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20th Nov 2019 | 128 views
Game: Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth
Genre: Turn Based JRPG.
The "Catch’em All" genre of JRPGs has seen its ups and downs through the decades. Though catching an assortment of creatures to fight with arguably existed back in the 80s with examples such as the original Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei for the Famicom, it wouldn’t be until 1996 when the first Pokémon games would revolutionize the whole gaming scene, becoming a worldwide phenomenon and setting the template of what a game like that would have to be (with its slogan becoming pretty much the namer for the whole subgenre). After that, a lot of franchises appeared during the 90s and the 2000s, trying to find their own piece of the pie: Digimon, Monster Rancher, Robopon, Dragon Quest Monsters, Telefang, Medabots… None of them really reaching anything near the heights of Game Freak’s flagship series. After that, the genre quietly dwindled in popularity, with Pokémon being the only one that kept its popularity intact. That doesn’t mean the genre disappeared, but it became more niche, with series as SMT Persona slowly carving a dedicated fan base, but otherwise most series saw moderate to low numbers. That changed quite drastically around the 2010s, when a sudden wind invigorated the genre: Pokémon took advantage of the DS’ popularity and started recovering the momentum that had lost during the GBA days, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 released to general praise as one of the best JRPG ever made, and then surpass itself with Persona 5 in 2017 glowing reviews and record sales for its publisher. The original Youkai Watch released in Japan in 2013, becoming a phenomenon in Japan unseen since the original Pokémon craze, and briefly threatening to dethrone it as the best-selling JRPG series in its homeland during the 3DS days. Many old series have tried to get new coats of paint to get with the times, such as Digimon World Re:Digitize in 2012, Medabot 9 in 2015, and the game we’re reviewing here, Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth.
The original Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth released in 2015 for the PS Vita as part of the Digimon Story series, and quickly saw a port to the PS4 and later Switch and PC in the following years. It was developed by Media.Vision and published by Bandai Namco. Before I start this review, a couple of things. First, I’m going to review the Switch version, since that’s the one I’ve played. I know that one includes two games, but I haven’t played Hacker’s Memory yet, so I’m not including it in the review, and thus no comparisons to that title will be done here. Second, there’s no way to make this review without comparing it to Pokémon. While it may seem unfair to judge a game in comparison to its much larger competitor, we have to admit that the Pokémon series has set the standard for this kinds of games since the 90s, and as such, we need to take into account what makes Cyber Sleuth stand out for itself (and also because I’m much more familiar with the Pokémon series than the Digimon one). And third, there is no way to escape from the elephant in the room that is Pokémon Sword and Shield. Pokémon Sword and Shield have recently released at the time of writing this review, and have become quite controversial due to a series of design choices that have heavily split its community. Suffice to say, many have used Cyber Sleuth to defend or to criticize the games, and such, it is going to be impossible not mentioning this controversy here. While I am going to try to analyze Cyber Sleuth on its own, comparisons to Sword and Shield are going to be unavoidable, for better or worse.
Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth follows the story of the unnamed main protagonist, a teenager in a world where digital technology has advance leaps and bounds. In particular, a big company has created a new form of cyberspace, called EDEN, which merges physical and digital interactions through the net. The player character and his/her group of friends are called by a mysterious hacker to get a present. Which turns out as bad as anyone would expect, being attacked by a digital creature (but not a digimon?) and your character ends up being damaged, turning half digital. He is then rescued by a detective, who will try to help him in return of using his new digital powers for her detective agency. Thus starts the story of Cyber Sleuth, and oh my, it was refreshing. It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a game plot as much as this one. It offers a complete and well written narrative with twists and turns, and it never speaks down to its audience, it’s confident enough in the player’s capabilities to follow what’s going on at all times (and if you get lost, you can always ask a totally optional character for directions). The characters are really interesting, both human and digimon, and the conflict is not just a fight between good and evil, it’s a surprisingly grey situation that makes all of the characters question whether what they are doing is right or wrong. The game also manages to blend enough humor and drama to spice things up along the way, both in the main story and in the side quests. And if you want to explore the world more, the game offers you plenty of side stories through the case system: as a detective you’ll be able to take cases that range from just finding someone’s lost stuff to deep plots of intrigue and mystery to just stories that have the digimon goofing around the world. The interactions between humans and digimon are the star of the show, in particular when we see regular people deal with them, not just digimon tamers. The fact that abandons the blue ocean approach in favor of taking risks has certainly paid off, making the story the strongest part of the game. I was expecting a somewhat excuse plot to basically function as a tutorial for the multiplayer, and what I find is the best game story I’ve played this year.
