Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Cover-To-Cover Review of Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth (Spoilers Marked, Hidden)

Sayo of Digimon World Dusk/Digimon Story Sunburst passes the torch to Takumi of Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth.
It has been nearly eight years since the last Digimon game launched outside of Japan. Between World Championship and Cyber Sleuth, five handheld titles have passed the western world by. What do we say to such a game? "Welcome home"? "Good to see you again"? For Cyber Sleuth, neither phrase feels appropriate. While Sleuth is nominally sequel to previous entries in the Story series, its core gameplay mechanics and tone are so far removed from past games that it plays less like the latest entry in a series from 2006, and more like the first game in an entirely new line.

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.

Opening Remarks 

‟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.
That's not to say that there isn't material for fans to appreciate. Those that watched the various Digimon anime religiously will find iconic attack animations recreated frame-for-frame by Sleuth's dedicated modeling staff, and the narrative clearly picks up on certain ideas and motifs from Digimon Tamers and Savers. One of its best-handled crossovers with past games (more on this later) is implemented specifically to pass the torch from Digimon Story Moonlight to Cyber Sleuth. But the nostalgia in Sleuth takes a backseat to progress. Anyone looking to yell "My childhood!" while M.C. Pea Pod and Paul Gordon rap about "Digimon Garlic Champions" is going to be disappointed.


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.
In contrast to every Digimon game preceding it, Cyber Sleuth takes place primarily in the real world, with frequent visits to manmade cyberspace. The game contains complete replicas of several real locations in Japan, primarily featuring inner city shopping districts and major urban centers. The player's own base of operations is within the famous Nakano Broadway, and at least one of the real-world retailers featured in the game cut Bandai a deal in exchange for their appearance.

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 player assumes the role of a young man or woman called into the network EDEN by a hacker disguised as the network's mascot, Navito-kun. They and two of their friends are "invited" to receive a special gift from Navito-kun, or face the alternative--being hacked. In the innermost layer of the network, the player is introduced to the flighty but assertive Shiramine Nokia, and to the recluse programmer Sanada Arata, who acts as the "big brother" figure of the trio. Several other characters figure into their friend circle, but throughout the game Nokia and Arata are the player's most consistent companions, and a large part of the game is spent on delving into their pasts and helping them move past deep-seated psychological issues. Instead of Pokémon, the first comparison that springs to mind is actually the Persona series, but rather than the episodic approach of those games, Sleuth spreads out these characters' development across the entire twenty chapters of the game.

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.

Cyber Sleuth devotes several chapters to deconstructing the concept of a Digimon tamer as it was invented in 1997 and built up throughout 2005. Tamers as we know them do not exist in Sleuth's world. Instead Digimon are the exclusive purview of hackers, used as tools to crack security and wage an information war against faceless corporate enterprises. The player is given ample exposure to no less than four different hacker groups in the course of the game, with the major players staking out their turf against rivals and following a "might makes right" philosophy that's surprisingly at home with the lifestyle of the Digimon themselves. Note that while it vehemently attacks the idealism of "tamers," the game effectively reconstructs the idea of Digimon as they were described in the original Digital Monster and Pendulum guides;
"One day, in the world's computers a virus possessing artificial intelligence propagated.
Once on the network, this virus began to change its shape and nature, evolving into the lifelike 'Digital Monsters' ('Digimon' for short)!"
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.

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.
Throughout the early portions of Sleuth the player is exposed to various methods of abusing the powers of Digimon. A small cyber gang engages in mass identity theft under the direction of their crime boss; a criminal desperate to evade the police uses Digimon to escape into cyberspace; someone who's failed to realize their dreams one too many times attracts the power of a Digimon, and starts up a line of serial kidnappings to get even with cyberbullies. Throughout these first ten chapters, the player is encouraged to think about the role of Digimon and how they ought to be used in society, with the supporting cast each coming to their own conclusions. Yet to the very end of the game, what is most miraculous is that somehow the initial sense of childish wonder that accompanies first meeting Digimon manages to persevere in spite everything thrown at it.

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.
Cyber Sleuth does the same; once it has made you sufficiently complacent with the concept of hackers and their relationship to Digimon, it turns the scenario on its head through the unlikely character of Nokia. This girl is Digimon's Luke Skywalker. The last trailer for Sleuth prior to its Japanese launch alluded to Nokia "creating a miracle," and set viewers up to believe that miracle to be a particular evolution, but that's peanuts compared to what she accomplishes in the course of the game. Her real miracle is independently inventing the idea of Digimon tamers in face of overwhelming opposition. It's exactly the kind of miracle that Digimon, having been functionally dead around the world for several years, is in dire need of.

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.)
A more concerning flaw in the storyline is the crossover issue.

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.
By contrast, the crossover with Digimon Story Moonlight/Digimon World Dusk provides a meaningful transition between the traditional kids' Digimon games and the cutting edge adults' Digimon games. The protagonist of Moonlight Sayo is given her own character arc, in which she's stripped of her Dianamon and forced to reluctantly rely on the player character to defeat the Seven Great Demon Lords so that Dianamon can be recovered. As the line of quests progresses, Sayo gradually warms to the player, and comes to respect their abilities after having to fight alongside them. Sayo parts by passing the torch to the player characters of Cyber Sleuth, solidifying them as the next generation of Digimon Story protagonists--"You're a splendid tamer." It's a touching moment that calls back to veteran fans' experiences with Sunburst & Moonlight/Dawn & Dusk, which up to now was probably the second best-received Digimon title overall after the first Digimon World.

