does a lot to really build to its closing act that’s impressive all things considered. That said, the hacker concept doesn’t really go anywhere, and seems more like a convenient method of explaining why Digimon exist in the world for the first twenty hours of the game rather than a fleshed-out concept that needs to be here; you could replace the term with “trainer” and it’d make a lot more sense, if nothing else. Also, for a game that takes more than a few cues from Atlus titles (explicitly or otherwise), it also didn’t really grasp why Persona 4 is the highest selling in the series, as the ending here… isn’t great; it resolves some of the plot, but doesn’t really offer a clean resolution, and tries to be way more “draw your own conclusions” than it should’ve been. Still, what’s here mostly works, and it’s definitely a good first try in the US market (even if it’s something like the third in Japan), so it’s definitely a good start if nothing else.
Visually, Digimon Story is an upscaled port of a Vita release, but you almost wouldn’t know it at first glance, as aside from some odd special effects it mostly looks excellent on the PS4. Character and Digimon models look outstanding in general and in motion, and there is a lot of personality put into each Digimon, especially for their unique special moves, which feature lots of personality and cool effects. The game world also shows outstanding contrasts between the real world and EDEN, especially later when locations pop up that blend the two elements together, and the game just oozes personality from top to bottom. That said, the game reuses zone assets heavily and some of the character effects look a bit dodgy (the red outlines in particular that pop up in some locations didn’t transfer well), but for the most part this doesn’t impact the experience much at all. Aurally, the game is even better, as everything here is absolutely top notch, starting with a soundtrack that’s an absolute gem and not only compliments the game, but stands quite well on its own. While it draws a few cues from, again, Atlus RPGs, DanganRonpa (which makes sense as the composer is the same) and (interestingly) Baroque at times, it mostly does enough of its own thing to feel really special and interesting, and it’s easily one of the best parts of the game overall. The voice work in the game is the original JP voice work, so while those of you hoping for a full dub might feel let down, overall it works nicely; about half of the dialogue in the game is voiced, and the performances here are generally quite good all in all, whether for the core cast or for the Digimon when performing their signature attacks. All in all, from the presentation side, Digimon Story really works, and fans and newcomers alike will enjoy what it does with its visuals and audio.
On fighting and training digital monsters
At its core, Digimon Story is one part traditional JRPG and one part monster collecting, with a bit of detective work thrown in, so it should be fairly easy to understand for anyone who’s had any exposure to the genre in the past decade. Moving around the game world is done entirely in third person, and you can interact with anything in the game world, be it a person, Digimon or item with a press of the X button. The game uses static camera angles for all of its zones, so you won’t have to worry about manipulating the environment to see where you’re going or find things, but otherwise world movement is fairly simple to get and should come as second nature fairly quickly. The game also works off of the standard random battle, turn-based by character initiative system many games have used in the past, meaning that in combat zones, battles will randomly pop up as you move around (though you can manipulate this later in the game) and characters take turns in an order based on their speed in battle. When choosing actions, the mechanics are also fairly simple; while the menu is based around a circular pad rather than a traditional menu, all of the standards are here, including normal attacks, special moves, item usage, and running from combat. The game also does a good job of introducing you to everything slowly so that you’re only exposed to mechanics as you need to be, and the learning curve is quite nice, so even if you’re a relative newbie to the genre you’ll have no problems at all getting into this.
Of course, this being a Digimon game, there’s more to it than just normal JRPG mechanics, so there are a few interesting mechanics to get into as you go. First off, the game utilizes a “hacking mechanic” of sorts, where your character can jump into electronically enabled devices to do things when needed. Most of the time this revolves around jumping between the real world and EDEN or the real world and the Digilab, where you can work with your Digimon a bit, but occasionally this also involves jumping into digital dungeons to perform tasks. You’re also given specific skills unique to your digital form and the Digimon on your person that allow you to perform actions, including breaking down lock barriers, eliminating random combat, forcing a battle instantly and solving puzzles, and you can unlock new skills as the game progresses to keep things evolving. It’s also worth noting that your Digimon also have to be considered at all times when going out into the world, not only because you can only carry so many, as each has a memory cost and you can only carry up to your max (which expands over time through Memory UP items), but because each Digimon has two types to consider. The core Digimon types (Virus, Vaccine, Data and Free) dictate how they assist with your hacking skills and the core damage they deal to other Digimon; this is a bit of a rock-paper-scissors elemental tree, where Virus is better than Data, Data is better than Vaccine and Vaccine is better than Virus, which confers massive damage boosts or reductions. Further, each has elemental types associated with them, which can also influence damage in the ways you’d commonly expect (fire damages earth, water damages fire and so on), so with proper planning you can pile on the damage.