But enough about the story, how’s the gameplay? It’s sadly not as strong as the story, but it’s not by any means bad. You fight in turn-based matches of 3vs3 digimon, each one taking turns to do their stuff. The player can choose to do a basic attack, a special move, guarding against enemy damage, or use an item. It feels somewhat generic, and it will certainly feel familiar to anyone who’s played a Turn Based JRPG at any point, but it still gets the job done. The player can have eleven digimon in his party, which is particularly good the further he goes into the game, considering how strong some digimon can be, and how many variants the type system can offer. Digimon can have one type and one attribute, combining multiple rock-paper-scissors systems at the same time, which already spices up the typical strength-weakness systems most JRPGs use. Digimon also have two abilities, one with individual effect and one with collective effect, and some of this are quite broken, like Rosemon’s ability to heal everyone each time one of your party’s digimon does anything, or PlatinumNumemon’s experience multiplier (have three PlatinumNumemon in your active team and you will level up your whole team in a fraction of the time). Each digimon has up to six special moves (and can learn up to twenty attacks, but can only use six in battle), with the option of one or two exclusive move that no one else can have. Said moves have a special animation for each digimon, which adds to the uniqueness to each particular digimon. I absolutely love this ones, they add a lot to both the presentation of the creatures and to the overall strategy. That said, there aren’t that many regular attacks in the game. Most of the time your digimon will have a relatively similar move set, and thus combat focuses more on which digimon you have, rather than what moves they have. It is certainly a limitation in strategy, but it does make people try different digimon to see their potential in battle, even using digimon in different stages in evolution rather than just the megas (Angewomon’s ability to debuff all enemy buffs is crucial to deal with some boss battles that just start with two or three consecutive turns of increasing their power to sweep your party). There’s also a combo system that boosts the effect of your moves, but I feel like is somewhat random and not that effective in combat. It’s better to rely on your regular combat rather than in practically random combo boosts.
And, of course, we come to the “catch’em all” element. And this is where Cyber Sleuth differs the most from the likes of Pokémon. See, instead of capturing digimon in the wild areas to add to your team, you instead need to see one enough times in the wild. Each time you see a digimon, you analyze its data, and once it’s fully analyzed, you can just create the digimon from the DigiLab. In theory, this enables you to get stronger digimon without the need to go through the digi-evolution/devolution process, but if you need multiple identical digimon, you need to search for them all over again once you used their data. You digi-evolve your digimon from the DigiLab, each digimon having a branched path of possible evolutions and devolutions depending on their evolution stage. This choice is so large and so interconnected that I’m pretty sure you could fill this game’s equivalent of a pokedex with just a single digimon, DNA-evolutions notwithstanding (because you need multiple digimon to achieve, which sucks because it functions like sacrificing one digimon for the sake of another, and can’t be recovered if you decide to devolve it later). Reaching a specific evolution will require you certain condition, like level, stats, friendship… In particular CAM and ABI are the hardest to get. Cam is achieved by using the digimon in battle, which is easier said than done, considering you’re going to be evolving and devolving your digimon constantly, thus resetting its level to 1 each time, and putting it into a considerable disadvantage. The whole party gets experience even if it doesn’t fight, so leveling up is not a problem, but having to use the digimon to reach the CAM needed can be tiresome. There’s also the problem of getting the ABI stat, which is achieved by digi-evolving and digi-devolving your digimon over and over again, which is a long and very repetitive process if certain digimon need ABI levels of 100. Seriously, ABI needed to be obtained much faster than it is, though you can always reach maximum level with a digimon and then evolve it to boost the ABI, but again, long and repetitive process. You will learn to love those PlatinumNumemon and the Tactical Drives, trust me, they cut a lot of time to this process. Not to mention getting those Armor-Evolutions, DNA-Evolutions. It’s a time consuming process, which is better left for the later stages of the game, when you have access to many high level wild areas. This system will probably turn many people off, especially those who just want to get their favorites and be done with it, but in the end I don’t find it that aggravating, with the exception of the CAM and the ABI stats, fuck those. There’s also a farm option to keep and level up your unused digimon, which expands to something akin to Pokémon Sun/Moon’s PokeResort (or is it the other way around? Sun/Moon came out a year later than Cyber Sleuth after all…). Your digimon can level up, increase their cam, improve their stats, look for items, and even search for detective missions. The farm is quite useful, but most items used on it are prohibitively expensive during most of the game, and the best ones are locked up after beating the game: the miracle meat that increases 10 ABI and 10 CAM for 10 million yen, a ridiculous sum even in the postgame.