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.

Finally, the critically weakest part of Cyber Sleuth's storyline is found in it falling to an old franchise standby. In the proud tradition of post-2006 Digimon media, Sleuth starts with a promising new worldview and independent plot that is ultimately consumed by ROYAL KNIGHTS YGGDRASILL 7 GREAT DEMON LORDS. The game engages in hitting the same notes as every post-Digimon Story work, having the thirteen knights of the Digital World's round table become divided and start babbling back and forth about X is the will of Yggdrasill! No, Y is the will of Yggdrasill! while outside forces pit them against one another and the player is left to clean up the mess this creates. Xros Wars proved that you can write a good Digimon story without having to reuse the same twenty-odd characters that prove most popular with focus groups, a fact that Sleuth has firmly decided to ignore. This flaw is going to go right over the heads of newcomers to the franchise though, and considering that for Sleuth those newcomers are a primary demographic, we can somewhat forgive it for retreading old ground.

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.

Gameplay

The gameplay is both a massive leg up over the first three Story games, and a somewhat disorienting overhaul of their systems. A more mature game demands a more mature system. Previous entries in the Digimon Story series used a 3-on-3 battle system, with five open spaces for players to place their Digimon. Skills were divided into normal and Support Skills, with Supports only affecting the next Digimon adjacent to the user, and normal skills targeting either a fixed number of spaces on the field or a space of the player's choosing a certain number of times.

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.

Evolution takes place in the DigiLab, a Velvet Room-like locale run by the dimension-hopping Mikagura Mirei. Players can freely evolve and degenerate their Digimon at the laboratory, but to evolve they first need to meet the stat requirements for a Digimon. All of the Digimon in Sleuth are part of a single unified evolution tree, so all of them have the ability to evolve into any other long term. (For example, when starting with Botamon, one could evolve him up to Koromon, Agumon, Greymon, then to Metal Greymon Blue, and degenerate Blue down to Devimon, Pico Devimon, Tsumemon, and finally Kuramon--ending at a totally different Baby-stage Digimon than when they started.) The DigiLab also contains the Farm Island, where Digimon can do training to gain additional stats (how many exactly is based on their Ability stat, but the cap is +100) as well as develop items for the player to use.

While the DigiLab is an interesting concept, it's ultimately one of Sleuth's few steps back from past games. In Digimon Story, Sunburst/Moonlight, and Lost Evolution, the player could handle evolution and degeneration from their home menu,rather than needing to backtrack to a specific area just to do a minor team update. Sleuth attempts to remedy this by adding access points to the DigiLab all over the game world, but it's only a partial fix to a mistake that didn't need to be made in the first place.

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.

Outside of battle, players access different areas by selecting them from the world map, navigating those areas from a fixed camera angle. While different Japanese locales are recreated lovingly on the Vita, most of the game takes place in a cyberspace environment engineered by studio Kamikaze Douga. The cyberspace EDEN is a visual tribute to the virtual worlds of Hosoda Mamoru's Our War Game and Summer Wars films, appearing chiefly as a plane of tiered cities and observation decks strung through a white void. (The opening sequence of Cyber Sleuth when logging in, and the subsequent introduction to EDEN, both resemble Summer Wars' mobile phone opening and its similar introduction of Oz, right down to the exposition beats and soundtrack.)

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.

The actual dungeons in Cyber Sleuth take the form of Digital Shifts, spaces in which a particular domain intersects with the real world. Most of these dungeons are disappointingly short, with only a few rudimentary puzzles and the same repetitive background music shared between them. Visually they're entertaining to look at, though there is a severe lack of variation between them. But as the player gets closer to the endgame, the developers begin pulling out all the stops with extensive labyrinths, and one dungeon in particular memorably spans 49 floors plus the roof, with different segments of each floor abruptly terminating in a sheer cliff where the digital space has ripped apart the building. The Digital Shifts are definitely an aspect of the game that improves the further the player goes in.

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!!"
Much ado has been made about the lack of an English-language voice dub, but speaking as someone that's played through the entire Japanese game, I am glad that the western world gets to be exposed to Han Megumi's absolutely phenomenal performance as Nokia. Her rapidfire delivery and the energy with which she approaches the role carries the game through its first half, and the way that Han emotes as Nokia throughout the second major arc is what seals Cyber Sleuth as the Digimon of tomorrow. Without her, the early parts of Sleuth would make for a fairly generic game. It will be interesting to see how the English-translated script handles her, as in Japanese Nokia is a highly quotable modern woman--provided that you can keep up with how fast she runs her mouth.

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?
Bandai's standardized English names for Digimon create inevitable conflicts with the vocal track. English speakers will at multiple points hear Lord Knightmon said aloud while the text reads "Crusadermon." (This also ruins a certain play-on-words; Lord Knightmon introduces themselves at one point as ナイトモンの王 Naitomon no Ou "the lord of all Knightmon.") This applies to roughly half of the Royal Knights, most prominently Omegamon/"Omnimon," who was even called Omegamon in Crunchyroll's official subtitles of Digimon Adventure tri. Moreover, despite Cyber Sleuth being a nominally more mature game, fans will groan at having to fight "Creepymon" rather than Demon in the postgame. Bandai Namco's international branches just aren't caught up on Habu Kazumasa's new direction for the games, and are still advertising them by referencing the DigiRap.

Music

The 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!)

