Take yourself back to the late 1990s. Specifically 1999. While adults were contemplating life after Y2K, childhood-you was tackling your own kind of digital monster crisis; what was the optimal time to wake up to avoid Aerobics OZ and/or Hillsong but see every moment of Cheez TV’s latest animated cartoon, Digimon? If only modern day crises were of the same ilk.
While I’m sure the English opening theme still evokes those feelings of joy, anticipation and validation for getting out of bed early (side note: I urge you to listen to the Japanese opening theme. It’s a bizarre contrast), I doubt you’ll be able to look back at your many years of playing the Digimon video games as fondly. Why? Because several of the games (there are 25 in the catalogue- 14 of which were released in 2002 or earlier) were Japan-only releases, and those that received an English release were not very good.
So when news broke that Bandai Namco were publishing a new Digimon Story game (number 5 in the series- with number 4 being Japanese-only Digimon Story: Super Xros Wars in 2011), set to be the first English release since 2008, I fought hard to keep an open mind about the quality of their proposed title.
After having played the game, I say that Digimon fans should praise Angemon! And beware… This is less a Digimon game and more a cyber-detective-themed classic Japanese RPG featuring Digimon. It has nothing to do with the previous English releases. Or the anime. Facts that make me delighted. And upset. In that order.
The game begins with a prologue (shocking, I know) that establishes the player as a female or male avatar in the EDEN cyberspace; a digital world in which ordinary people can conduct business or entertain themselves. Shadier-looking characters exist in the EDEN cyberspace as hackers- who take on the role of thieves, “chivalrous” security protectors and “others who are just out to prove their skills”- all of which they achieve through using Digimon programs that take on anthropomorphic-monster forms, e.g. Palmon, Terriormon, Patamon (the creatures you know and love).
A glitch in the system during a casual day out in the EDEN cyberspace causes a chain of events that sees your data corrupted (affecting your real-world body), the head of a detective agency conveniently (and completely unrealistically) finding you, and your employment as a cyber detective. This all occurs during the tutorial/ prologue, and is a bit disorienting in the way it unfolds (I’m no detective but isn’t that the opposite of what a tutorial should achieve?). You jump from the digital world in which you’ve briefly been introduced to the standard turn-based RPG Digimon vs. Digimon mechanics that are peppered throughout the game, to the real world (municipalities of Tokyo, still depicted through animation)- a completely new setting! Does it conform to the same rules as the digital world? Where are my companions and all the people I just met? It is very confusing.
As a cyber detective at the agency, you take on cases that begin in the real world (in which you must find certain individuals and gain information from them) and ultimately result in a trek through a dungeon in the digital world (in which you must fight Digimon in turn-based random encounters, culminating in a boss battle that somehow results in the case being solved). At the conclusion of a major case, cue long cut scene, a prompt to save the game, notification that you have reached a new ‘chapter’ in the game, then rinse and repeat.
There is an overarching plot but I don’t want to reveal too much about it, as I thought it was one of the stronger, perhaps strongest, aspects of this game. Elements of the surprisingly mature narrative remind me of Ernest Cline’s ‘Ready Player One’ and John Scalzi’s ‘Lock In’ (with which Cyber Sleuth’s plot shares more than one or two similarities), both of which are quality texts. Uncovering how the multiple interlinking storylines would unfold was the main reason I persevered with this game.
This is perhaps because for each other engaging element of Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth, there is a corresponding flaw- it is a strange dichotomy that complicates my ability to come to a conclusion about the quality of this game. I wavered between thinking this was a poor man’s Pokemon or Yo-Kai Watch, and being engrossed in the surprisingly dark plot.
Of most concern is that for a game with the word ‘sleuth’ in the title, there is little to no depth to the sleuthing element. True, a detective game that involves only simple gameplay mechanics can still be considered excellent e.g. Baggy Cat’s ‘Contradiction: Spot the liar!’ But in the case of Digimon: Cyber sleuth, it feels as though you’re being spoon fed all the answers- go here, click this, troll through a dungeon. In addition to this, there is no real opportunity for exploration or self-directed clue finding.
The real meat and depth of gameplay comes from the Digimon collection and Digimon battles, which are highly reminiscent of the mainstream Pokemon games but with a couple of novel twists. In the dungeons of the digital world, enemy Digimon appear in random encounter battles. During battles, the attack order of all Digimon is displayed and can be manipulated for tactical advantage. In addition to this, each Digimon has unique skills that can be used in-battle and an “elemental” type, which is relevant when considering that the concepts of weakness and resistance apply.
At the beginning of a battle, each enemy Digimon is “scanned” by the player’s DigiScanner. Unlike a Pokedex, a Digiscanner does not collect the information of an encountered enemy, rather it increases a percentage value for a specific Digimon each time that Digimon is encountered. When the percentage reaches 100%, that Digimon can be converted into existence at the DigiLab (Pokemon Centre equivalent) and join your active party or train at the DigiFarm (Pokemon Day Care equivalent). At the DigiLab, the player can also digivolve (evolve) their Digimon, provided that Digimon has reached a certain level and has certain stats. A really cool feature is that one Digimon can digivolve into any number of digivolutions, each with their own pros and cons.
Players can only hold a certain number of Digimon in their party, indicated by the number of “slots” they have available. More powerful Digimon occupy a greater number of “slots,” so there is much to be considered when organising one’s active party… Sometimes. Unfortunately, it is only the boss battles that require any real pre-battle and in-battle thought, and these are few and far between.
With the standard Digimon random encounters so dull and easy, it is up to other features in the digital world to keep the player interested. Unfortunately, the digital landscape is completely uninspired. I stared at the corner mini-map most of the time so that I could speed through each dungeon (they are all fairly linear and predictable). By contrast, the “real world” is rich, authentic, beautifully animated- the in-game locations are based on real places in Tokyo, for example Nakano Broadway, Shinjuku and Shibuya. Obviously the developers would have wanted to clearly differentiate between the digital and real worlds but they were too frugal with the digital dungeon visuals. This is even more of a let down in light of the rich digital world portrayed in the anime.
The characterisation is also an area that is hit and miss. The use of stereotypes to depict professions- notably the hackers, businessmen and the older detectives- is fun and seems tongue-in-cheek. However, the hyper sexualisation of almost every female is inexcusable- most females have a mini skirt, chest pushed outwards and/or a revealing neckline. Unnecessary, and dated. In addition to this, the female protagonist comes across as incredibly ditzy, with facial expressions and movements seemingly ripped straight out of an early ’90s textbook on “stock standard female anime poses.” This, in conjunction with the protagonist’s verbal ability comprising of only ellipsis and other punctuation, made it feel as though I was never really communicating with the other characters in the world, rather that they were all having long-winded internal monologues out loud in my presence.
Thus ends my long-winded monologue about the Digimon sleuthing game that features minimal sleuthing and minimal Digimon. If you thought that reading this article was a bit of a grind and you just wanted to skip to the end to see how it resolved, that aptly describes how I felt while playing Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth. This game has a number of positive aspects (the compelling narrative above all others) and is probably one of the best Digimon games I have ever played, but it is undermined by some poorly designed and executed elements. It feels unpolished, and despite the in-game presence of Digimon, this is not the game to play if you’re looking for a nostalgic Digimon experience.