|Sayo of Digimon World Dusk/Digimon Story Sunburst passes the torch to Takumi of Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth.|
Cyber Sleuth is keenly aware of the fact that Digimon needs to be more than just someone's childhood if it's to thrive in today's market, and takes massive strides towards crafting a new identity for the franchise independent of 1990's nostalgia. The game launches in North America in just a day's time, on February 2nd, and in Europe on the 5th of this same week.
This review will be divided into two parts. The first half is spoiler-free and talks about the game in general terms, as well as specific details about the gameplay and certain game design choices. The second half (marked by a boundary) contains substantive spoilers for the entire game's storyline, and examines that storyline and several of its ambiguities critically.
‟Definitively the best entry point for non-Digimon fans.”In some respects, Cyber Sleuth is a Digimon game for people that hate Digimon games. It takes everything awful about past entries in the Story series and throws them out the window, while at the same time mercilessly gutting core gameplay mechanics that certain longtime fans will have a degree of attachment to. The end result is a much better video game than anything Digimon has produced in the last fifteen years, though it's bound to upset anyone with strong nostalgia for Dawn/Dusk. The game is extremely approachable, introduces all of its game mechanics in a set of short and intuitive tutorials, and requires no prior exposure to the Digimon franchise to be played. In fact, Cyber Sleuth is definitively the best entry point for non-Digimon fans.
|War Greymon's Gaia Force is painstakingly recreated frame-for-frame.|
Story & Setting
‟A world where it is better to be strong than right.”
|Japan's zombie CD franchise Tower Records is just one of the many real-world locations found in the game.|
A running theme in Sleuth is the continuous effect of one's relationships to those around them, represented in gameplay through the Digiline, a fictitious imagining of the LINE messaging app. No matter where the player is in the game or storyline, they will always have periodic text messages that give more information about the characters' daily lives. They also receive texts from the Digimon themselves, who will talk to the player about the kinds of training they're doing, express their gratitude to the player for taking care of them, or send them trivia questions.
A secondary theme in Cyber Sleuth is the issue of growing up. Rather than focusing on melodramatic adolescence or dating sim gameplay to convey this, Sleuth skews more towards portraying people that are becoming independent of cause-and-effect, growing into someone different from who they were as children. The game calls into question the nature of the relationship between people and technology (symbolically represented by the Digimon), how they relate using technology, and what it means to "evolve."
The "special gift" turns out to be the Digimon Capture program, a program used to scan and convert the data of Digimon. Possession of the Digimon Capture program qualifies our heroes as bona fide hackers, and this is a one-way street they're going down; the Digimon Capture is protected from external modification, meaning none of them have an "out" as the Capture is now intrinsically linked to their EDEN accounts. They're hackers for life.
The driving mystery that you'll find played up in press releases everywhere is that during all this the player is attacked by the mysterious monster Eater, and needs to recover their physical body after being turned into a half-digital half-real entity by the Eater attack. While it's true that the Eater is an important antagonist and supporting element, most of the game isn't actually focused on this task.
"One day, in the world's computers a virus possessing artificial intelligence propagated.The above description is a direct translation from the official Digimon Channel portal site, which word-for-word approximates the description from V Jump's 90s Digimon guides. This description will sound strange to those more accustomed to Adventure's version of Digimon, but it's what the species are at their core, and it's this same version of Digimon that Chiaki J. Konaka was fighting hard for the franchise to not lose sight of back in Tamers. Those accustomed to such darker entries in the franchise will be at home with Sleuth's version of Digimon, whereas anyone looking to be comforted with idealism will be in for a rude awakening.
Once on the network, this virus began to change its shape and nature, evolving into the lifelike 'Digital Monsters' ('Digimon' for short)!"
Cyber Sleuth's world is not so different from our own; it's a world where it is better to be strong than right, where criminals walk away scot-free because they can, and where the rule of law is constantly subverted for the sake of the individual. Hacking is made an intimate part of gameplay, necessary to solve several puzzles, and the player is required to crack a corporation's servers in various chapters.
|ZAXON forums, the hangout for just one of Sleuth's many hacker teams.|
Deconstruction is easy. It's as easy as peeing on something people take for granted. What your average TVTroper writing about how dark and awesome Neon Genesis Evangelion is forgets is that it's much harder to, having deconstructed a subject, reconstruct it within the same work. This is precisely what gets overlooked about several existing works in the Digimon franchise (namely Tamers and Savers), that they establish a premise of "X can never work" and then set out to prove themselves wrong.
|From the very beginning, there are hints that Digimon can be more than just tools. The player's Digimon repeatedly come to their rescue during the game, in the prologue choosing to fight and possibly die rather than run away from a powerful enemy.|
The second half of the game, chapters eleven to twenty, is where the cyber elements drop away in favor of a more psychological approach. While the storyline veers away from daily life in favor of portraying an apocalyptic scenario that would make Shin Megami Tensei proud, this is the point when Cyber Sleuth's gameplay takes a serious hit. It settles into a repetitive arc of tracking down and beating specific Digimon, which then run away so you can repeat the process later.