Multiplayer

There has always been a particular appeal to battling one's Digimon against their friends. It's the foundational element of the franchise; a fighting Tamagotchi. Cyber Sleuth has two modes, local play (using the ad hoc features of the Vita) and Ranked, which pairs them with players over a wireless connection. Players are limited to 30 minutes of total game time, with 60 seconds of command time per Digimon to execute their turn within. Winning games in Ranked adds points to the player's score, contributing to their global ranking in relation to other players. How easy it is to rise to the top varies depending on how many people play--Sleuth's entire shipment constituted around 80,000 copies in Japan, but less than 1/4th of the players that bought the game played in Ranked. I was able to rise from close to 18,000th place up to 3,858th after just 30 battles, and there's plenty of players in the top 100 that have scores in the 6,000 range rather than 9,999.

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.
The multiplayer in Sleuth is more accessible than Pokémon's, but is deliberately unbalanced. You will need to use at least some of the Royal Knight and Seven Great Demon Lord Digimon to succeed online; there is very little room to use your favorites and build a competent strategy around them. With only a few exceptions extended to Lucemon and one Armor-level Digimon, only Digimon of Perfect level and above can succeed in the Ranked. Digimon do have a personality system that confers percentage stat increases similar to Pokémon's natures, but these can be patched with items bought from a shop to change their personality (so if your Digimon has the wrong temperament, you don't have to just go and get a new one). There is no IV system, but there is an EV system that allows each Digimon to gain 100 total additional stats through farm training, which is made visible rather than hidden from the player.

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 Level

The 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.

Closing Remarks

 ‟Sleuth can box on even terms with industry giants and come out on top.

I do not want Cyber Sleuth to be martyred.

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.


Cyber Sleuth follows a particular design plan that will echo some familiar ideas for fans of the Final Fantasy series. Chapters 11-20 form a collective "World of Ruin" arc, in which the player returns from their journey into the belly of the beast back to the world from which they came, only to find that the world itself has become that beast.

The changes to the world map aren't actually anywhere near as dramatic as those found in Final Fantasy VI or Shin Megami Tensei, but the digitized human world has its fair share of scenery destruction. Once the gate to the Digital World is opened, Digimon begin to flood the streets of Tokyo and EDEN alike. The metropolis becomes littered with NPC Digimon having standoffs with police, overturned cars and burning buildings, and the Self-Defense Force marches in to cordon off the digitized dungeons that the Royal Knights have holed themselves up in. The player can now use their hacking skills to affect reality, and the once-secret world of Digimon has been blown wide open onto a population that lacks the infrastructure to adapt to the new environment.

When the player returns from the Digital World, they're put in a state of confusion. Kyouko is mysteriously gone, and now it's their turn to run the detective agency. With minimal dialogue, Sleuth accomplishes a sense of character development as the protagonist grows into the role of a cyber detective. It's a difficult balance to make, characterizing the protagonist while also allowing the player to roleplay as him/her. The player is given just enough information about the character to form a perception of what kind of role they are supposed to be taking on.

Post-Digipocalypse Tokyo may be hostile to human life, but human-Digimon relations seem to blossom regardless of the circumstances. Children still try to play with Digimon as they would in any other Digimon work--the operating difference being that in Cyber Sleuth, the police are willing to let children get caught up as collateral damage if that means eliminating the "monsters." Chapter 13 contains one of the tensest moments in the game, and it's not even voiced. A young girl bonds with an Elecmon and Numemon, who become her playmates, but when she refuses to step away so a policeman can "exterminate" them, the officer threatens to shoot her too. (やむを得ない...化け物どもに発砲する! "There's no helping it...I'll shoot you with the monsters!") This is the kind of story that no previous Digimon work could tell. Even Tamers never stooped to the level of having men in uniform kill children.

This gets at a greater quality of the game that becomes particularly visible in its World of Ruin arc. Cyber Sleuth's cast is multifaceted, and very few characters can be distinctly considered "good" or "evil." The game's principal antagonist and initiator of most of its conflicts, the Eater, is really opposing you by coincidence, rather than because it has some evil master plan to destroy everything. It's an animal that is instinctively trying to survive by consuming the resources available to it. As for the secondary antagonist, Suedou Akemi is more nuanced.

It would be easy to label him as just a Kurata clone, attempting to emulate the madness of Savers' most successful villain, but in actuality Suedou is driven by fundamental misjudgments about the nature of his world rather than by a lust for power. His overall objective--to facilitate human evolution and create a world without sadness--is beneficial to the collective but involves making a great deal of sacrifices in the process, while also depending on nonhuman powers that ought not to have been used in the first place. He's nothing but helpful to Arata (albeit in a way that suits his own agenda) and ultimately repents for his actions rather than just being destroyed. (In fact, his retribution comes off as overly disproportionate in context.)

Arata: "Haha...Hahahahaha! Amazing...It's amazing! This is my power!"
Crossover ship?
Arata's quest for strength will ring familiar for Shin Megami Tensei veterans. Sanada Arata is a Chaos Hero through and through, blindly pursuing ever greater strength at the expense of his humanity. I have spoken at great length about the faction in general, but Sleuth accomplishes something that Megaten with its archetypal embodiments of Chaos could never achieve.

Arata's hunger for power (which is manifested both figuratively and literally as he consumes the Eaters, Digimon, and other human beings to grow stronger) is written around an actual character arc that tethers him to the game's core mystery. In this regard, he has both visual and literary similarities to Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne's Tachibana Chiaki, but Arata's arc is both more sympathetic and better written than Chiaki's.

