Of all the cultural phenomena to come out of the 1990s, the “creature-based multimedia franchise” is probably the one that sticks out in people’s minds the most. Pokémon is, of course, the most popular of these, first seeing success with a smash-hit TV series, trading card game and duology of famous Game Boy titles. But while Pokémon saw immediate and repeatable success in the realm of interactive entertainment, its counterpart Digimon — having previously succeeded in the trading card and TV show departments — never quite received the video game treatment it deserves. Fans had to suffer through one critical failure after another during the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 eras, when Digimon World was the franchise’s sole, lackluster Western offering. Fortunately, back in 2012, artist Suzuhito Yasuda gave the Digital World a fresh code of paint in the PSP’s Digimon World Re:Digitize — and with it, the franchise’s first real taste of gaming excellence. That game never saw an official localization, but never fear: Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth is here, bringing Yasuda’s gorgeous interpretation of this new-and-improved franchise to the West for the first time.
Easy, Breezy, Beautiful
A title like Digimon Story is likely to give you the impression that this game offers more of a narrative focus than other takes on the digital monsters — and while that’s sort of true, it’s perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the series. That is to say, this ain’t The Last of Us, and that should be good enough for most players; this is just a lighthearted, breezy little adventure with adorable heroes and over-the-top villains. You play as Tatsumi or Ami, the blank-slate protagonist whose name and gender can be selected at the start of adventure. After meeting up with some internet friends on the virtual-reality network known as EDEN, you’re unexpectedly thrust into a series of mysteries surrounding rebellious hacker groups, a coma-inducing syndrome and — of course — those lovable creatures themselves, the Digimon. Working as a member of the Kuremi Detective Agency, you’ll attempt to uncover the truth about the mysterious Kamishiro Enterprises, as well as the background behind recent occurrences where the digital and physical worlds seem to merge.
As previously mentioned, this is a simple tale, but it’s also an effective one if you’re in the right space for some lively and casual entertainment. The focus is on the characters, who — beyond sporting great designs from the guy behind Durarara!!, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor and Yozakura Quartet — also have pretty darn adorable personalities. Kyoko, who leads the Detective Agency and serves as your de facto guide through much of the adventure, is charming and goofy in those most anime-esque ways (her coffee includes all sorts of “interesting” ingredients), and the antagonists bring just the right level of over-the-top opposition. While the script is usually solid enough to handle these bright people, though, it does take the occasional dip into overly-silly territory. Whether that’s due to problems in translation or just a bad sense of humor depends on the part, but this shouldn’t have much of an effect on all but the pickiest of players.
Speaking of those persnickety players, militant hardcore gamers everywhere be damned: this is a game that welcomes anyone interested in RPGs or Digimon, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth offers simple, accessible mechanics that make it extremely easy to jump right into the action and start playing, counterbalancing that straightforwardness with a truly staggering amount of content to unlock. In fact, a lot of the groundwork for succeeding in combat is done off the battlefield — while fighting mostly consists of the traditional turn-based “choose your move, watch it happen” role-playing basics, the way you treat your ’mon off the battlefield has a huge effect on what kind of moves they learn and how their stats are balanced. For a certain kind of player, the variety in this iteration of Digimon will be an absolute joy: you can feed your digital buddies and assign them passive time-oriented tasks to complete in the DigiFarm; Digivolve and De-digivolve them in and out of different forms using the DigiBank; or even take on some tournament-style challengers in Colosseum mode. None of this is likely to be very challenging for experienced gamers, even if you boost the difficulty up to “Hard” mode, but there’s a ton to do — and that’s more than enough for folks like me.
The only time this philosophy of simplicity comes to bite the game is in its dungeons. Having an easy-to-understand, accessible battle system should make the rest of the game “open up” a little bit, but Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth only goes halfway with this. There are certainly hours of extra content on offer here, but don’t expect to be going anywhere all that interesting while you’re scouring the far corners of the map for the extensive list of collectibles: this Digimon controls where you’re allowed to go and how much you’re allowed to explore for much of the adventure. Even when things start to open up a bit, I have to admit I was sort of underwhelmed by the level design: outside of a few navigational puzzles and the odd out-of-the-way treasure box, the dungeons are largely linear affairs. Considering how much the rest of the game caters to completionists, it feels like a missed opportunity that there’s so little to discover and explore in the game’s main areas. That doesn’t detract from the joy of the hunt, particularly while going after the sublime set of unlockable monsters, but it does leave your time navigating the maps feeling a little empty.
Identity Crisis: Solved
If you think I’ve hammered on about Suzuhito Yasuda a bit too much up until this point, prepare to get even more irritated. I can’t help it: the fact of the matter is that Yasuda’s art brings crucial style and life to Digimon’s game series, which had spent previous years sort of fighting to establish its identity. With brilliant uses of color, a cyberpunk aesthetic and some exceptionally memorable character designs, this iteration seems to be working on the same level as its hyper-popular anime predecessors. The soundtrack works quite well alongside it in that regard, as well; Masafumi Takada, also known for his work on Danganronpa and No More Heroes, brings the intensity of digital drama to his score with some excellent electronic tunes. I only wish as much effort had gone into the user interface, which — aside from some cool touches like the Digivice main menu — looks cheap and tailor-made for the Vita’s small screen. That isn’t so bad if you’re playing the Vita version, of course, but it’s quite off-putting in full HD on PS4.
Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth isn’t a perfect video game interpretation of Bandai Namco’s long-running franchise, but it’s a huge step in the right direction for fans who have been waiting to see the series get on Pokémon’s level. The core gameplay is simple but addictive, making this a perfectly accessible jumping-on point for both casual and hardcore fans of RPGs and Digimon. Artist Suzuhito Yasuda and composer Masafumi Takada grant the game a much-needed memorable audio/visual identity, and the bevy of post-game content means there’s more than enough to keep completionists busy for hours on end. A few core elements could still use some tightening up — the interface and dungeons, for example, just aren’t up to par with comparable modern-day games — but this should give Digimon fans hope that the game series is finally in the right hands.
Review copy of Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation 4. For more information about scoring, check our Review Policy here.