Getting to explore various characters' psychology during the latter half of the game is where most of the meat of the narrative is concentrated. Several major characters begin to crumble under the mounting pressure of uncovering the truth behind Sleuth's many subplots, which is a much darker turn than anything Digimon has pursued before. The endgame is riddled with ambiguities, as it becomes increasingly clear that everyone is fighting for reasons that are (at least in their own eyes) morally correct--with the debatable exception of the Eater, a situation that will be discussed more below the spoiler cut. This is firmly a game written for an adult audience to appreciate.
Overall the storyline is the most compelling one that Digimon's ever told. By comparison, the cast of Cyber Sleuth make the Adventure kids look like the Toy Story aliens. There's more tangible human elements to this story, less of a toyetic focus, and a deeper look into the psychological profiles of the cast than past works were willing to delve into. That said, there are some flaws to it. The game's conclusion clashes heavily with everything that came before it, and it seems as though the writing staff were unable to fully embrace Sleuth's new direction. The tone of the finale is more in line with the kids' anime that the game is following up on than it is with the game itself.
|The "Super Positive Girl" Shinomiya Rina. (No, this isn't a spoiler; it's been all over the game's promotional campaign.)|
There are two crossovers in Cyber Sleuth. One of them is necessary to complete the main storyline, and the other is not. One of them contradicts the overall tone of the game, and the other allows for Sleuth to spiritually succeed its parent games while acknowledging the new direction it's taken. One of them is contrived fanservice which contributes nothing to Sleuth's overall message, and is shoehorned into the game without a fluid connection to the storyline. The other is unobtrusive and builds on existing ideas about what it means to be a tamer versus a hacker.
So of course it follows that the gratuitous crossover is the one that the player is forced into, and the meaningful crossover is first print DLC. (Edit: Aster pointed out to me that this was not actually "first print" exclusive, players that bought the game at launch could simply get it earlier than everyone else.) During the storyline, Cyber Sleuth crosses over with Digimon World Re:Digitize Decode, sending the player to Decode's universe to play on fans' attachment to Shinomiya Rina. The small problem with this for western fans is that Decode was never localized, and is infamously the subject of the Operation Decode petition, the very petition that ended up bringing Sleuth over instead of Decode. The far greater problem is that context does not actually make the crossover better; it comes off as forced fanservice with no contribution to the narrative, as Rina is never on screen long enough to have any kind of personal growth, nor does she contribute to the growth of the protagonist or those around her, and her storyline influence is minimal. Long story short, the protagonist needs a specific Digimon that there's only one of, but that Digimon doesn't exist in his dimension anymore--so he has to go to Decode's dimension to bring Rina's version of that Digimon to his universe to solve the problem.
This is tied to a really interesting gameplay segment that the crossover actively hinders. In this segment of the game, the player is given the locations of several boss Digimon throughout Tokyo and EDEN, then asked to hunt them down. The player could theoretically do them in any order--except that one of them requires said unique Digimon to fight, so the player is forced to do the crossover before that one, and to go to other universes they need two specific items divided among the bosses that they can access, and all this ultimately reduces the player's options down to a binary choice. What could have been a cool Ocarina of Time-style segment where the goals could be accomplished in any order was instead confined to a JRPG cliché--The Tube.
|Mirei explains to Sayo and the protagonist how to recover Dianamon.|
The stark difference in execution stings all the more because the player is free to tackle the Demon Lords in any order they choose, which just goes to show that the same idea could have been implemented in Rina's segment, but wasn't. The difference in the quality of execution between the Decode and Moonlight crossovers is embarrassing. The only issue with Sayo's appearance is that as a transition between the old and the new, it begs the question of why we're seeing her and not the Lost Evolution protagonist.
The most interesting parts of Sleuth are invariably the ones that don't involve the Royal Knights, so of course they account for a good two thirds of the game's story. The postgame crossover with Sayo, for all the good it does for the game as a whole, has one of the most boring set of matches with the Demon Lords in franchise history. Never before has the group lacked so much character, having zero speaking lines, and only a small blurb of descriptive text to define them. The first Digimon Story game on the original Nintendo DS contributed more to the Demon Lords' characterization than Cyber Sleuth ever does.