Arata's desire for strength is motivated by his inability to protect Yuugo and his childhood friends from the Eater eight years ago. In chapter 16 Suedou comments that only Arata needs to go through the pain of remembering the past, opening up an entire can of worms with his character; it's not established when he started remembering. Playing back through the game, it's easy to read in the idea that Arata has been remembering the past long before the events of Cyber Sleuth. Is his fascination with the ghost of EDEN coincidental curiosity, or motivated by recognizing it as Yuugo? Did he try to keep the others out of danger simply out of chivalry, or because he felt he needed to be the one to protect them? Arata's hunger is just the most prominent facet of his internal guilt over failing to save Yuugo, but it may also be the product of being isolated among the core group as the only one who can recall the beta test incident of eight years prior.

When the player steps into EDEN's Beginning, the core cast guides them through the past one memory at a time, involving the player as an active participant in the process of remembering. Instead of just being shown the memories, the player-as-protagonist learns about the incident by reenacting it. In doing so, they actually cultivate the same sense of nostalgia; just as the protagonist embraces his fond memories of the EDEN beta test and stepping into the Digital World, the player recalls their own feelings for encountering Digimon for the first time as children. Sleuth accomplishes a form of visual symbolism by having EDEN's Beginning be an exact replica of the game's first dungeon, Cron.

Perhaps the only mistake in this sequence is in having random encounters continue throughout EDEN's Beginning. There's too much functional purpose to the area as a level grinding spot--the effect would be much more prominent if the player were asked to walk through it without purpose, without enemies to fight. As it is, interrupting the tour of EDEN's Beginning with DOOT-DOOT-DOOT-DOOT-DUH-DUH-DOOT-DOOT-DOOT-DOOT every few steps is a really damning directorial gaff.

This nostalgia cannot last, or there would be no game. Where every other Digimon series would unfold into a happy adventure as the kids get to know their newfound Digimon partners, Sleuth chooses the iconic moment of a "first meeting" with Digimon to create its first named character death. In perverting that first meeting, there is a sense that the player must right this wrong, but Sleuth perhaps goes too far with this idea. The finale not only sees the Eater wiped out, but actually rewrites history so that the incident never took place, and (almost) every major character death is undone. This Happily Ever After ending outright sabotages several characters' development, particularly Arata's and Yuuko's, as the latter had only just resolved the issue of her father's murder and been able to gain closure by fulfilling her vendetta. Meanwhile Nokia had only grown as a leader because she had to contend with ZAXON, which only happened because Yuuko had to deal with the tragedy of losing her father and brother, which only happened because of the Eater incident...For a game that's nominally more mature than its predecessors, Sleuth is awfully happy to jump at the opportunity to be a Saturday morning cartoon.

One thought that occurred to me during this sequence is that it may be more meaningful for certain longtime Japanese players that were around for the years of the Digimon Net Battle/Digimon Circle chatroom-MMO hybrid. The gate to the Digital World remained open from August 2004 to March 2012, during which time many fans met their Digimon, made friends online, battled, and eventually said goodbye. Considering that Cyber Sleuth even opens in a chat room, it's not a far fetched idea to read the game as a love letter to these mid-2000s Digimon fans.

Much like Suedou's commentary casts doubts on Arata, knowing in retrospect that Yuuko and "Yuugo" are one in the same changes the interpretation of both characters. It's one aspect of the game that the translation will likely hurt--Yuugo and Yuuko's shared identity is only hidden by the use of kanji for the latter. Seeing the two names written next to one another in romanized English makes the truth painfully obvious. (The same would be true if they were both written in katakana; ユーコ and ユーゴ are easy to put together, but almost no one playing through the game for the first time has seen 悠子 and ユーゴ coming.) While the player nominally meets Yuuko for the first time at the hospital, and is formally introduced to her in chapter 5, in actuality the player first meets Yuuko through her Yuugo avatar in the prologue. They meet her before Kyouko, but after Nokia and Arata, making Yuuko the third named character the player encounters, and a part of their core group.

Throughout the game Kamishiro Yuuko harbors suspicions of her company's leadership, assisting the player in breaking into confidential documents, providing key information about the activities of Kamishiro, and at times acting as a cover for them. Yuuko-as-Yuugo works as the leader of the hacker team ZAXON, guiding the player through their training as a hacker and user of Digimon, protecting them from senior hackers like Jimmy KEN, and rebelling against Kamishiro's control of EDEN. At the same time, Yuuko works as a plant for Kishibe Rie, unknowingly carrying out tasks that further Kishibe's experiments with the Eater, while from the very beginning her "Yuugo" personality is one created by Rie specifically to deceive EDEN's hackers.

How much of Yuuko's actions were her own, and how much were the result of Rie's machinations? Was her desire to take back EDEN genuine, or was it something that simply implanted into the Yuugo avatar to facilitate Rie's goals? Yuuko's character arc in the second half revolves around overcoming her actions as Yuugo, avenging herself and her family versus Rie, and this leans towards the interpretation that most of the Yuugo persona was Rie's work rather than Yuuko's. Even so, Yuuko retains certain aspects of it, like wanting to protect her father's vision for EDEN.

Then there's the question of Lord Knightmon.

