When I was a kid, there were several rivalries that popped up in pop culture. Backstreet Boys versus N’*Sync, the console wars and Pokemon versus Digimon. My opinions tended to be rather unconventional for the time: all boy bands sucked, I preferred handheld consoles anyway and while Pokemon had the superior games, Digimon had the much better show. In short, I liked both Digimon and Pokemon. Like I mentioned in my time with my Giga Pet, I remembered that Digimon originally was a digital pet—not monster catching—franchise, and therefore never thought Digimon was a ripoff, making a rivalry pretty unnecessary. They were two different things whose only commonality was the word ‘mon’ in the title.
But what I said for the time was true, while the Pokemon games were great JRPGs, the Pokemon anime, while fun, was repetitive and formulaic with lower quality animation and a rather flat lead character. Digimon on the other hand, had a much tighter plot, great monster transformation animation and human characters that dared to touch on some very serious and mature subjects that are still very rare in children’s media today. Issues of adoption, divorce, the pressures of living up to parental and societal expectations all on the backdrop of a group of elementary school kids trying to save their and a parallel world. However, most of the video game adaptations based on the franchise...were not great.
The Digimon World and Story games had the cool elements of being able to Digivolve and De-Digivolve your monsters, but the gameplay didn’t really add anything new or important to the franchise, outside of some tangential stuff to the anime, and most didn’t sell all that well stateside. And in the culture wars, Pokemon remains the reigning king of all monster related franchises, while Digimon became the outsider fandom, with recent anime seasons barely being produced let alone localized.
But the tide seems to be turning, or at the very least, Digimon is having a bit of a Renaissance with the 15th and 20th anniversary of the original Digimon Adventure anime having ushered in a new flood of Digimon games, movies and merchandise, among them being Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth. I had heard about the game on Kotaku, and it looked interesting, and the best part is that I heard the game didn’t suck. So I decided I would want to play it if given the chance.
And now I have.
In Digimon Cybersleuth, you play a Japanese teen who, while playing around in a chatroom with online friends, gets invited by the mascot of the social networking site EDEN to go to an area known for being filled with hackers to get a ‘present’. EDEN is basically like OZ from Summer Wars (which was already based off of ‘Our War Game’, the Digimon Adventure OVA included as part of the original Digimon Movie, making it something of Digimon Inception), part Facebook, part virtual reality playground where you can not only meet with friends and play games, but also take care of banking and medical information while in the form of digital avatars. You meet up with your online friends, whose real names are Nokia and Arata and are given the present: an app called Digimon Capture, notorious for only being used by hackers to break into systems, thus making the three of you hackers as well. Things take a sinister turn when shortly after getting the program you get attacked by a mysterious digital entity and find yourself stuck in EDEN a la Sword Art Online, with a strange side effect of having a digital body that allows you to move around in the real world, while your physical body remains unconscious. You meet up with a detective named Kyoko who hires you as her assistant to investigate various incidents, as well as the cause of the mysterious EDEN Syndrome, which seems to be effecting a number of EDEN users.
Where the Digimon come in is with Digimon Capture, you can scan the various Digimon that run around the wilder parts of EDEN and other digital systems and add them to your team, using them to help Kyoko investigate incidents that seem to be caused by computer and electronic anomalies. The combat allows you to pit up to three of your ‘mon against the wild ones, and as they level up you can Digivolve them into stronger and stronger monsters. What prevents you from basically getting a Mega level Digimon to wail on things by chapter 3 is your own level cap and Memory, which prevents you from overleveling. You can take up to 11 Digimon with you, but no more than your Memory allows, and naturally, stronger monsters mean higher Memory points. I wouldn’t say the combat system is too original or unique, with your classic ‘some elements beat other elements’ a la Rock, Paper, Scissors and status effecting moves like Poison and Confuse, but Digimon attributes do force you to pay attention since while fire beats plant, Vaccine also beats Virus.