Cyber Sleuth does away with this in the name of accessibility, keeping the 3-on-3 and Support Skill system, but now allowing Supports to affect the entire field, and normal skills now target a number of enemies instead of the spaces they stand on. The simplified system is much more accessible, and allows for a great many more combinations by layering Supports. For example, the Andiramon line's Meditation ability restores a percentage of one's HP after they attack, and can be combined with Beelzebumon's Gluttony, which reduces HP by a percentage each turn to increase that Digimon's Attack stat.
The game also introduces a type system that functions as a combination of Digimon mechanics old and new. First and most dominating is the classic Vaccine > Virus > Data attribute triangle; all Digimon either belong to one of these three attributes, or are of the Free attribute. Those with an advantage over another group deal 2x damage against it. The second set of attributes is a division of two triangular relationships plus one binary system--Fire > Plant > Water, Electric > Wind > Earth, and Light <> Dark. There's also a second neutral element, Null, which can take the place of any of these. For these secondary attributes the damage increase is only 1.5x, but when stacked on top of the basic attribute triangle, damage starts escalating to the point where you can reliably take out some Digimon in a single hit. Attack skills can also belong to one of the secondary elements, with one line of physical and one line of magical skills for each element.
Party size is restricted by Memory, with the total Memory values of the party needing to be less than or equal to the player's absolute limit. In the main game, Memory can be increased by Memory Up items dropped by bosses and awarded after certain quests, while in online play Memory is fixed at 150. More powerful and higher level Digimon have higher Memory limits, preventing the player from using Digimon that are stronger than what they should have at any given point in the storyline. Even with this balancing element though, the overall difficulty level in Sleuth is very low, and fans will have no trouble breezing through the main storyline. If any boss seems overwhelming, then it's usually a puzzle boss of some kind. For the international versions of Cyber Sleuth a hard mode has been added, which seeks to address this weakness.
The most disappointing aspect of EDEN is that while it's gorgeous to look at, there's very few meaningful ways to interact with the environment. As a static art piece, it's formally strong and shows a deep understanding of the technology the studio is working for, but as an interactive environment EDEN falls short of the mark. NPC dialogue also changes infrequently, unlike in past Story games where everyone always had something new to say.
Periodically the player is given keywords and asked to interview various NPCs, throwing those keywords at them until they unlock a piece of information they need to progress in their quests. Sadly, these segments are never quite as entertaining as the staff probably intended them to be, and they don't quite put you in the shoes of a cyber gumshoe in the same way that Ace Attorney's cross examinations manage to make a lawyer out of the player.
Some unrefined aspects of gameplay betray the fact that this is Bandai's first attempt at creating a good Digimon game that's also a good mainstream game. Cutscenes and dialogue sequences are unskippable; the player can't quick-jump to different locations; items have to be manually deequipped from Digimon when putting them into the DigiFarm unless you want them to keep those items when they go in, where past Story games automatically removed equipment. Shops are heavily decentralized, with one in the EDEN Entrance selling stat manipulation items and personality patches, while another outside Tower Records sells status blocking equipment, when both of those easily could have been located in the DigiLab.
To those longtime fans that miss the Digital World dearly, that can't have a Digimon game without it, I'll say this; it's in the game, it's brilliant, it's beautiful, but it's short-lived. Be patient with Sleuth.
The question has been asked many times before as to whether Sleuth is better experienced on the PlayStation 4 or on its native handheld, the PlayStation Vita. I first experienced Sleuth on the PlayStation TV, an experience which I expect the PS4 version of it to mirror. After a few hours I couldn't stand playing it on the system, and eventually I bought a Vita for the game, a purchase which I do not regret. Cyber Sleuth was made for and is best experienced on a handheld, making the Vita version of the game the definitive one.
Writing & Voice Acting
‟[Han's] rapidfire delivery and the energy with which she approaches the role carries the game through its first half.”The language question is an important one to Cyber Sleuth. The game slams the player over the head with several plot points long before they ever show up in-game; but these points are obfuscated by the nature of the Japanese language. These will be addressed more comprehensively after the spoiler cut further down, but there are some parts of the game that just don't work in English. The English language lacks certain aspects of grammar and writing (implied subject, neuter pronouns, logograms) that make it extremely challenging to effectively translate its plot without ruining some of the game's major twists and making others come out of left field.
|"Ahh, nice to meet you, I'm the real Akkiino ☆ It's our first time meeting in EDEN, I'm so pleased to--NNNNOOOOOOT!!"|
Moreover, Hisakawa Aya is unexpectedly incredible in this game, acting for both Kishibe Rie and one other character (don't look it up), and she cultivates two incredibly different vocal styles for those characters that make it hard to tell one is hearing the same voice in the scenes where they appear back-to-back. From the moment I heard Han's performance as Nokia I was blown away by her energy, and in contrast by the subtlety of Sakamoto Maaya's performance as Kuremi Kyouko...but I was also expecting these. I was prepared to quietly forget Hisakawa's character up until I saw her major turning points.