Lord Knightmon hates mankind. Of all the options available to the Royal Knights, "annihilate humanity" is very high up on Lord Knightmon's preference list, and "coexistence" is correspondingly low. Lord Knightmon has the greatest bloodlust of any of their membership, takes pride in being one of the only Virus-attributes among the order, delights in murder and plans the gratuitous extinction of an entire species out of raw unadultered vengeance. They carry from scene to scene cackling and joyfully wreaking havoc on the world. In spite of this, their motivations are aligned to a specific moral compass that defines Lord Knightmon as "good" and our heroes as "evil." It is made abundantly clear during the course of the game that they are suffering from the severe trauma of witnessing the Eater wipe out the Digital World, and their misanthropy is born from their loyalty to their fellow Digimon.

The player first encounters them in their identity as Kishibe Rie, and when the player invades Rie's personal chambers deep inside the Avalon Server, her "real face" as Lord Knightmon is foreshadowed by the roses adorning her room and the rhodonite color scheme. This scene--which has very little dialogue and is mostly conveyed in setpieces--nicely sums up the mystery of Lord Knightmon-Rie's character. Exploring the room, one has the impression of a woman whose personal affectations are not too dissimilar with a certain princess of the Mushroom Kingdom. How much of their actions are driven by Rie's personality? How much are they Lord Knightmon's own decisions? In a world without Lord Knightmon, would Rie still decorate her room like this? Would Lord Knightmon decorate in this way if not for Rie's character affecting them?

Lord Knightmon: "...This time, it looks like it really, really, is goodbye ♪ Even though it's sad, crying is No❤ Good, okay? Hehe "
When Lord Knightmon finally dies, she (she) bids farewell to Yuuko not in the voice of a Royal Knight, but speaking with the voice of Kishibe Rie. This is given a sorrowful musical accompaniment and a sendoff appropriate for a Leomon. What is her true nature? You cannot definitely label Lord Knightmon pure evil, a stark contrast from the rest of the Digimon franchise. The last antagonist we had with this much nuance was Yggdrasil in Savers, who was definitively towards the side of "misguided." Lord Knightmon is instead a megalomaniac serial killer hellbent on erasing mankind, while also having a doting yet overbearing relationship as Yuuko's guardian. (This is a relationship which she later attempts to put behind her, yet keeps coming back to every time she speaks to Yuuko, in what appears to be an obsession. Lord Knightmon cannot be in the same room as Yuuko without breaking into Rie's voice. To borrow a term from the popular lexicon, to what degree did they "become the mask," if at all?)

Consider the final exchange between Yuuko and Lord Knightmon:
Lord Knightmon: Fusing with a human...Seemed to have a bad influence on me...What difference is there between me and you [Alphamon]...
Yuuko: Goodbye, Lord Knight...No, Rie-san.
Lord Knightmon: ...This time, it looks like it really, really, is goodbye ♪ Even though it's sad, crying is No❤ Good, okay? Hehe ♪
Yuuko: I really hate it when you talk stupid like that. ...Is that in-character? I mean, acting bitter? It's unsightly, and frankly pathetic.
Lord Knightmon: Oh my, my my my? How unexpected~ Hehe ❤ Yuuko-chan also hates that sort of cute thing, just the same as me? I mean~ That's so cheeky~ Bothersome~ Like a wet blanket~ A sorrowful feeling? I wanna spew ❤ To tell the truth...I reaaally...haaate yoouu...♪
This dialogue on its own has some ambiguities (How honest are these two being?), and when combined with the stellar voice direction and soundtrack, the victory becomes hollow rather than triumphant. Note that there's also some wordplay here; Lord Knightmon says that Yuuko is 不幸 "sorrowful/unhappy" but this is a homophone for 不孝 "lacking filial piety," reflecting on how Rie partially raised Yuuko. It's a very bitter and complex scene.

Lord Knightmon's goals were ultimately motivated by the severe trauma of seeing the Digital World lain waste to by the Eater, a level of psychological damage that we previously only saw of Digimon in X-Evolution. All previous incarnations of Lord Knightmon were flat characters with nothing approaching this kind of depth. Digimon in general rarely see the kind of development as individuals that they see in Cyber Sleuth.

(Interestingly, this conflict of character appears to be represented in an intersection between storyline and gameplay. Lord Knightmon's Support Skill is 冷酷無比 Reikoku Muhi "Cruelty Unparalleled." It gives them a 15% damage bonus when having the attribute advantage--but Lord Knightmon has an attribute of Virus-Dark, the combination least likely to have the advantage in any given situation. Their nature as a Digimon is contradicted by their circumstances.)

If there is a weakness to the second half of the game, it's that the Royal Knights arc is repetitive. The first time you fight Lord Knightmon, it's one of the most climactic battles of the game; but you hear the Royal Knight battle theme literally eleven times in the main game and seven more times if you do all of the postgame quests. If not for the sidequests, it would be used more often than the main boss battle theme.

At the end of Cyber Sleuth, I can't help but feel that the game is trying to bridge its way into -next 0rder-. Not in a storyline sense, but on a greater level as the next step for the Digimon franchise; Sleuth takes place within the real world and ends by taking the player to the Digital World. The Digital World they're greeted by isn't the one they're accustomed to, but one overtaken and corrupted by Eater, and the player is compelled to set things right. -next 0rder- takes place within a pure and untouched Digital World, revisiting the player's childhood memories of File Island. The case I'm making is that Sleuth is meant to prepare the player to make the jump to -next 0rder-, an idea which may not be so far-fetched considering that Sleuth is itself trying to become the cornerstone of a new era for the games. In trying to get to that point though, Sleuth rushes several smaller ideas through without any particular consideration of how they fit into the whole.

