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Bandai Namco
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Release Date:
February 2, 2016

No, I don't care a fig about Digimon . The Pokemon craze made me physically ill. I despised the rise of mediocre anime that tempted kids with little else besides incessantly flashing, poorly drawn pictures and too-stupid-even-for-children characters and storylines. It's why I very nearly tossed Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth into the garbage when it came in the mail. I just can't stand this stuff. But in the interest of trying something new (and also to return the favor; after all, the publisher did send it to me for review purposes, not so I could trash their product and back over it with my car), I did a little research. When I saw a gameplay video, I was immediately intrigued…

As you might expect, the game won't win any visual awards. It's unfortunately clear to critics and most gamers that Japanese games – particularly JRPGs, for some reason – have fallen off the pace in terms of visual achievement. Many productions still seem stuck in the past and while Cyber Sleuth isn't much different, it'd be unfair to call these graphics "poor." They're actually quite good, allowing for the fact that Japanese artistry and design is very different and not necessarily of a lower quality. I think a lot more could've been done with the backdrops and some of the special effects, but I'm willing to bet that this is Digimon through and through. It's also a consistent, stable visual presentation with lots of character variety, which is a definite plus.

The audio falls into much the same category: If you're a fan of anime and you know what to expect, you'll probably enjoy the sound here. Yeah, some of the voices are painfully bad and the soundtrack can be repetitive and even irritating, but the effects really shine in battle and again, it's perfect for the fans. Despite the surprising depth and potential appeal to those who simply want a pretty hardcore old-school battle mechanic, it's unlikely that non-Digimon – or even non-anime – followers will be interested. Technically, there's nothing particularly impressive about the game but then again, there's nothing particularly irksome or disappointing about it, either. And in the end, I'd rather have underwhelming and reliable than impressive and glitchy.

Let's start with a few surprises. One might assume that cornball humor, endless – and occasionally creepy – innuendo, and absurd, over-the-top characters that assault the senses with their outrageous personas are on tap. Well, that's only partially true. This game is a lot darker than you might imagine, and the plot actually contains true-blue intrigue and even goes so far as to tackle morality issues. Some of the characters are likable and even interesting, insofar that the player starts to become attached. These are the hallmarks of any good story-driven RPG so I was very pleased to see them, while still wondering if I was indeed playing a game with "Digimon" in the title. In short, this one certainly tried to grow up in ways that other JRPGs haven't yet attempted.

There's a strong sense of humor that doesn't make you wince at every turn, and that humor serves to combat some of the repetitiveness and grinding so common in the genre. Perhaps most intriguing is the concept itself, which presents the lead characters with a series of trials within the digital community of EDEN. You've got your standard hackers and Internet personalities here, and when the silent protagonist joins up with the group, she earns the unique ability to tame Digimon. And when she begins to suffer from a strange illness that seems to be affecting users of the EDEN forum, that ability becomes very, very useful. Those affected by the virus fall into a coma and at that point, the main character becomes a hybrid human of sorts; half-digital and half-physical, which in turn grants them special access to the online universe.

It's not that we haven't seen such theories before (hell, elements of this idea can be traced back to "Lawnmower Man" and beyond), but it's nice to have a decidedly thoughtful and even complex theory at the core of this experience. But here's where we come to a possible snafu: As I said above, games like this are obviously fan-service, right? Problem is, because the human characters take center-stage in this narrative, the Digimon tend to fall out of focus during the story arc. Now I liked this because again, I don't care about the franchise. But I'm wondering if it'll prove annoying to the loyal followers who bought the title with certain expectations. Still, those fans will get plenty of Digimon goodness once they enter the battle arena, which is accessible yet intricate, like any good turn-based system.

Battling and taming Digimon is indeed the crux of the gameplay. You will command up to three Digimon at a time in these turn-based encounters; they're your allies and each one has a special set of traits and skills. It is indeed standard turn-based but with a lot of twists that make it continually refreshing; for instance, there's a nifty combo system where party members can leap into the fray to deal extra damage, and a complicated system in which certain enemies and abilities are more are less effective in particular situations. This builds upon the basic Attack, Guard, Item system with which we're all familiar and don't forget about adding Digimons to your growing army by first "taming" them in battle. And it's not hard to get them; you just have to find them in battle and boost up the Conversion meter.

Once that mater reaches 100 percent, you've earned another ally, and it makes the searching and hunting that much more entertaining. You're not constantly worried that you're going to miss the best Digimon creatures, even though you'll find that some monsters are quite rare (and you might have to get them via evolution). Additionally, you can try ‘em all out in the online and offline coliseums. If you choose to face down other human players with their Digimon, be prepared for a tense battle! The offline fights aren't as engaging or challenging, obviously, and there also isn't much in the way of rewards, besides leveling up monsters. And hey, I'm a big fan of Digivolution, which involves a heckuva lot more strategy than you might imagine. It's a branching system that actually lets Digimon evolve into completely different creatures.

The only downside to all this is that the game design is woefully lacking. It'd be a fantastic production if it weren't for the mediocre dungeons you're forced to traverse, over and over. I don't mind the linearity but it takes forever to negotiate these areas due to the main character's ridiculously slow pace, and missions just have you wandering back and forth. I've never really had a problem with fetch quests but I do in this scenario because they're just plain tedious and totally uninspired. And it's too bad that you spend the majority of your time traipsing around these unimaginative dungeons; the only saving grace is the humor and jokes that occasionally lace your progression. I just wish Japanese developers would start to join the rest of the industry in the 21st century when it comes to a game's foundation, structure and overall design.

The other potential problem is that it really does start slow. But I seriously doubt die-hard JRPG fans will care, as a slow start is par for the course in this genre. Besides, at least we get a semi-decent storyline and some cool characters that keep us entertained during the introductory sequences. It's just that the whole game really starts to chug due to the often boring missions; there's simply way too much in the way of filler. I'm seeing that a lot in JRPGs these days: A ton of trite if not downright silly additions that apparently only exist to ratchet up the hour meter. They don't do anything for the story and the gameplay doesn't evolve, either, so they seem utterly pointless. Still, if you love the combat enough – and you just might – it might be easy to overlook these shortcomings.

Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth is an enjoyable and intricate role-playing experience that might entice both anime and traditional RPG lovers alike. The turn-based mechanic is excellent (and once again proves that nothing about this system is "archaic" or "inferior") as it's both immediately accessible and wildly diverse, the Digivolution mechanic is well fleshed-out and embraces player choice via branching options, and the underlying humor and darker atmosphere gives the entire game a boost. In short, I'd say it's obviously an anime production that has appreciated elements not typically found within the anime sphere. The story and characters really aren't bad at all and collecting those Digimon can be oddly addictive. There's actually quite a lot to like here, despite the clear downfalls, and that's a pleasant surprise.

The Good: Interesting concept with some appealing characters. Gameplay mechanic is fantastic, as it effectively combines intricacy with a high fun factor. Digivolution is a huge highlight. Collecting Digimon never feels like a chore. Solid humor and darker, more mature issues.

The Bad: Technical elements aren't anything special. Dungeon design is woefully lacking, unfortunately. Can feel tedious and repetitive.

The Ugly: "If you're going to move that slowly, you deserve to be under attack all the time."