Make no mistake that something is lost by the lack of an English voice dub. Certain voice actors were chosen for their existing ties to Digimon. English speakers won't experience quite the same nostalgia that Japanese speakers do when they hear Sakamoto and Yamaguchi voicing Agumon and Gabumon--not unless they watched Adventure subtitled. But I maintain that we gain much more than we lose in the exchange. Ever since the Adventure anime took its setting to modern day Odaiba, Digimon has been the monster franchise to adhere most strictly to its Japanese roots. It's never a bad time for some cultural appreciation.
Aside from Han and Hisakawa's breakout performances, the game also has the legendary Wakamoto Norio on board as the voice of Duftmon. Wakamoto has become so entrenched in Japanese media that he's more often appearing to play himself rather than a specific character, but he gets special mention here for dragging out his lines eeexccceeepttiooonnnnaaalllyyyyyyy slllloooowllllyyyyy. At one point I believe I waited for a solid minute with the dialogue box already filled out, waiting for Wakamoto to finish his line so I could hit the O button. I'm unsure if Wakamoto is trying to be clever with this, but he does make an otherwise forgettable minor antagonist into one of the more memorable villains of the game.
|There are seven "translations" in this screen that contradict the original names. Can you spot them all?|
MusicThe game's soundtrack is by Takada Masafumi of Dangan Ronpa fame, and primarily comprises an appropriately modern collection of electronic music that helps cultivate the cyperpunk setting of Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth. Although this is representative of the overall tone of the game, Takada breaks genre several times to convey certain themes. The thirteen Royal Knights are represented by two themes, both of which use pseudo-symphonic and choral sounds that one would be more likely to find in a Final Fantasy game. Masafumi uses his resources well; "The Authority of the Royal Knights" is actually a synthesized track not recorded with a live orchestra, and none of the vocals are real. He simultaneously represents the nobility and archaic hierarchy of Yggdrasill's servants while also alluding to their digital nature. This kind of attention to detail is characteristic of the entire soundtrack. Unfortunately, the list of tracks is woefully small for a game of this size, and especially towards the end of the game players will get sick of hearing the same two tracks over and over. (I was already nauseous from "Closed Digital Space" by chapter 4, and the game is 20 chapters long!)
The biggest issue with it by far is that duplicate Digimon are permitted, leading to turnlocking setups with multiple Sleipmon and the V-dramon variants dominating online. Secondary is that 18 Memory Digimon don't get enough equipment slots to simultaneously block all of the major status effects, leading to games generally falling to whoever gets status off first. The decision to cap parties at 150 Memory was a well thought out move, as it's high enough to allow some variety but low enough that every player will already be able to easily reach more than that cap in-game, ensuring that they don't have to run around doing sidequests for additional Memory Ups to compete.
|Japanese leaderboards as of January 26th, 2016.|
A dominating issue with Ranked is that to stand a chance, you need to complete sixteen postgame quests in addition to the main game in order to unlock all of the necessary Digimon and items, and after they're unlocked you still have to do a lot of inconvenient grinding to actually evolve your partners into those forms. There are specific Digimon that can double your EXP gain as long as they're in your active party, and a whole line of equippable items that will further double it and stack on top of that, but those Digimon also require significant grinding to get and the items demand that the player repeatedly soft reset in order to craft the full nine of. Ideally if you're able to do the grinding necessary to get those Digimon, then they should already be unlocked in the first place, or you should only need to complete the game to unlock their evolutions. Having to run through a series of postgame quests and then run around with a party of Platinum Scumon for two hours on top of that isn't good game design.
