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Disclosure: The author was provided with a copy of the game by the publisher for the purpose of this review
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (review platform), PlayStation Vita
Ever considered a part time job? I’m sure the first thing to come to mind would be working the counter at a fast food restaurant or a coffee shop. Let’s go a bit more out-there with this though. But what if I told you that you could solve online mysteries, track down cyber-criminals, and fight monsters in virtual reality for a living? That’s exactly what you’ll be doing in Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth.
In Cyber Sleuth, you take on the role of a teenaged boy or girl who receives chat messages from a stranger online that tells them to meet up with other chat participants in a virtual reality social network called EDEN. The cyberspace of the future has avatars exploring immersive environments and interacting with other users as if they were in the same room in real life. This fantastic technology is not without its risks, however; users in the past have suffered technical errors separating their minds from their body, rendering them comatose. Your hero falls victim to a similar phenomenon when an encounter with a bizarre otherworldly creature causes their consciousness to be stuck in a half-digital, half-physical avatar.
Because of their special condition, the protagonist can now travel between cyberspace and the real world by turning into data and connecting themselves into digital networks. Soon after acquiring this power, they’re approached by strange lady detective Kyoko Kuremi. She agrees to accommodate the teen and help them return to normal, but only if they work as her apprentice to solve cyber-crimes and other mysteries at the Kuremi Detective Agency. There are a lot of layers to uncover in this case: A conspiracy at the company running EDEN; reports of a ghost haunting the social network; and the cyberspaces being overrun by rogue hackers and ever-growing numbers of Digimon.
Yes, Digimon – remember those? The Digital Monsters were once a popular rival to Pokemon in the West, but in recent years, they’ve fallen by the wayside, with few of their games making it out of Japan for several years. Now, however, the Digimon Fusion TV series is airing for kids, while the Digimon Adventure Tri movies are being released for nostalgic fans of the millenial anime franchise. After much fan demand (and the disappointment of lackluster fighting game All Star Rumble), Bandai Namco have at last brought a Digimon game from Japan to the West again. Sure there have been plenty of games in the franchise at this point, but Cyber Sleuth is perhaps the most standout game to carry the brand name. While most Digimon media is targeted at children, it still has a passionate fanbase that has grown older, and Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth was made with that older fanbase in mind. Its engaging mystery story – with plotlines covering grief, suicide, and human trafficking – along with its satisfying combat and monster-raising mechanics, this is an excellent RPG journey that’ll grip hardcore Digimon fans and franchise newcomers alike.
There are around 250 Digimon to encounter in Cyber Sleuth, and you can acquire any of them to help you out. (Expect this review to have non-stop instances of “Digi” and “mon” from here on out) This sizeable roster includes a great deal of fan favorites like Greymon, Angemon, Veemon, Guilmon, Renamon, Myotismon, Omnimon, and Beelzemon, just to name a few iconic inclusions that are sure to please fans. The Digimon act as your battle party, as well as bosses and random encounters during your adventure. Early on, Kyoko connects you to the DigiLab; a facility that lets you evolve (Digivolve) your Digimon, and hatch new monsters for you to command. Unlike Pokemon’s capture system, or Shin Megami Tensei‘s Negotiation, acquiring new Digimon is as simple as encountering the monster multiple times to receive its Scan Data. For example, if you fight a Leomon, you’ll get a bit of Leomon Scan Data – usually 20% or so. Encounter more Leomon, and eventually your Scan Data will pass 100% (up to 200%). Get at least 100% Scan Data for a specific Digimon, and you can create your own copy of the monster in the DigiLab to add to your team. It’s a neat system that rewards you when the random encounters happen; so even if you just want to flee annoying fights, you’ll still get a little something out of it.
The player’s party can actually hold up to 11 Digimon at once, and despite only 3 being on the battlefield at any given time, they’ll all gain experience at the end of each battle they survive. Leveling up is fast and satisfying in Cyber Sleuth, which is why Digivolution is very important. You can use the lab to see the requirements each of your Digimon has to be able to Digivolve. These are usually leveling them up to a certain number, but can also include raising their typical role-playing game stats such as Attack and Defense, as well as owning key items and completing certain missions to unlock special evolutions. Unlike the anime, each Digimon isn’t restricted to a limited evolutionary line. Whereas most fans will understand a Guilmon traditionally digivolves into a Growlmon, then a WarGrowlmon; Cyber Sleuth will let you evolve him into a Tyrannomon, or GeoGreymon; and eventually end up as anything from the traditional Gallantmon, to RustTyrannomon, Machinedramon, MetalSeadramon, or even WarGreymon. It’s tough to keep track of, but it certainly makes for an interesting element to developing your monsters, especially as you won’t know what you’re evolving them into, unless you’ve encountered that Digimon in battle before.
