There are times when series decide to take a very different approach than usual. As gamers, we have seen it take place in many different ways, from Saints Row’s turn to a more wacky tone or the next Street Fighters' shift to an open world. This concept can work, and sometimes it doesn’t. However, the latest Digimon game might have taken the biggest tonal shift we have seen in a long time.
Digimon Survive takes the main concept of the series, children being transported into a world of strange creatures, but changes certain aspects to create a more mature story. Hyde took a look at the prior games and series and asked what would happen if these were slightly more realistic. They wanted to focus on the idea of how these incredibly powerful creatures would interact with human children and the danger of this world in general. Hyde also wanted to make the game more approachable by new fans and has changed certain elements of the lore to make it fit in this new story without distancing itself too much. However, it is still much darker than other games in this series, but maybe not much darker than other elements.
If you have ever seen the Digimon cartoon then the basis of the plot should be recognisable. First, you take several children living a normal life and then you transport them into the digital world, or at least whatever it is currently called. These children then spend their time connecting with their partners and trying to find their way home. Players take the role of Takuma Momozuka as he and his friends are dropped into the digital world. However, not everything in this world is as it seems and there are plenty of twists that keep things interesting. While the plot feels familiar, it never feels stale even when the nostalgia passes.
Now I should be honest and say that the idea of Digimon not having dark tones isn’t entirely correct. The television series tackled many difficult themes such as depression and death. However, the show was far vaguer about these things and covered them with certain concepts, for instance, the Dark Ocean being a metaphor for depression. Digimon Survive places everything front of stage and truly forces the player to see what is happening. This is especially apparent with the violence to the human children, something never really seen in the other entries into the series.
The danger of these kinds of changes is that they can feel forced or like it has just been added for the sake of being there. However, Digimon Survive manages to avoid this due to clever writing and characters. Some characters slowly break down in front of your very eyes while others let their own self-loathing turn them into monsters. Everything that happens to the characters happens for a reason, it all builds so that the events that occur feel earned. All of this is controlled by your choices and actions, and it is all heavily engrossing. When you fail to connect with a character and that leads to a grim fate you feel personally responsible for the act.
The gameplay for Digimon Survive is split into two very different sections. The first is the visual novel segments. These sections are divided into Narrative, exploration and free time. The basic premise is that the free time sections are based on building relationships and finding new items to use in battle. Exploration is attached to the narrative sections and is usually a mix of finding out plot points and talking to characters. Finally, the narrative section speaks for itself, but it is often focused on choosing the right options while talking to characters.
The actual mechanics for these sections are pretty simple, mainly talking to characters and using your phone to find secrets. They all work well together, but there isn’t much of interest here from a gameplay standpoint. However, special mention should be made regarding the voice acting. The game is mainly subtitled, with the few sections with voice acting being primarily Japanese. The writing is great, although the choices that impact the characters can be hard to figure out and don’t always follow the same themes.
Combat is based on a grid system similar to the Fire Emblem games, or at least what it used to be. Players have a selection of Digimon, which they can move and fight with. Each of the Digimon has a special attack and a normal attack, as well as different attachments that can change their skills and moves. The number of tactics varies depending on the difficulty, but for the most part, there is enough here to keep engaged. Finally, we have to mention the digivolution, which is slightly different than in other games. This game treats it more like a transformation that slowly drains stamina. All the pieces fit together well and the combination of the choices made in the visual novel section has a noticeable effect on the gameplay in the battles. However, the lack of move variety means that battles can become repetitive over time, especially when grinding.
However, no game is perfect and there are issues with Digimon Survive, namely due to limitations of the visual novel design. As I mentioned previously there is an issue about trying to accurately gauge characters' reactions. Now, obviously, this is more realistic but it can be annoying when trying to max their affinity in a short time period. The game also has some issues explaining certain things. These two points are combined as, to gain higher evolution levels for your friends Digimon, players need to raise their affinity past a certain point and it is very easy to get these wrong.
This is also an issue in battle, and it’s one that fans of JRPGs will have seen before. Do you remember Persona 5? Remember how you had to do that weird chat minigame to bring new personas and how irritating it was? Well, Digimon Survive does the same thing and it sucks just as much here. It’s not like this concept of talking new Digimon round to your side is a bad one, but the actual task is basically remembering responses to strange questions. If it isn’t difficult, it is certainly repetitive. This repetition is also apparent when trying to level your Digimon. There are free battles, but they all take the place on the same map and, if one of your Digimon is a high level, the enemies just run away from you. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but movement point-based grid systems DO NOT MAKE FOR FUN CHASE SEQUENCES.
You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the visuals, that’s because there isn’t much to discuss. The sprites in battle and the drawn characters in the novel sections all do what they need to do, but they don’t really stand out. This is compounded by the lack of any real animation in the visual novel sections. However, while the visuals are uninteresting, the same can’t be said for the music. Trust me, and I do not say this lightly, the music is amazing. The main theme alone is one of the best in any Digimon game.
Digimon Survive tries to take what is essentially a children’s series and make it much darker. Digimon was certainly perfect for this, but this change is also refreshing. Outside of the tonal shifts, there is plenty to like here even if one is not a fan of tactical games. Digimon Survive might take a while to get going, and it can get repetitive, but there is plenty here to love and the developer's love for the series is obvious enough to be enjoyable. Although the fact that there is no “I’m going digital” rock song is a MAJOR OMISSION AND SHOULD BE RECTIFIED POST HASTE!
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