There is one aspect of the multiplayer that I find intolerably tedious. It's actually not the soft resetting for Strategist USBs, nor is it the grind for evolution. It's the skill system--more accurately, you could refer to the evolution tree as a whole being the problem. All skills sans Special Skills and Support Skills are inheritable by every Digimon. The result is that there are no movepools; you truly have access to absolutely everything, as if every Pokémon could learn every move. And having access to everything is awful, because now it requires you to repeatedly grind and re-grind your Digimon to learn different skills so that you can have one of the two or three movesets that you'll find on any competitive Digimon. I have sunk more than a hundred hours into Digimon Story, and about seventy into Cyber Sleuth; yet I paradoxically find the grind to reach 999 stats in Story far more tolerable than the grind to get Status Barrier, Safety Guard, Restore, Revive, Physicial/Spirit Drain, Holy Light III/Nightmare III, a status move of choice, and the Charge Field/Break Field skills on every Digimon in my team.
(Still better than egg hatching and EV training.)
One awkwardly-implemented concession is that in order to make sure that players will always be able to get the trophy for scoring 30 victories in Ranked, if the game is unable to detect an opponent it will feed a bot to the player, without actually identifying it as a bot. These bots cheat, having Digimon with impossibly high stats, but tend to have suboptimal strategies and three or fewer Digimon, which makes them fully beatable. It's a welcome addition to keep the Battle Master achievement available, but when trying to actually find an opponent it's annoying to keep having to decline bots, and they really should have been identified as bots to begin with.
Difficulty LevelThe default difficulty mode is incredibly easy, which has universally been a source of complaints. I was able to breeze through the main storyline in a little over 40 hours, and didn't see a game over until I was close to the 60 hour mark, versus one of the optional bosses.
Some of the game balance is also out of order; certain Digimon are overall weaker than their preevolved forms due to how specific game mechanics work, with a particularly glaring example in Omegamon. One of his preceding forms, War Greymon, is overall superior despite having a lower Memory cost due to his access to piercing damage, while Omegamon's moderately higher stats don't justify his price in Memory because of his inferior offensive output and comparative defensive parameters.
‟Sleuth can box on even terms with industry giants and come out on top.”
I remember Digimon World Re:Digitize Decode. Until last year I had never played any version of Re:Digitize, but long before I ever touched it, I had a strong impression of the game and my own memories of it. Decode was the holy poster child of a movement for international localization that begged and pleaded at the feet of Bandai Namco Entertainment Incorporated. For the western Digimon fandom it was as if Re:Digitize could cure the blind. Decode became a casualty of war, a martyr whose relics are worshiped for their sacred properties regardless of if said martyr ever really existed. I do not want this to happen to Cyber Sleuth.
The world will never know if Re:Digitize is a good game or not until it sees an official distribution and an 8.8 on GameSpot for the YouTube collective and web forum hivemind to scrutinize. While the 3DS has many years yet left in it, fans are already prepared for the disappointment of Decode being lost to history alongside Lost Evolution and so many others. Cyber Sleuth nearly befell the same fate.
Having logged many hours into both translating the game's text and mastering its gameplay system across two playthroughs, I am in a unique position of having more in-depth experience with the game than most professional reviewers ever have an opportunity for. The most difficult question to ask when considering any JRPG critically, most especially a game that one has a personal investment in, is whether said game is a good use of your time.
Time is at the heart of every JRPG. Pitchfork wrote an exhaustive explanation of this back in his Earthbound series review, in which he gave what I consider the most comprehensive description of the genre's critical weakness;
Dragon Quest is like a vibrantly-colored, jingle-spewing pachinko machine in which you insert minutes and hours instead of coins. You can never beat the house; you can only hope that your gains offset your expenditures as much as possible, and the object of the game is to successfully employ tactics that help you achieve this aim.There are a wealth of bad JRPGs out there. They're the summer blockbuster of the video game industry. I suffered through Dirge of Cerberus, Hyperdimension Neptunia, and Kingdom Hearts II. After 70 hours, I can firmly say that Cyber Sleuth is none of these. It's a game which provokes Digimon veterans to tear down their nostalgia filters, yet welcomes newcomers with open arms. The characters have a literary quality to them that puts certain works of actual literature to shame, and the leaderboards ensure that players always have something additional to do with their Digimon party long after they've conquered the game. It's a battle system that challenges and continues to challenge as one masters it. It's an engaging, entertaining piece of media that pushes the Vita to its limits and embraces its position as the forerunner of a next generation of Digimon games.
At its worst, Cyber Sleuth is tied with Digimon World for the best Digimon game ever made. At its best, it displaces every other game in the franchise and is the only Digimon game anyone should ever play. In terms of its mainstream appeal, Sleuth can box on even terms with industry giants like Final Fantasy and come out on top, despite being rough around the edges. While I personally didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would, I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone, regardless of whether or not they have experience with Digimon or its other games. Get out there and get on those leaderboards.
Final Score: 9/10
Full spoilers below this line; past this point it's assumed that you have played through the game.