The gameplay divides between major story missions that move the plot forward, as well as mini cases as Kyoko’s assistant that give you money and improve your Sleuth level. There is also a side quest for collecting Digimon medals, and you have the ability to battle your monsters against the computer or online. The style is similar to Persona, where it takes place in modern day Nakano and Shinjuku and while most of the combat takes place in EDEN, missions in the real world are where you can build up your items, money and Sleuth experience. The characters are a lot of fun too, and Nokia, the female friend, steals the show. Any story mission she’s involved in is immediately that much more interesting because she’s so darn funny and charismatic.
The game also has a funny side effect, while there is a female avatar available, it’s pretty clear that the designers had intended most people to play as a boy and there are large chunks of the game where neither the developers nor the localizers had bothered to change the plot or pronouns. It occasionally gets confusing when the word ‘he’ shows up on the screen when your female character is standing there, but it makes up for it by accidentally making all the female NPCs lesbians. All the women characters will flirt with you and ask if you’ll ever ask them out on a date, and everyone assumes the player character likes women, regardless of the gender you pick. Queer representation in games is always a plus, even if it’s entirely unintentional.
This is more of a personal quibble than a criticism, but note that the game is dubbed in Japanese only, meaning that unless you are fluent in the language you’ll need to rely on the game’s subtitles, as well as miss some of the dialog that’s used in battle. It also offers you a chance to observe different conventions in Japanese voice selection that I found amusing. The most telling example is the voices used for the various Digimon. In English, the Mega level Digimon, especially if they appeared as particularly large or intimidating designs, had deep masculine voices who snarled and growled their dialog. They sounded like badass action heroes. In Japanese, Metalgarurumon sounds like a Shoujo anime boyfriend, and Wargreymon seems to be voiced by a twelve year old Japanese boy, and thus is difficult for me to not break down laughing whenever either of those Digimon have a line of dialog.
Graphically the game is awesome. The Digimon all look amazing with smooth animation (though for the larger Digimon that run behind you in the dungeons, there is some issue with clipping) and the worlds of both Japan and Eden look super detailed and lived in. That being said the two major issues I found were that the world wasn’t big enough, with half the shops not having the option to enter and explore, and the dungeons are generally boring as hell. Very basic rooms with some stairs and platforms, and a curiously low encounter rate for battles. Since fighting Digimon is the only way to encounter new species and copy their data, it can get very dull to grind since there isn’t much to look at as you run back and forth searching for new mon or leveling up your current team.
The selection of mon is also fairly limited, since there are only 249 in the game (including many DLC only critters) and the vast majority are the same ones from the various seasons of the show. All the Digidestined’s Digimon, as well as the various enemies (except Apocalyimon, Mummymon and a couple more) all are represented. If you were itching to have your own Agumon or Lillymon, you’re in luck, but if you were hoping to see more of the designs that are really cool but not often seen, this won’t be the game where you’ll find them. This however is not true of the Switch edition, which not only includes the DLC creatures, but many from Hacker’s Memory as well as a few 20th anniversary bonuses like Zubamon which brings the total up to 341. That’s still only about a quarter of the total amount of Digimon that Bandai have ever created, but it gives you a chance to enjoy some of their more obscure designs in full 3D.
Originally I started playing on the PS4, but ended up moving over to the Switch Complete Edition, which also includes Cyber Sleuth Hacker’s Memory and as stated before all the DLC, including the hard to get Preorder Bonus, the Omnimon Zwart line, which alone was worth the investment (I’ve seen complaints on forums of people scalping the access codes for $60 and up. Yipes.) Graphically the editions are similar, the Switch version is portable, which made it easier for me to play with back flareups, and about the only downside of the Switch version is some minor control issues. Occasionally you have to try multiple times to pick objects up, and traversing some of the digital lines take a few tries.
While not a good enough game to topple Pokemon as the JRPG juggernaut, Cybersleuth is definitely a solid Digimon game and a good turn in the franchise towards fun, competent games. And that success shows as Bandai is starting to import more Digimon games and goods which the West was sorely lacking for a long time.