You can also De-Digivolve your Digimon. Why would you want to do that aside from changing your mind once you get one of the literal poo monsters? Level caps are a bit strange in this game. Each Digimon has a seemingly random-set level cap. Anytime you Digivolve, or De-Digivolve, they’ll return to Level 1, but carry over some stats, and skills, and their level cap and Ability stat will be higher. Since some Digivolutions require the Digimon to be at a certain high level, or have a high Ability stat, you won’t be able to get some of the best Digimon if you don’t play around with Digivolving and De-Digivolving your party members. Luckily, you can also (slowly) raise your Digimon’s levels by storing them in your DigiFarms while you’re out adventuring. There’s a lot of depth in developing your RPG characters, and I haven’t been addicted to it in this way for quite some time.
As for battling itself, you’ll feel right at home if you enjoyed the turn-based combat of Final Fantasy X. You have 3 Digimon on the field, and each character’s turn to move is decided based on their speed stat, as well as the cooldown from the last action they took. Like FFX, this is all handily displayed in a chart on the right hand side of the screen. A radial menu offers you your options in a fast and intuitive way, meaning you can just hold a direction and press X to select something, instead of scrolling through a bunch of menus. Aside from Digimon that have grown to higher evolution stages obviously being stronger, there’s an elemental weakness and strength system for attacks and characters, which is also combined with a rock-paper-scissors type system. While using a Wind attack on an Earth type Digimon will be effective, and see a 1.5x boost in attack strength; a Virus type Digimon attacking a Vaccine type Digimon will be weakened and the hit will only do half the damage it should have. Conversely, a Virus type attacking a Data type will inflict double the damage, while Data types have an advantage over Vaccine types. There are also Free type Digimon which aren’t affected by any of this, though they can still have Elemental advantages and disadvantages if their affinity isn’t Neutral.
The enemy Digimon could have all the type advantages conceivable, but sometimes a good strong special attack is all it takes to tip the scales. As a fan, I was very happy to see my Digimon each coming with their own signature move, accurately recreated from how the anime showed them. MagnaAngemon summons the golden Heaven’s Gate; Terriermon spins his Terrier Tornado; Taomon paints the Talisman of Light; and Omnimon slashes with Transcendent Sword just as fans will fondly remember. They’re powerful moves, though keep in mind, they can’t be used if the Digimon is evolved into something else. That’s what their other skills are for, though they’re much less exciting – with generic magic attack animations, and indistinct or confusing names like the paralyzing Ripping Net, or the fiery blast of Wolkenapalm II, which is stronger than Wolkenapalm I, but weaker than Wolkenapalm III. Yeah, it’s a similar problem to somebody new to the Persona series trying to remember what the hell Megidola, Masukunda or Tentarafoo are supposed to do. The game’s user-interface is helpful enough though, and when you’re targeting an enemy with a spell, it’ll change colours to let you know if your attack will be weak or strong against the foe.
What about the Cyber Sleuth part of the title, then? As I mentioned earlier, your character is now an apprentice detective, and will take on new cases at Kyoko’s detective agency. When you’re not busy with main story missions, you can find cases to do on the side posted on a board in Kyoko’s office. The side missions are varied enough, though most will involve fixing some problem in the physical world by jumping into a Digital Network and fighting the mischievous Digimon who’s causing the issue. These are set up in some fun and interesting ways, such as a wiki being hijacked by Tentomon, or a music shop being inundated with the singing Etemon’s terrible CDs. Each side quest of this variety lasts around 5-20 minutes, and sets up a short, but entertaining story about the characters involved. There are also multiple cases involving a high school occult club and rogue hackers in EDEN, so there’s plenty of meat to experience besides the main story. However, some sidequests are required to continue along the main path.
Speaking of which – the main story is a blast, though it experiences some pacing issues in the first half. You’ll be sleuthing on EDEN-owners Kamishiro; uncovering the secrets of the strange and violent monsters called Eaters; and waging war on rogue hackers while solving cases with the main cast. Aside from detective Kyoko, there’s the hyperactive teenage girl Nokia; edgy computer expert Arata; and quiet, though silly enigma Yuuko. Cyber Sleuth‘s characters are a lot of fun, and go through some very interesting developments as more revelations come to light in the story. It takes a while to get going though, with a plot divided into 20 chapters, and events only getting into gear once Chapters 10 – 13 shake things up significantly. It took me 45 hours of play to reach the final boss, and I loved the experience. From the battle system, to raising Digimon, to solving cases and watching the other characters grow – it’s one of those games I just didn’t want to end.