A big part of how your Digimon develop and grow comes from proper utilization of the Digilab, and it’ll become your second home through your time in the game. You’ll be able to store any Digimon you’re not using here, either in your Bank if you just want to put them aside, or on the Digimon Farm, a set of islands that allows you to have your Digimon engage in activities as you run around in the game world. Using the farms for Digimon storage is by far the better choice when possible, as this not only allows them to gain levels, but it allows them to either improve their stats or perform tasks for you that help out your progress. When you choose to set the farm islands into action, you’re given three choices: Train, which helps your Digimon improve their skills over time, Develop, which creates new items for you to use at a nominal cost, and Search, which allows the Digimon to look into new cases for you to take on (more on that in a bit). How this all plays out depends on the personalities of your Digimon, as each can have one of a few personality types that dictate how they perform. For example, Builder Digimon will be best suited toward Develop tasks, Searcher Digimon will be best suited to Search tasks, and other personalities best influence how your Digimon prioritize their stat growth (IE Fighters focus on attack, Brainy Digimon focus on intelligence and so on). You can also set up items on each island (from one to five based on the island level) to improve the results of your tasks, so items that improve stat growth will improve Training actions, while building and searching stations improve Develop and Search actions. In the beginning, you only get one island, but as you collect items (as rewards or in dungeons) you can expand to have multiple islands, each hosting up to five enhancement items apiece, for some heavy Digimon development.
Outside of using farms for Digimon development, the Digilab is also used for summoning new Digimon and evolving existing Digimon as needed. In the beginning of the game you’ll have your primary Digimon, but you can field up to three in combat at once, and can have a local store of up to eleven at a time (who can be swapped in and out of battle as needed), but acquiring new Digimon is more involved than beaning them with a capture ball. Each time you encounter a Digimon in the wild, its data is analyzed a little bit and added to your records. Once you’ve analyzed one hundred percent of a Digimon’s data you can then summon then in the Digilab and put them into action, or you can wait until you get to two hundred percent, as every bit over the initial one hundred percent confers added bonuses to the newly summoned Digimon. Once summoned, they can be fielded in battle as needed. At the end of every battle, your Digimon can also earn experience (even if they didn’t directly participate), which earns them levels in the standard way you’d expect. Each Digimon can also evolve to a higher form once they’ve met certain criteria (including experience levels and stat limits), allowing them to take on a new form and higher stats. You can also devolve evolved Digimon if you wish, as this confers benefits to the Digimon, including raising their maximum level in the devolved form (since devolved forms cost less memory to keep in the party) and improving their ABI score, which allows them a higher maximum point value for bonuses earned at the farm when you evolve them again. The Digilab also has a few other novel uses, including allowing players to compete online in battles and jumping into some closed off locations to farm Digimon data, so you’ll definitely be putting a lot of time in here in-between battles.
Beyond the above points, there are other minor things to be aware of as you progress. For one thing, in addition to their core stats and ABI score, you also have to pay attention to a Digimon’s CAM score, which reflects their camaraderie with your character. Higher values mean they like you more and are more likely to participate in group attacks (which raise the damage of the current Digimon’s attack), and you can raise it by feeding them on the farm or by using them in battle, so playing favorites can be helpful as you go. The game also assigns you missions based off of a detective whiteboard in Kyoko’s office, allowing you to pick up cases as you wish from the board, which can be anything from plot advancing story quests to missions where you have to help out reoccurring NPCs with silly tasks, search for lost items in the game world or hunt down specific characters and put the beat down on them for various reasons. The game also offers, as mentioned, an online battle mode where you can fight other teams of Digimon hosted by players, as well as an offline Coliseum where you can take on a series of CPU Digimon trainers for escalating profits as you win the various cups, and even collectible medals you can turn in for cash and prizes, among many other novelties you can hunt for at your leisure.
