Sheesh… Rookies

HIGH Finally getting one of the di-digivolutions (no that’s not misspelled) to work.

LOW The Bancho Leomon boss fight, which features an attack that instantly kills 2/3 party members… repeatedly.

WTF One boss consumes a character, who then appears on the boss wearing a ball gag. It’s for kids!

In the online virtual reality space called EDEN, advanced hackers have learned how to use powerful new programs called Digimon to battle security systems and each other. Given that this franchise is over 20 years old, it will likely surprise few readers that the hackers’ understanding of the situation is not exactly correct, and that the appearance of Digimon signifies a contact between worlds with potentially apocalyptic consequences. That’s a story the Digimon franchise has been telling for decades, and unfortunately Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth fails to rejuvenate the premise.

The “Complete” edition comes with two JRPG-style games: Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth, and its sequel/companion piece Hacker’s Memory. The titles are structured similarly around solving mostly optional cases or requests in the downtime between major story missions. Despite the name, there’s very little detective work involved — occasionally the protagonist will learn a keyword and then run around in search of characters marked with an exclamation point or a lock, signifying they possess or will respond to a clue. Sherlock Holmes this ain’t.

The characters aren’t very deep, and especially in Cyber Sleuth, they’re little more than irritating anime stereotypes. Hacker’s Memory has more compelling characters and more interesting individual incidents. Unfortunately, Cyber Sleuth‘s characters are central to the story of EDEN and the Digimon, and it resolves that plot in a deeply negating way. As a result, although it’s the better and more interesting of the pair, little happens in Hacker’s Memory that feels like it matters.

Both games have essentially the same mechanics and Digimon, and mostly the same dungeons as well. Combat uses a discrete time turn-based system, where the player gets to direct the actions of each of the three Digimon on the field, and the timing of the next turn depends on the previous action. Multiple layers of strength-weakness mechanics (e.g. earth > lightning > wind > earth) provide a little tactical depth, but for the most part fights can be won by hammering away with the strongest possible attacks.

At their lowest level, Digimon are an assortment of poorly-differentiated lumps. As they become more powerful, they progressively become larger, less cute, and more cluttered in their design. Transferring between these forms, or “Digivolving”, typically requires the Digimon to reach a particular level or have stats that match a certain number. These requirements are sometimes steep enough that a given Digimon will not be able to digivolve to a more powerful form, but it’s also possible for them to drop down to a lower form and, essentially, try again.

The player is provided some help in evolving Digimon by a number of “farms” where they can earn levels and improve most of their stats even if they’re not taking part in combat. This is of great value because the overall strength of the party is tightly limited, particularly in the early sections. Although one can evolve powerful Digimon before long, it’s impossible to bring many of them along, so the farms are the only real way they can improve.

In principle, a Digimon retains the same personality and memories throughout its many Digivolutions. At various times, both stories lean on the idea of a connection between a character and his Digimon. Digimon even have a stat that improves the more time they spend by the player’s side. However, the tight party limits and constant revising and optimization mean that Digimon feel like things, and not individuals.

Most of this fighting takes place in a series of awful dungeons, which tend to be either large and dull or small and obstructed. Only one of them, set in an office tower with a complex layout, is remotely interesting to navigate. The rest are, at best, visually bland, and at worst overtly hideous. The soundscape, alas, matches the landscape.

Many of the non-combat spaces disappoint as well. Although it’s posited as some kind of insanely popular digital utopia, the spaces the player can access in EDEN are either boring or ugly. One never gets a sense of why anyone likes the place, and for the most part the real-world locations, though small, seem more interesting and inviting.

Although the classic point of comparison would obviously be Pokémon, the inclusion of so many real-life Tokyo locations calls to mind another series of games in this genre — Persona. It’s not a favorable comparison. At times, particularly in Hacker’s Memory, these games seem to be angling towards the ideas of personal connection and friendship  that animated those games, but they are far from successful.

The Digimon Story titles can only blame themselves for the failure to realize the themes they seem to chase. The mechanics are unsuitable for developing a relationship between the player and the Digimon. The cliché-ridden characters and plot defeat the emotional impact of Cyber Sleuth, and poor scripting makes Hacker’s Memory feel irrelevant. What’s left is an astonishing quantity of JRPG grist. While there’s some satisfaction in grinding it down, none of it leaves a lasting impact.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Media Vision and published by Bandai Namco. It is currently available on Switch and PC.This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 100 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode and the games were completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Blood, Crude Humor, Fantasy Violence, Language, and Suggestive Themes. On the whole the game is not dirty or overly violent and most of the content is suitable for kids 10 and up. However, there is a strange focus on partially exposed or weirdly prominent breasts in the character designs, particularly for the cast of Cyber Sleuth. Aside from this, nothing really stood out to me.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Sound is not necessary to play the game in any way. All dialogue is in the form of text (there is no English VO) and sound is not necessary for any aspect of gameplay. Subtitles cannot be resized. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. There is no control diagram. Movement in the overworld and menus is mapped to the left stick / keypad and a few commands are mapped to the face buttons. In combat, the primary input method is holding a direction on the movement stick and hitting a face button.

Sparky Clarkson
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