Review | Digimon Survive
Development Hell Survivalist
Here’s something I didn’t expect to review in 2022: Digimon Survive, a strategy role-playing game (“SRPG”) with a heavily story focus told through 2D animated portraits on pretty backgrounds, was announced by Bandai Namco years ago. A spin-off of the Digimon series of games (like the previous RPG release Digimon Cyber Sleuth), Digimon Survive had aimed to launch years back but had been delayed multiple times over the course of its development, and despite the game’s producer’s statement, I was skeptical on whether or not I’d ever get to play the game. But miraculously, the game did survive it’s several long-year development under the game’s new developer HYDE and a release date was set for July of this year.
Despite the numerous delays (some in part, due to the COVID-19 pandemic), I was still looking forward to this game. Over the last few years, Bandai Namco has been pivoting the Digimon series away from its kid focus to more serious teenage slash young adult stories and this entry was no different—for in this game, characters could die based on the player’s choices in the story—which makes this the darkest, possibly the edgiest I’ve ever seen for the brand. This intrigued me, but over time I began dialing back my expectations for the game, and the delays plus marketing cycles definitely weren’t helping.
So, let’s talk about what became of the final product.
A Picture Book Coming to Life — Almost
Digimon Survive is a visual novel with a bonus SRPG minigame. To clarify, the vast majority of the player’s playtime of the game will be reading through swaths of text and occasionally making choices to raise the affection of another character or change the player’s morality compass. Which also affects the kind of evolutions that the player’s well-loved Digimon, Agumon, will have access to. Speaking of the player, the main character you assume control of is Momotsuka Takuma, which I can best describe as a blank slate character that the player can self-insert as. Almost, anyway, as Takuma is voiced, and his dialogue can differ from the choices you get to make in the game’s story.
These story events are played via 2D animated portraits on 3D environments mimicking 2D, and occasionally actual 2D backgrounds for less important scenes. On the game’s announcement, I found this style of presentation to be fairly interesting, but the actual execution is hit or miss. Some environments fit the game’s anime aesthetic, and others make the portraits stand out in less than flattering ways. Said portraits, which while I found visually pleasing, are also fairly limited in what they do in the background when they’re not being spoken to. The dreary environments don’t help, and scene lighting can be bad enough that colour banding rears its ugly head.
Ironically, this does work in the context of the game’s narrative tone, which I can only describe as depressing. The story takes place in a remote location in Japan as the cast steps through a tunnel that connects themselves to an alternative world of Kemonogami (what we know as Digimon). It’s a dangerous place, and the way back closes off, forcing Takuma and company to reluctantly befriend Digimon and fight alongside them for a chance to Survive. I’ll be frank: when I think of Digimon, I think of the original Digimon Adventure series or the older Digimon World games. So, when I play or watch anything recent from this series, I get a bit of tonal whiplash. The best way I can describe the feeling is like if Hello Kitty decided it wanted to be Happy Tree Friends one day.
But don’t take this as a negative. If anything, this take on the series is the best part of the game. It reminds me of a time when developers and publishers weren’t afraid to take creative risks on their properties (like Shadow the Hedgehog, Pacman World, Jak II and 3, and the list goes on). It makes for a refreshing playthrough, even if I would have personally preferred a new Digimon World game. My problem ultimately comes down to the execution. The choices the player can make, in relation to the story the game wants to tell and how Takuma actually interprets your choices, can be very tonally dissonated. Bear with me here.
There are three alignments in Digimon Survive: Wrathful, Harmony, and Moral. The route of the game session is based on how extreme the value of either of these alignments are, so if you want to experience everything the game has to offer, you’ll want to new game plus after completing one route to see what happens in the other. Standard visual novel stuff. What annoys me is the choices themselves, which I can only best describe as two middlemen (this being the game story and Takuma) twisting my chosen dialogue choice enough to become a completely different sentence or interpretation. Think LA Noire’s “doubt” button if you’re having trouble interpreting that; nothing like Cole Phelps grabbing the witness by the throat when all you wanted him to say was “I don’t believe you.”
And a lot of the time, choices framed as particular alignments don’t make sense. For my first playthrough, I intended to take the wrathful route, but a lot of the dialogue choices framed as “wrathfulness”, were not wrathful in the slightest. Apparently being inquisitive or even trying to lighten the mood might as well be akin to a chaos route in a Shin Megami Tensei game. All this adds up to me having a disconnect from the choices I made in the game, and so while I did enjoy reading through much of the story, I was simply pressing the topmost choice to continue on my given route rather than possibly doubting whether or not I wanted to make said choice.