Some aspects of the finale are clearly the result of deadlines. The last lead-up sequence at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is told through unvoiced text narration, making up for what seems to be several dialogue session that weren't ever recorded. After quite a bit of buildup, the Digital World is something of a disappointment, being a whopping three screens long and a straight shot to the final boss with no real last dungeon to speak of.

Given the length of the dungeon preceding it, it's arguable that the game would have overstayed its welcome by continuing on with another labyrinth. Considering how the player is teased by the prospect of an Eaterized Digital World overrun with horrific monsters and warped landscapes, it would have been better to at least be able to access additional screens as a bonus area.

A number of things deviate from Sleuth's general tone the moment that the final boss goes down. The player character attempts to save the villain, which is exactly the kind of boldness that's in line with the game's multifaceted characters; yet after persuading him of the potential in humanity and reinitializing Yggdrasill to undo the damage the Eater caused, the writers bizarrely feel the need to have Suedou killed off regardless. He can't exist in the new world after Yggdrasill's reformatted it--but what purpose is there in having a character develop and learn a lesson only to be unable to apply what they've learned?

Suedou moves past his original mistakes, is given the opportunity to repent, takes it, and that arbitrarily takes the form of erasing him from existence because he's a Bad Guy and in Digimon the Bad Guys disappear forever. (See also; Apocalymon, Belial Vamdemon, Lucemon, Kurata Akihiro, Yggdrasill 7D6, and Dark Knightmon. Note that the only endgame anime antagonists not on this list were from the two Digimon series that broke most heavily with tradition.) It's completely at odds with the way Suedou is portrayed.

This goes as well for the Digimon antagonists. In Sleuth's ending the only Royal Knights seen to return are the ones that joined the player in the story (sans Ulforce due to extenuating circumstances). The ending's morality is protagonist-centric. Dynasmon's death was treated as a tragedy, and Lord Knightmon's was somber in spite of how deserved it was. Alphamon went so far as to point out after Dynasmon's defeat that "Even the Royal Knights are just programs.", all but excusing the defeated parties.

Duftmon's faction were only following what they believed to be absolute orders, even though they were ultimately in the wrong. (And some of their members were certainly more enthusiastic than others.) The game establishes their destinies as pitiful, and their damnation comes off as an according non sequitor. Would a more mature game not have saved the antagonists instead of resorting to this cartoon morality?  While the execution of the actual ending isn't lacking its formal elements, it's clear that Cyber Sleuth's staff were backpedaling by holding on to franchise staples rather than going ahead with all of the ideas they had been building up to that point.

Most glaring is that Kyouko-as-Alphamon suggests a more sensible ending during the ending itself, inviting the player to join her in her journeys across the Digital World. It makes one wonder if this wasn't the original plan, to have the player join Alphamon in the Digital World after having helped them in the real world. Prior to this, the game builds up Alphamon-Kyouko's relationship to the player significantly, with her as an everpresent figure at every step of gameplay. At the points when she is gone, the player learns to miss her dearly, and even fear for her safety. The player is the Wattson to her Sherlock, and there's a case to be made that Alphamon is Takumi/Ami's real partner Digimon. The fact that the game sends them off after all this buildup to be the original Kyouko's assistant comes off as if the player suddenly left Alphamon for another girl with a similar hairdo.

The fact that the player is separated from their Digimon at all is a cringeworthy conclusion to an otherwise solid game. Like with the killing off of Suedou, this is an element that's clearly taking place "because that's what you do in a Digimon ending." Cyber Sleuth devotes several portions of the game to how Digimon fit into society and how the world at large has to adapt in order to make coexistence possible, while building Nokia's entire character around the idea that humans and Digimon can live together in peace...and then jumps right on the same train that Adventure, Tamers, Frontier, and Savers all jumped on, splitting up the human and Digital Worlds. That they hit a reset button on top of it and make it so that the events of the game never happened is just salt in the wound.

The ending is a strange hodgepodge of brave new ideas watered down by vestigial elements of a former children's franchise. But for all its flaws, Cyber Sleuth is a journey that I'm glad to have taken. Every good game leaves us with a takeaway of some kind. Whether that's a new perspective on identity, connections to other people, or a greater bond with a particular character, there are some games that we walk away from with a quality that we're better for having. Maybe it's something as simple as a really weird cup of coffee.

Mayonnaise!?

14 comments:

  1. Wow, you said it all, really. That's a very long review I've ever heard of Cyber Sleuth. As a long fans too, I can feel your good-bad feeling about it.

    Yeah, more or less I have the same opinion as you. Maybe I can't read much Japanese when I was playing it, but more or less I can understand what happened. Yeah I was not satisfied on the ending. It just completely ruined the twists and controversial things along the story.

    Here's my review anw:

    for me I give it a score of 7.5 to 8.0

    I can say on some aspects I enjoy Cyber Sleuth more, but on some other, I enjoy the Sunburst/Moonlight (aka Dawn Dusk) more.

    Cyber Sleuth focuses mainly on the story elements rather than the gameplay, I guess it's mostly fun on reading the dialogues especially if you're doing side missions. The exploration is however narrow, I expected it to be something like DW3 where we can explore both Tokyo and the Cyber Space more, but alas I expected it too much. As you said, it's only gorgeous on their looks, but actually bland inside especially if you have nothing to do with it anymore. What it lacks very much from the DS digimon story games is the variation of farm quests. The farm in cyslu looks gorgeous, but functionally, it's kinda bland. We can't communicate with digimon in the farm, they don't have personality like "prissy" etc which is unique in SB/ML bcos it's required for doing several missions. Also the farm quests of Cyber Sleuth looks dull, you're only requested to search something and it's all done, it can be eventually boring and not memorable at all. SB/ML is much better in this aspect coz you need to talk to the correspondent digimon, then find clues about it, then doing another progress, then after finishing it, you need to report back to your digimon. Every farm quests from SB/ML also looks variative.

