Developer: Witch Craft Co., Ltd., Hyde, Witchcraft
Publisher: BNE Entertainment, Namco Bandai Games America Inc.
Release Date: July 28, 2022
Price: $59.99 USD
Platform: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
Reviewed on: Xbox One
Ah, Digimon. The monster-collecting franchise that didn’t have Nintendo money backing it up. Having a bit more of a niche following, Digimon was still able to build a successful brand that included toys, multiple animated series, movies, and of course, video games. And whether you knew it or not, it still hangs around as second only to that other series. Its committed fan base savors each release, the latest of which is Digimon Survive. Released this summer after surviving development purgatory, it brings a new take on the Digimon formula. But is it strong enough to carry the brand forward?
A group of students decide to take an extracurricular historical study during Spring Break, going over the legend of the Beast Gods in the local area. Probably not the most popular group at school, but no judgement here. I doubt the baseball team wind up as powerful monster trainers. As usual, this group of children somehow fall into another world, where they are immediately attacked by violent digimon. Luckily enough, they also befriend their own special monsters, who then defend their new best pals. The group then must figure how to survive in this strange new world.
Visually, Digimon Survive keeps a very clean anime style. It’s a modern, realistic take that keeps the human characters grounded and saves any outlandishness for the increasingly inventive digimon. Each human character does have their personal style, but it’s nothing that goes too far into the unbelievable realm that shonen stories are known for. Most of the story is told through scenes with 2D characters over the top of a 3D background, very reminiscent of Danganronpa, although with a little less bizarre or graphic imagery. Outside of combat, much of the game feels like a visual novel or Western adventure game.
During the RPG and combat segments, Digimon Survive takes on a cutesy chibi style, with a lot of the characters looking like they could be on a keychain sold at Hot Topic. It doesn’t quite hit a Super Deformed look, but it’s close. I honestly like this look, because it hits very close to the aesthetic of the original show. The tactics panel during combat hits you with a an info-heavy menu system, complete with stats, affinities, evolutions, equipment, your ‘mon’s favorite food, turn ons, red flags. . . ok, I’m being silly. Point is, there’s a lot of information to take in. When the Pause menu has a Library tab, you know there’s a lot to dig through. But remember: You’re playing as an academic History club!
When it comes to the game’s sound design, I’m a little bit more hesitant. The music is fine, its dramatic tone slots well with the game’s themes of survival and alienation. But something misfires when all the while a mini dinosaur with a cute voice won’t stop blabbing at you. The game does have Japanese audio as an option, which is a nice touch, but I found myself trying to fly through the dialogue. Also, certain sound effects are terrible. They sound like they come from a generic toolkit: grating environmental sounds, fake growls, blunt background noises. Most of which you’ll swear you’ve ever heard from other games. Some of the effects are even so digital and unbalanced that the game threatens to blow out my TV speakers! It’s almost like they took sounds from the original PS1 games, spiked their levels, and just threw them in. It’s a step back from how well everything else is presented.
We now come to probably the most divisive part, the actual game mechanics. On one hand, you have the visual novel section, where everything is told through dialogue-heavy cut-scenes. I hope your bottom face button is comfy, because you will be pressing it. A lot. These parts of the game also feature the “Explore” moments, where you go from place to place, learning information, finding items, getting story beats, things like that. As mentioned, Danganronpa fans will know the vibe. These miminally-animated scenes have you trying to find clues in the background. Except in Digimon Survive, the shoulder bumpers let you cycle through whatever elements you can click on, taking away a lot of the mystery, since you can simply go through the process of elimination rather than have to closely interact with the scene. If you’re not a fan of this style of game, but otherwise love Digimon, you may find it difficult to grasp this game.
On the other hand, you have a fairly satisfying tactical RPG. Think of it as a simplified tabletop war game with your favorite Digimon characters trying to remove each other from play. When choosing your actions, there are actually a lot of different elements going on. Things start with the basics like elemental strengths and weaknesses. However the game quickly adds tactical considerations for vertical movement and multi-character team-attack opportunities. Of course, the series’ signature mechanic, Digivolution, is here as well. Focused and smart gameplay with your digimon will see them able to evolve into a stronger, and quite frankly, way cooler form. (And, yes, I did mutter to myself “Agumon digivolved to. . .” every time I earned it). Honestly, this game system holds up. It expects you to keep planning with an eye on Digivolution and terrain control while providing a nice dose of nostalgia. Seeing these classic characters in battle is a tough mixture of challenging and endearing. As long as you find it worth getting through the VA portions.
One element truly drags the game down, regardless of how you feel about visual novels. See, not only do you have access to your core digimon, essentially the ones who are important to the story and characters in their own right, there are also “Free Digimon”. These monsters basically serve as soldiers you can use whenever you want. They act as the game’s true collecting and personalization element. However, each Free Digimon type has different forms they can digivolve into. So to unlock all of the different forms, you need multiples of each monster. However to recruit them, you have to curry their favor, a la Persona 5. None of this is terribly different from your average monster-collecting game. The difference — and what drags collecting down — is the fact that Digimon Survive offers absolutely no clues on how to approach the monsters you want. When you consider that collecting monsters is the very heart of this genre, leaving the player alone to figure out even the basics of this feature, it feels like the game is just. . . incomplete! Trying to win over any of the digimon, much less your favorites, turns into a wasted guessing game. One such random conversation with a monster I was trying to coax into my party went something like this:
Digimon: “Wow, I love pizza!”
My character: “Hey, me too!”
Digimon: “What kind of loser likes pizza???”
With the visual novel segments divisive by nature, the tactical RPG combat robust but confounding, and the collecting element broken by default, it is hard to predict how you will feel about Digimon Survive.
With all that said, Digimon Survive offers a hefty chunk of story, a New Game + option, and four possible endings. So there’s plenty of timesink available. The major drawbacks seem to be an imbalance between the VA and RPG elements. In the early chapters, it really feels like there’s only a few battles per chapter, and I’m being generous. The rest of the time is jamming the A button to get through dialogue of varying quality. Load times plague this game between each conversation, chapter, battle sequence and fast travel. You will even see a load screen when traveling between points in the same portion of the map! Pair that with the obtuse collecting and recruiting routine, and you have a game that challenges you to love it.
Overall, Digimon Survive is a bit of a misfire, especially for American audiences gained by the classic cartoon. With an alienating genre and a darker tone that strays from the series’ formula, it will leave most fans wanting more of an adventure and less of a TED Talk. It always seemed like Digimon had a positive outlook and worked toward a happy ending. The game’s attitude and themes were just not the romp I was looking for. Heck, there isn’t even a mention of anything “digital” or even critiques of a cyber lifestyle. Truly strange for a series whose setting began inside the internet. It feels like a major mismatch in brand and attitude. The tactics RPG carries its weight, offering an inviting, yet deep and rewarding experience for hardcore Digimon fans. However, the further down those genre rabbit holes it goes, the less the target market is going to follow.
Featured Image: Bandai Namco Entertainment America