On a smaller note, the game has its fair share of padding in the visual novel segments. Particularly when a new cast member is found and joins the group. You’ll find yourself reading the same arguments and brooding quite a bit, but thankfully the skip button comes in handy.
An SRPG I Could Do Without
When you’re not reading the game’s story, you’re playing the game’s minigame: a grid-based strategy game where you place your collected Digimon on a map to do battle against enemy ‘mon and bosses you encounter in the story. Every turn the player decides where they want to move their Digimon, evolve into another form if necessary, and use items or attack enemies if possible. Environment positioning is key to doing good damage and likewise protecting yourself from what could be fatal attacks. In free battles, you can talk to enemy Digimon in an attempt to befriend them or gain items from them.
There’s no beating around the bush on this one: Digimon Survive’s SRPG gameplay is boring. It does nothing new, and actually forgets to include standard gameplay features found in the genre, such as enemy marking (which allows the player to see the possible movement and attack range of an enemy). Maps are so square they make John Carmack blush, and there is little variation between stages. The enemy AI is as dumb as a brick, too. They’ll frequently fail to capitalize on your mistakes, often going in endless defense circles. My favourite is simply waiting at the beginning of the stage and watching aggro’d enemies walk up to you for an easy kill, or even funnier, dying to stage hazards like floating attack orbs (the game never explains what these are, by the way). Sure, it might be cool to see your favourite Digimon being able to evolve (or just playable really), but the game caps out at 117 Digimon, many you will not find in your first playthrough.
I found myself frequently comparing it to games I’ve played before, like Agarest War or Stella Glow. Heck, visuals for this mode are barely on par with those aforementioned titles and they launched well over a decade ago. Don’t even get me started on the truckloads of great PlayStation 2 SRPGs available. I honestly would have preferred this part of the game be removed during development entirely.
On the bright side, you can auto-battle all the fights. I think I might have lost one battle using it. I booted up my Xbox and played Pac-Man World 2 while the game did its thing.
It’s The Little Things
Digimon Survive is an unpolished game. I’d like to point out that, in an industry where games can easily fail to ship, I’m glad this wasn’t the case for this troubled title. But I can’t let the game go scot-free, especially at its $60 price point. The options menu fails to properly label the setting categories. The visual novel segments offer no on-screen controls such as skip or auto and the UI is at odds with itself when you do turn on those functions. The exploration segments, in which the player moves freely between areas to talk to other characters or battle, is best described as clunky: pulling up the world map won’t let you back out into the same area you just were, forcing you to load the same area again to go back. Or having to constantly interface with Takuma’s phone to pick up items found in areas that have no indication of being there otherwise. Going between the story and SRPG battles lack transition animations, standard stuff you’d find in just about every game of its kind.
The localization is not all up there either. Besides an alarming number of incorrect character and gender referencing (mind you, these tend to happen in the same conversations), there are grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors. There’s also no English dubbing for this game, which leaves Japanese for the voiced segments, and that means that sometimes the spoken doesn’t align with the translated text. Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle, Bandai. Honestly, the former is far more egregious than the latter, but I’d have liked it had the game offered Japanese text as an option, which it doesn’t and likely because the game isn’t available in Japan for Xbox.
The game is playable no doubt about that, but these grievances add up to make an unacceptable experience. And I don’t know how much of these problems will be patched out. But considering that Bandai Namco has updated games well into their lifespan, I would hope that they’ll iron out much of these annoyances with updates. And particularly with the localization, too. It’s frustrating, because there are some small touches the game does right: check out the main menu over the course of the story and you’ll see what I mean.
Better Late Than Never
In the end, I’m glad I yanked back my expectations for this game. Digimon Survive offers a unique spin on the franchise and one that I can appreciate, but it’s a shame the final product turned out like this after all this time. Still, I did find myself compelled to progress through the game’s story if not to see how things would turn. It’s certainly a crazy scenario for the ‘mon, after all. If you’re a Digimon fan, you’ll likely already own this game way past reading this review, but I can only recommend this game on a sale.
I’m glad I had the chance to play Digimon Survive, but I’ll just keep playing Digimon World 4 and Rumble Arena for my fill of Digi-goodness.
|Reviewed on||Xbox Series X|
|Available on||Xbox One, Steam/PC, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch|
|Release Date||29th of July, 2022|
|Publisher||Bandai Namco Entertainment|
|ESRB Rating||T for Teen – Fantasy Violence, Mild Blood, Crude Humour, Language|
- Fresh take on Digimon and how dangerous the world can be. The story kept me going.
- Despite visual inconsistencies, I do quite like the art style.
- Dull and uninteresting SRPG gameplay.
- Disconnect between player choice, character agency, and story direction.
- Lack of polish across the board.