    Battle aspects, in Cyber Sleuth it's more simplified bcos it only distinguish attack skill with "single" and "all" target, unlike SB/ML or another DS digisto games that used attack field. Even though it's more simple, Cyber Sleuth battle can be deep, the combo creation from some digimon can be really deadly, you can even hit the annoying Demon Lord bosses side quests with only 1 concentrated hit KO. Also you can't underestimate weak digimon like PlatinumScumon, etc. They can make a good to great combo if you create it wisely. It's more or less like pokemon's competitive battling, but different. But yeah the balancing is still kinda bad like you said.

    Rearing aspect, Cyslu might be kinda grindy in the first, but if you can dig more into the game, it's actually not grindy at all meanwhile SB/ML is very grindy-fest.
    In the JP version I played, the loading time was so slow, so it's kinda annoying.

    Story-wise Cyber Sleuth is more advanced than any digimon games that focuses on story as this one has much twists, etc. As I said, Digimon Story is usually story-driven, but this one is much more story-driven than the DS one. I guess, without the kind of Story in Cyber Sleuth, the game is just much more boring than that. Anw the game I guess is more like straight-line Visual Novel with RPG and exploration features as side elements.

    And yeah Wakamoto Norio's voice is the worst of all voices I heard in CySlu. Even though more ppl hyped of the seiyuu name, but it did the worst in the game, sadly.

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  2. Last but not least, I think that if Cyber Sleuth can have a remaster, with several issues being fixed, the story is reconsidered, and making it an open world one (it would be very fun if we can explore the whole Tokyo without being very limited area being observed just like in Ryuu Ga Gotoku game, with Cyber Sleuth having 2 and 3 dimensions, the EDEN and Digital World) it can be a highly-praised digimon game.

    Sadly this is Bandai Namco (Bandai side) we're talking, you know how Bandai make games? Yeah mostly are subpar, especially seasonal anime adaptation games, and several shounen jump games. They mostly only care of the fanservices provided to the manga/LN reader and anime watcher. For franchises that started with toys like digimon, err it's kinda hard to say. Maybe you can understand me. Sure they actually have big potential in being a good game, but maybe we can't expect much from Bandai, most of digimon games are: 1. Good but can be kinda bad. 2. Good/Very Good but wasted potential. 3. Very good but buggy. 4. Subpar.

    Cyber Sleuth for me lies on number 2, it's very good, but it wasted some many potentials to become a perfect digimon game / game in general.

    If only Digimon has its own gaming team like Tales of or Idolm@ster have from Namco side and with consistent staff (I mean not many newcomers who don't know digimon at all), I think it can compete with other games.

    Anw I'm still happy that Kazumasa Habu directed this game, he surely know digimon very well among all Bandai Namco staffs, even understanding several histories that most of the general fans/staffs don't know, like the anime staffs.

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  3. A long review but a very accurate one, IHMO. This game accomplishes something no other Digimon media could, even when the creators struggled to do so: it demonstrates Digimon isn't just for children, and that has plenty room form mature plots and characters. Sadly, this game suffers a heavy backslash in the form of the nostalgia factor, the true villain in this game.

    The ending was just your generic anime ending, that is true, but it demonstrates my point of how bad the nostalgia factor, sadly a determining factor in Digimon, was restraining the staff liberties. They cannot go without a nostalgia ending because the changes in this game, as you mention in the opening lines of this review, are enough to make older fans cry "this isn't my childhood", and as Digimon Adventure tri. has demonstrated, Digimon fans are more concerned about nostalgia than quality when we are talking about Digimon stories. That ending, dissatisfying as it is, it was a necessary evil. The game needs to be sold after all, and that means appealing to a broader public not just the new buyers.

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  4. Id say,this review is one of the longest and most in depth review about a digimon game i've ever seen,i'd give this review a 10/10!

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  5. are you dumb or what? there's no perfect game ever. it's excepting own flaws and learn from it and improve it in next game. and that's what digimon fans do they accept it the some problem or flaws but doesn't mean they gonna kick it out trash it like it doesn't exist BUT the problem compare to other fans.. they have more hardcore fans who literally support other games compare to digimon we barely exist any hardcore digimon fans who literally buy digimon stuff... and i hate digimon sale are base on western while the truth they are freaking other country who like digimon games more then western.... FACK YOU BANDAI NAMCO!

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    1. welp seems look like im reply touya NO! im replying on neptunia fans...

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    2. Whats up with you being salty all the sudden?

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    3. The now-deleted comment this one was referring to was trashing on Touya for downing Neptunia.

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    4. well thats what Aster said, no comment about the game till i play the game...

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  6. Very good and comprehensive review, although that 9/10 was surprising to see after what you said prior not implying that (then again, as time has generally proven, different people have different standards for their numerical rankings).