On the long game and the digital breakdown
You can probably plow through Digimon Story in around fifty hours if you focus on a select few Digimon and only do the required storyline quests, but if you want to do everything in the game you’ll easily break a hundred, as there’s an absolutely immense volume of content to see here. The game comes loaded with two hundred and thirty Digimon to find through evolutions and such, and some of the more complex ones will take time to evolve to due to their stat requirements, while others are locked behind special late-game missions that are really challenging but unlock some amazing Digimon. The game also offers a full New Game Plus mode that essentially allows you to carry over everything you have that isn’t a key plot item, allowing you to absolutely rend the game asunder on a second go-round if you want to unlock those last few evolutions or prepare for some of the hard late game content, though there’s only one ending so you won’t see anything new plot-wise. The game also offers a full complement of Trophies to earn for various activities that will take some time to get, as well as Cross Save functionality with the Vita version if you’d like the option to play the game at home and on the go. In short, Digimon Story is a very robust experience, and one that’s instantly going to appeal to anyone who loves collecting monsters, anime style JRPGs, or really, JRPGs in general.
That said, the game has some fairly significant issues that make it more of a niche title than it should’ve been. For one thing, while the core game is more often than not fairly balanced, some of the battles can vacillate between very easy and very hard if you have the right Digimon on tap for them, but this in no way applies to the extra content. Even if you prepare for the extra content, more often than not it cheats like crazy, as several battles feature instant-kill moves, bosses getting three turns per every one your Digimon get, or both, and in one battle, after offing two Digimon, the third began spamming an instant total party kill move despite my Digimon being strong to his type with no warning, which, even if you love Digimon, is supremely offensive. Further, getting the most out of the game requires extensive grinding, and while the game makes it easier to do this than most, you’ll still be spending around thirty or so hours spamming battles (and that’s if you manipulate EXP gains with Tactician USBs and Platinum Numemons) if you want to unlock every evolution available to you. There are also smaller things, like how the launch package and the PSN versions of the game come with a DLC package featuring ten more evolution entries that seemingly cannot be acquired otherwise at this point, the fact that the translation of the dialogue is roughly about thirty percent broken in various ways, or how even with tutorials some of the mechanics in the game aren’t readily obvious (IE why you would need to carry specific kinds of Digimon to use specific hacking skills), which aren’t terrible on their own but pile up over time.
All told, honestly, I absolutely adore Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth for what it does and what it tries to do, as it’s an excellent effort at bringing the franchise into a traditional RPG format on the console, but it’s definitely a game that’s going to make its strongest impression to older JRPG and monster collecting game fans over anyone else. The plot is mostly quite solid, the game features surprisingly solid (if at times spotty) visuals for an upscaled Vita game, and the aural presentation is outstanding across the board. The gameplay is mostly simple to understand from the very beginning of the game, but there’s a lot of substantial variety here thanks to the Digilab itself, as well as the hacker tools you’re provided, to keep things fresh, and the game is robust in terms of sheer volume such that it’s easy to get over a hundred hours out of a single playthrough, let alone multiples, which the game makes easy to entertain. That said, the hacker concept doesn’t work as well as it wants to and the ending is a bit of a downer, battles (especially some of the extra missions) can get offensively unbalanced, the game has a bit of an unreasonable expectation of your tolerance for grinding, and there are smaller hiccups like translation issues and non-obvious mechanics that mar the experience noticeably. Digimon Story is definitely a game that acts as a love letter to series fans, and anyone who enjoys the genre at the least will easily get their money’s worth out of the experience; it’s just harder to jump in and recommend this to someone who’s not a huge fan already due to some of the design choices, and while it’s a good effort, it’s not one that’s going to pull in someone who wasn’t already interested from jump.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth is an excellent attempt at bringing the franchise to the console as a full-fledged RPG, and it’s definitely a game that should please fans, but whether or not it’ll work for you if you’re not a dyed-in-the-wool franchise fan will probably depend on how much you love JRPGs, or how much you can accept their conventions. The story is generally quite enjoyable through most of the game, the visuals (aside from some minor hiccups) look excellent for a PS4 port of a Vita title, and the audio is tremendous across the board in all respects. Mechanically the game is quite standard for the genre and mostly easy to understand in minutes, but offers a lot of depth through the Digilab and hacking tools to help it feel interesting and different, as well as a metric ton of content to see that keeps the game going for well over a hundred hours if you’re inclined to see it through. Sadly, the plot doesn’t flesh out the hacker gimmick as well as it could and the ending is a bit of a wash, the battles are unbalanced at times (especially the late game extra missions) to a point where it’s quite off-putting, there’s an extensive amount of grinding to be done to see much of the late game content, and there are minor issues with the translation and handling of mechanics that ding the experience more than they should. If you love collecting digital monsters or JRPGs in general, Digimon Story is definitely going to be your cup of tea, as it does what it does quite well, but newcomers or casual fans might find this to be less friendly in its design than they’d like, and it’s definitely a game for the existing fanbase moreso than prospective newcomers.