And then there’s the roster, and here’s when we’re going to have to compare it to Pokémon Sword and Shield the most. Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth has 249 digimon plus 92 from Hacker’s Memory if you get the Complete Edition, so a maximum total of 341 digimon. And from what I’ve read, there are more than 1,300 in existence (or at least according to wikimon.net), meaning there are less than 30% of the total digimon in existence in the game. And, well, this is a parallel with Sword and Shield having jettisoned around 50% of the total Pokémon roster at this point in time. I’ve been pretty vocal against Game Freak for this choice, and in terms of sheer numbers, Cyber Sleuth seems to be an even more egregious case. But there are several major differences between this two decisions, and I’m really conflicted about this. The thing is, I am absolutely devastated by the cut in Sword and Shield, yet I’m just frustrated by the lack of digimon in Cyber Sleuth, and I’m not sure if I should apply the same hard stance to both games, because there are major differences in the reason behind this. First off, I can’t recall a single digimon game with all of the digimon in it, so this wouldn’t be a cut as much as a continuation that trend, but this can also be interpreted as an excuse rather than a justification, not doing it before doesn’t excuse them to do it now. There’s also the difference between resources and sales: Pokémon is the biggest franchise in the world, where as Digimon, while big, has always struggled in the sales department, at least in games. According to VGChartz, only one digimon game has reached the million units sold, the original Digimon World for the PS. In contrast, there’s hardly a Pokémon game that doesn’t reach the million, with the main series frequently beating the 10m mark. So when the argument of resources comes up, I will understand Cyber Sleuth’s case better than Sword and Shield, though, again, this is more an excuse than a justification. And then there’s the matter of presentation taking precedent over monster count. Both games have taken a clear priority towards presentation instead of monster count: Cyber Sleuth has more complex character models and animations for humans and digimon, singular moves for most digimon and an art style much more detailed. Sword and Shield have many more Pokémon, moves, and a much bigger world to explore. Which one has the bigger excuse, if anyone, is up to personal opinion, though I do believe the sacrifices Cyber Sleuth made paid off much more than those from Sword and Shield. This by no means excuses the developers from the lack of so many digimon, but if they continue to add more and more digimon with each installment (which they did with Hacker’s Memory and the Complete Collection), I’m more inclined to support their future efforts, whereas Game Freak is steadily peeling off aspects of their games people love. Maybe it’s not fair to compare this two titles when they come from contexts so different, but I believe ignoring the elephant in the room would solve nothing here.
All of this aside, we have Cyber Sleuth’s presentation. And, for a game of this scale, it is gorgeous. The animesque stile uses smart designs, differentiating quite well the digital world from the real world. The game takes place in Tokyo, and we see some of the most iconic areas from there. With that said, the world is quite small, similar in size with something akin to Persona 4 and other similar JRPGs, with small, corridor-like areas connected to each other and to the dungeons where the fights occur. Music is also a great fit to the game, but you’ll end up sick of the regular battle theme, considering it pops up on every combat, unless fighting a particularly important boss. There’s also customization options for you and your digimon, which is adorable.
There is also the online multiplayer, which I have not gotten very deep into. I guess it is fine, but again, I don’t have that much play time on it. Though I have a rather serious nitpick with it, and that’s the fact you have to agree to a pretty long EULA to access to the online features, agreeing to things such as data compilation. Why do you need data from my Switch? What are you looking for? This things creep me out, and I disabled the agreement as soon as I could.
There’s also the option of New Game+, which carries over pretty much everything important (level, digimon, items, money, party memory…) and is pretty much there to play all over again, though I’m not sure if I would do that, considering there is a totally new game included to play. And, to be fair, the game already has a Hard setting, so you can just play that from the beginning if you want more challenge.
Overall, I’m quite happy with Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth. This is a game that I had very high expectations for, and it exceeded them with high praise. It is an absolute blast for every fan of the “catch’em all” genre, and even for just all JRPG fans. Bandai Namco have a big winner in their hands, and I hope they keep working from this to improve the series and get the Digimon series to new heights.