Cyber Sleuth is the most fun I've had with Digimon in a long time, though my idea of 'fun with Digimon' is quite specific. It's been nearly 19 years since Bandai launched Digital Monster toys, a more 'masculine' counterpart to the wildly popular Tamagotchi. In 1999 we met the DigiDestined in Digimon Adventure, the first of several Japanese cartoons in which a cadre of children team up with colourful creatures from the Digital World to battle the forces of not-so-great.
I loved those cartoons. My wife and I first met back when Digimon was getting big in the States. We shopped for toys, we saw the 2000 Digimon movie together in the theatre. We still own the soundtrack (it was pretty great at the time.) The anime and toys hold special meaning to me.
But those are more passive forms of Digimon-based entertainment. When it comes to interactive Digimon play, I need something more than half-assed platforming and clumsy brawling.
What I need is Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth. Bandai Namco's PlayStation 4 and Vita turn-based role-playing game doesn't get everything right, but the 'fun' bits I desire are presented so perfectly I don't mind its more tedious aspects.
For example, my idea of 'fun with Digimon' does cover classic turn-based role-playing game battles, which there are quite a lot of in the only halfway decent Digimon console game to drop in the West in ages. It makes sense to me that creature made of data would have a certain order of operations to combat.
The battles are simple and initially satisfying, but those basic random encounters quickly become a breeze, then a mindless chore. It's an unfortunate side-effect of giving players the ability to capture and evolve Digimon at their own pace. Though the number and power of digital monsters the player can bring into battle is limited at first, the game isn't shy about regularly upping that limit.
As Richard Eisenbeis did with the Japanese release of the game last year, I played the game wrong, though it felt so right. Instead of dealing with the digihand dealt to me and progressing through the story one cyber sleuthing case at a time, I went out of my way to generate random encounters.
Each time a Digimon is encountered in battle its scan rate increases. Once it reaches 100 per cent the player can visit the DigiLab and hatch one of them from an egg. From there they can earn levels through battle or by being placed on a digital farm. Once level and stat requirements are met, they can be Digivolved into a more powerful form, though sometimes they will need to be De-digivolved in order to increase their level cap so they can Digivolve into... You know what? This is too complicated for the layperson, and old hat to the fans.
The degree of control and complexity when it comes to cultivating the nearly 250 Digimon in the game is intoxicating to the sort of player whose idea of 'fun with Digimon' involves navigating endless menus, hunting down stat enhancement levels and hitting the helpful auto-battle toggle several hundred times in one sitting.
As it happens, I'm that sort of player. I've clocked nearly 40 hours in the game since it launched, yet I'm only halfway through the story. I had planned on completing the narrative before reviewing Cyber Sleuth, but every time I sit down with the game I wind up in the DigiLab, checking evolution requirements and trying to create Digimon I've not encountered yet, or setting the critters on my two DigiFarms to train or develop new items or uncover horribly repetitive side missions to give me an excuse to grind some more.
On one hand this approach diminishes the rest of the game significantly. Colourful story mission dungeons, a welcome break from the repetitive blue worlds where most side quests happen, lose a bit of their lustre when you know the only real challenge you'll face is the final boss.
And look at me, some twelve paragraphs into my review and I've not even mentioned the game's story. I've been too busy harping on the Digimon management system. That's pretty much how my time with Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth has gone.
Cyber Sleuth begins with the player character in a chat room. He or she (there's a choice), a teenage boy named Arata and a girl named Richard Eisenbeis' waifu (though actually Nokia) are lured by to the virtual world of Eden, a mecca of shopping and haven for hacker groups. The trio meet and befriend an assortment of Digimon, but an encounter with a horrific digital creature causes then to flee. The player, attacked in mid-logout, returns to the real world, but his or her body is now digital. A cyber detective named Kyoko rescues the player from a frightened crowd and recruits them as her apprentice, keen on using this new digital human hybrid's ability to jump connect into networked devices to solve cases, including the Mysterious Case of What the Hell Just Happened.
The story pacing isn't great to begin with. Cyber Sleuth has multiple major plot threads dancing around each other for the first half of the game. We've got Nokia's heroes journey, in which an average teen befriends both Agumon and Gabumon, a pairing that telegraphs greatness for any Digimon fan worth their salt.
We've got Arata, a seemingly cool customer who's obviously hiding something. There's the player, who runs into the daughter of the former CEO of one of the world's most powerful corporations while on a quest to uncover the truth behind Eden users falling into comas. And what's with the digital world bleeding into the real world and causing chaos?
I'm nine chapters into the 20 chapter game, and these threads are finally beginning to weave together in a fashion compelling enough that I considered pausing my Digimon levelling to see what happens next. It was a very brief consideration. I've still got a lot of digital monsters to tame.
There are plenty of things that might endear more sensible, non-obsessed players to Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth. It's got a story that's serious and mature yet playful. It's got a look and feel that's sharp and appealing, even though it's obvious that the PS4 version is essentially an upscaled Vita game. With music from Danganronpa composer Masafumi Takada and character designs from Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor's Suzuhito Yasuda, it's obvious developers were going for a Persona vibe, and for the most part they nailed it.
The game's traditional turn-based role-playing battles are perfect for old school fans of the genre looking for something nice and simple that doesn't involve timers or running in circles or changing jobs on the fly.
If all else fails, it's got Gatomon.
But for me this is a game that's all about digging my hands deep into the digital innards of fantastic creatures and drawing out the very best Digimon they can be. It's stirred the stats-obsessed part of me that I've not felt since back when I'd spend hours trying to fit the very best armour possible in the science fiction MMORPG Anarchy Online. I'm not even doing this to participate in the game's online multiplayer battles. This is all for me.
Sure my obsession with crafting the perfect team of digital champions is ruining the game's story and combat quite a bit, but the developers wouldn't have put all of these systems in place if they didn't want rabid fans to take full advantage.
To many I imagine Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth is just a colourful but simplistic role-playing game with a slow-to-start story and repetitive dungeon environments.
To me it's the chance to spend hours capturing Poyomon, Digivolving it to Tokomon, reaching max level and then De-digivolving it back to Poyomon, reaching max level and Digivolving to Tokomon, then Patomon, and finally increasing Patomon's stats so it can Digivolve to Angewoman. If that sounds exciting to you, then boof!