We are almost two months through 2016 and as subjective as saying this is, Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth could be one of the biggest surprises of the year. With ten months left in 2016, that opinion more than likely will change, but I can’t understate how much my expectations were shattered in a good way. Expectations were high following the Japanese release, but it is hard to gauge if that is genuine given the stigma that anime games have. This assumption is slightly changing with Dragon Ball Xenoverse and J-Stars Victory VS + being good games that came out last year and the ever popular Gundam Extreme VS series in Japan trying to change the perception on anime games. Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth is yet another step for the quality of these games increasing.
One reason why I was still quite weary going into this game was the fact that my history with Digimon games is not great. Back in 1999/2000 when Digimon was the hot competing brand to Pokémon, I was very excited for the first Digimon game that was coming stateside, Digimon World. Now, for the younger readers, back in 2000 getting information for a game’s release was very hard if it was not what would be considered a triple-A game today. Constantly I was checking playstation.com for release information on Digimon World as it was the only place that gave a release date for the game. Most of the time, the supposed release date would come and pass without the game’s release, which meant that I unknowingly annoyed some electronics employee at a store who had no clue what I was talking about. By the time I was able to get my hands on the game, I was overjoyed. That elation was short lived when I actually played the game and it was nothing that I was anticipating. Maybe I was just not old enough to fully understand the game and genre that I had no experience with. Regardless, that tainted my experience with Digimon games for years. Fast forward sixteen years and my mindset has been changed.
Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth feels like developer Media.Vision Entertainment looked at recent Shin Megami Tensei and mainline Persona games as an inspiration. The way the combat feels and how capturing and raising Digimon ends up is something that reminded me largely of the Atlus games. The combat is rather simple consisting of general physical attacks and special attacks that your Digimon have. It also is largely based on the rock paper scissors mechanic of determining strengths and weaknesses between the different Digimon. So, if the Digimon you are fighting mostly uses fire attacks and the player has a Digimon that uses water attacks, you would be able to deal extra damage due to the weakness. Gathering new Digimon is also very easy as every time you encounter a Digimon, part of its data is captured and eventually, if the player sees that Digimon enough times, they can upload them to one of their farms to raise them for battle.
The farm mechanics where you raise and level Digimon while you are off taking on quests and battling was an aspect of the game I was sure I was going to hate. In actuality, it is implemented very well by being easy to understand and use. There is not much the player has to do besides check in every now and then to see how far they’ve leveled and if the Digimon is at its max level and ready to Digivolve. At times, you will have to feed your Digimon to increase certain stats for it to Digivolve into the Digimon you want. It can prove frustrating if it is a stat that you don’t have food for and is hard to come by. The farms are necessary to get you higher level and Digivolved Digimon especially for late game battles as you will want to have as many Digimon in your party as possible.
With Cyber Sleuth in the title, you would expect that the majority of the game is the player going and solving cybercrimes. This is sort of true, as the main overarching story has you figuring out a mystery that has caused a rift between the real world, a VR-esque world, and the digital world. There are numerous side quests that you will be given where you have to help a person or Digimon with a problem, but none of these feel as if you are indeed doing any sort of detective work. Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth is not a game like Ace Attorney where you go around and pick up clues to solve mysteries, but is more akin to how Persona 4 handled its mystery storyline. The lack of being an actual cyber sleuth is disappointing, but the side quests are often quite charming and fun to see as they flesh out different minor characters as well as the main cast.
The story of Digimon Story does have significant portions that do seem to lull. These seem to take place right in between the beginning to middle sections and middle to end sections. While this is unfortunately no surprise with the game going 20+ chapters, it is slightly disappointing, but the strong story beats of the game make up for this. At its strongest, Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth has some excellent character progression, fun twists and turns, and the ability to punch one of your character’s friends who arrogantly believes he can save the world by himself with evil tactics. Seriously, it’s an incredibly rewarding moment. Some of the other characters will even comment on how silent of a protagonist you are which is very Meta, but also a good touch. While there are very standard anime tropes scattered throughout, I certainly found myself enjoying my time with the story even with its dips in quality.
Depending on which version of the game you play, the graphics can be decent or bad. Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth was originally a PlayStation Vita game when it was released in Japan in 2015. After it was localized, a PlayStation 4 version was made as well. The PS4 version really shows that is an up-ressed Vita game as a lot of textures are overblown and blurry and the graphics themselves look like a PS3 game. It is nothing that will push the PS4 to its limits. Character design will look familiar to some as it is done by Suzuhito Yasuda who was the character designer for Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 1 and 2 as well as the original light novels of Durarara!!. The main characters almost looked as if they could easily be fitted into either of the Devil Survivor games, but also fit the aesthetic of the game well. There is some fan service looking female characters unfortunately, but nothing too egregious.
The soundtrack is very enjoyable if you are at all familiar with Danganronpa, Killer7, or No More Heroes as it is done by Masafumi Takada. As someone who is a big fan of the Danganronpa soundtracks, I was first a bit surprised and thought the composer was just ripping those games off. While the music fits the game like the art style, there are times where it feels as if some of the tracks are just B-sides from the previous three Danganronpa games. The style of these songs are certainly unique, but considering how close some of these songs sound to the Danganronpa games, it could be considered lazy composing for having such similar sounding songs.
Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth continues what could be seen as a renaissance of anime based or licensed games that have gone from terrible to good. It is certainly the right direction the Digimon franchise needed with its games and one that will be accessible to more players compared to previous games. Whether or not Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth is considered one of the better surprises of the year or one of the better games of the year remains to be seen, but for now, it is a game that you shouldn’t sleep on. If you are in the mood for a simpler Japanese RPG with a sense of monster catching and raising, Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth is certainly a game that should be checked out and played. Perhaps it will surprise you as much it surprised me.