I think Cyber Sleuth is a fantastic game, and one which also has a pretty damn good soundtrack courtesy of Danganronpa and No More Heroes composer Masafumi Takada. With how engrossing I found it, I often forgot I was playing a PlayStation Vita game on my PS4. The port is quite excellent, and while it of course doesn’t look like a game created for the home system, the Digimon all have some faithfully rendered character models, and some cyberspace areas look amazing, with EDEN’s main area proudly wearing some visuals heavily inspired by the Digimon anime movie Our War Game (the one with Omnimon and the internet battle) as well as that film’s spiritual remake Summer Wars. There’s a distinct bright red outline around characters and Digimon in the virtual world, and it makes for a really nice visual effect. The game design isn’t without its flaws though.
The main dungeon area Kowloon consists of 5 floors of blocky shapes and a heavily repeated glowing blue floor effect covering almost everything. Considering how much time you’ll be spending here on the main quest, it’s disappointing how the place never becomes interesting to look at or explore. Floors will also be blocked off until you progress enough in the story, so if you’re visiting Kowloon for a case, expect to walk through the annoying winding paths of the first and second floors yet again. There’s also a “Digital Space” dungeon which is just made of platforms floating in a wireframe field. This unexciting background shows up in many of the game’s side-quests. It’s a shame, because some parts such as restricted EDEN servers, or the cyberspace tunnels your character flies through are much more visually interesting, but comparatively underused. One later area I’ll only refer to as a “memory network” has a highly detailed, animated background that’s quite impressive; but such effects are never used anywhere else, sadly.
The real world Tokyo you can explore is a Persona-style selection of small areas accessed through a city map. The streets of Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Akihabara depicted here are cramped into a handful of rooms. The Nakano Broadway shopping mall that serves as your base of operations is decently sized however. I just felt that it was a missed opportunity, keeping the rest of the city’s locations to a bare minimum. Besides the overuse of Kowloon and the Digital Space, the game really could have used with some more environments, just to make those 40+ hours feel a bit more varied.
Level design issues aside, there’s also a problem in the game’s quest design. If there’s anything repetitive about this game, it’s the Lost Item cases. These are side quests you unlock by commanding your Farm Digimon to Investigate and find you new cases. This sounds promising, but almost every case it yields is a Lost Item quest. You take up the case which is always from a Digimon who says they’ve lost something in Kowloon. You go to the specified floor of the dungeon, talk to them so they can just repeat what the case request note already said, then go pick up the item, give it back, and report in to Kyoko for a measly reward of 200 Yen and a common collectible Digimon medal. I have just described every single Lost Item case. Unless you want to complete your medal collection that badly, I strongly advise you avoid wasting any time on these sub-missions because they are identical, and all terribly designed. Some of the lost items are in the same tiny room the Digimon is standing in. Some of the Digimon are standing right in front of their lost property, a mere 5 meters away. I wish I was joking.
The other outright bad element to this otherwise amazing game is the localised script – and for once, censorship is not the issue here. It’s Japanese audio only, with fully translated dialogue, but unfortunately this has to be one of the most inconsistent translations I’ve seen in years. Despite the fact you can play through the game as a male or female protagonist, other characters will normally refer to them with they/them pronouns. Then every 5 hours or so, you’ll see one of them say you’re a boy. This isn’t altered by what gender you chose; it’s the script forgetting the game was referring to the player neutrally. It’s not just them assuming you’ve picked a guy either, because I also had instances where my protagonist was referred to as a girl, even though he’s not. Even though the characters saying so have known the protagonist and their gender for weeks in-game at this point. The localisation gives us another highlight when the Lovecraftian ‘Eater’ tentacle monsters are repeatedly called Bakemons – which is the name of a completely unrelated ghost Digimon in the game. During one dungeon where you can analyse immobilised civilians, the description always says “she’s unresponsive” when I’m pretty certain only 2 out of the 20 or so NPCs there were girls.
It’s a shame the game’s Western release couldn’t have been more polished, but Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth is nonetheless a highly enjoyable RPG. There’s a 40+ hour story here with plenty of side quests, and a New Game Plus option, as well as an online battle mode which is quite fun if you can find somebody to play against. As a long time Digimon fan, this game is easily one of my favorite things to come from the franchise, and it leaves me very excited to see where the Digimon games will go from here. Though there are some big omissions in the monster roster such as the Digimon Frontier or Xros Wars casts, this is still a fantastic adventure that will definitely please fans. Even for those unfamiliar with Digital Monsters, Cyber Sleuth is an engaging title that JRPG players should definitely try out if they’re looking for something new on the PS4 or Vita. With addicting monster-raising systems, and a compelling story, this is a surprise gem that feels like a true highlight in the Digimon franchise.