    I have two miscellaneous disagreements about what you said re: the ending (although I can't say your point of view isn't wrong either - I think that means good things in the end if a story can incite different takes on it). Firstly, I can't say that going off to be Alphamon's assistant was objectively the better option; part of the last portion of the game was about you reconnecting with the friends you should have known as you should, and doing that means you're effectively ditching them to go have happy detective times when you promised you'd go back with them together - now they're going to live the rest of their lives thinking they got Yuugo's life back in exchange for yours. (Selfish vs. selfless choice, I'd venture.) I think the game's actual mistake was treating the ending, as it turned out, to be the "better" option, where I think maybe a branching decision point and ending might have been better (again, the fact they missed this opportunity seems to be a symptom of the fact this is their first attempt at a Real Game).

    I also don't think Suedou's offing is a symptom of the children's franchise mentality; while I agree not even bothering to involve the other Royal Knights at the end was a little too protagonist-centered, I think "saving everyone" might actually be too children's anime-like here. Suedou wasn't just incidentally poofed by happenstance of the plot; he didn't want to return, you (the protagonist) convince him there's something to be saved in this world yet, he takes the option to save it at the cost of his own existence. It gave off a feeling that in the end, even though you jumped in to save him, he refused to be saved and it was the one thing you truly failed at.

    Of course, that doesn't mean I don't think there were still remnants of the failure to escape the franchise mentality - I do remember writing in my off-the-cuff reactions that the near-end was a little too focused on FRIENDSHIP! to not feel jarring. And, of course, the "traditional" parting ending, which has the same problem as Savers - it just kills the point of all those efforts to make the world where Digimon and humans live in peace. It's still one of my favorite executions of the now-clichéd ending (involving the memory aspect is genius), but still...and in regards to the reset button, I'll take the reset button and Kishibe Rie, but did we have to bring Kamishiro Satoru back too? That's just overdoing it.

    I had a few other miscellaneous observations and complaints too - there were a few characters I wanted to see more of (see: Fei, who gets particularly screwed over by the ending), and I'm admittedly a little "eh" about the fact the game is blatantly written for the male protagonist to the exclusion of the female. (Hitting on girls, getting punched in the face in what's given the aura of a "man-to-man fight", etc.). There's only so far you can push the headcanon that the MC's into girls too when you consciously know that's not why it is.

    In the realm of nostalgia, I found it interesting that Odaiba was on fire. You go to a place with strong associations with Adventure, expecting a nostalgia trip. Instead, it's on fire. It kind of hits you in the gut.

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    1. Maybe you all discuss too much about the story and plot aspects, here I'm complaining about how lack the relationship of the player and the digimon. Being too much focused in how they make a plot (even though it's a linear storyline) and to adds some many nostalgia things that wasted the potential of the storyline not to be just a generic "Adventure" one (I hope it to be something like Tamers or something non-generic shounen ending), I guess they forgot how to build relationships with digimon in-game aspects. Yea, the farm feature was the most critical thing for me. You can't talk to them with your will, you can only reply them on digiline. They removed the personality of the digimon so they can't have much variation of talks. Also for me the jogress system is biased much, only focusing on popular digimon (and new one) like Omega and Imperial. Silphymon and Shakkoumon's jogress was awfully wasted (as they can evolve into something other digimon can easily evolve without jogress, i.e. just evolve zudomon into vikemon then devolve it to shakkoumon and you already get one without having to do jogress, as the requirement to do jogress is quite hard, yeah getting 100% friendship for both is hard). I wonder why they can't make all jogress exclusive like SB/ML, look, even Silphymon is exclusively treated well, having Valkyrimon as its next evolution, and it's unobtainable anyhow except you do jogress. This is why Cyber Sleuth just too focused on anime nostalgia aspects than the good gameplay purpose. Yeah, the jogress in here is simply nostalgia to 02 or Omegamon, not as a whole gameplay feature (jogress system in DW 2, 3, and SB/ML is a well-implemented as it's not wasted into just showing off what's happened in the anime)

      If only they can balance the aspects from Sunburst/Moonlight and this one, I think it can be even better, as a game, not just as a nostalgia-train and story aspects like a VN did.

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    2. and I forgot to mention that the Armor Evolution in Cyber Sleuth suffers the same way as Jogress was. Nostalgia-train, AGAIN.

      No wonder why they only include Fladramon (02), Magnamon (RK, 02, Golden Digimentals), and GoldRapidmon (Golden Digimentals). See? All of them are just anime-driven.

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    3. Although I understand where you're coming from, a lot of this has to do with what Touya mentioned above - although the DigiFarm was interesting from a universe point of view, it was severely hampering accessible gameplay. (Quote: "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.") It's why Dawn and Dusk have the lowest critical reviews among main line game reviewing outlets of the entire Story series. And it's patently ridiculous to expect the dev team to be able to implement more than 300 (at maximum) Digimon at this stage when the 3D era means they have to individually model every Digimon - of course they're going to stick to the most popular ones from the anime when they have such a limited moveset.

      The reason we're discussing the plot so much is because it's the one factor where it's going to stand out the most in terms of its competition. "Complex" gameplay, while possibly interesting for the seasoned Digimon fan, can be overly complex or inaccessible for the average non-Digimon fan gamer (particularly the modern one), and that's not the kind of risk that the franchise should be taking right now.

      There are a lot of gameplay aspects that could have been improved, but the main reason the system was completely gutted out like this was not just to pander to anime fans, but to make it a decent game. Of course, it'd be nice to have a happy medium, but there are legitimate reasons behind this kind of move. Dawn/Dusk has a reported serial case in which players are actually unable to finish the game because of how tedious and overly complex it is. Cyber Sleuth's main goal is to get more new fans into the series by being accessible, which is why Touya spent so much time deconstructing the results of that above.

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