When the Digimon cartoon came to the US, I was already married. But there was something about the adventures of Japanese kids and their digital monster companions that really grabbed me. Perhaps it was the surprisingly mature story arc of the cartoon, which dealt with betrayal, guilt, and if memory serves, parents having to let their kids go off to try to save the world in the knowledge that the kids may die in the attempt. As someone raised on shows like He Man and GI Joe, those were issues I didn’t expect to see in a kids’ cartoon.
Somehow, though, until Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth, I had never actually played any Digimon video games. (My wife and I both had the Digital Monster virtual pet keychains that came before the cartoon, but that doesn’t really count.) I love Pokémon, and I’ve even played a few Monster Ranchers, just not Digimon, and I have to wonder if I’ve been missing out this whole time, because I really liked this game!.
In the world of Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth, many people play games and conduct their business within a virtual reality program called EDEN. One day while you’re in there chatting with friends, a hacker gives you a piece of software that allows you to scan and capture Digimon, which most people think are just software written by hackers to meet their nefarious hacking needs. But just after obtaining your first Digimon, you are attacked by a strange being called an “Eater.” You attempt to log out of the game to escape the attack, but the process somehow leaves your consciousness separated from your body. You spend the rest of the game as a sort of solid hologram, able to interact with the regular world but made of data and thus able to leap into the internet, while your body lies comatose in a hospital.
Just after your strange transformation, you meet Kyoko, a private detective who specializes in cyber crime. You join her as her assistant, and as Digimon start to affect the real world more and more, the two of you investigate all kinds of cases in a story that, like the cartoon’s, eventually requires you to defend both your world and the world of the Digimon from total destruction.
Even as a fan of the cartoon, I was surprised at the maturity in the story. There’s betrayal, guilt, and redemption, and although you play as a teenager, there are even competent adults. I also like that a few characters who come across as one-dimensional in their initial scenes turn out to be much more complex and go through an actual character arc as the story progresses. There is one exception, a character who stays pretty flat throughout, but if one were being generous, there are story elements that one could say are causing that character to stay the same.
Of course, saving the world always seems to involve battles, and Cyber Sleuth fits the bill in that regard. You venture forth into virtual dungeons, fighting random battles along the way through your Digimon companions. Among their other characteristics, Digimon have one of four types, three of which are better or worse than each other in the classic rock/paper/scissors formation, plus one neutral type that gets no advantage or disadvantage. You can have three Digimon in battle plus several more with you for backup.
As Digimon level up, you can evolve them into stronger forms or de-evolve them into weaker ones. De-evolving raises certain stats, and is necessary to evolve into the best Digimon. It also allows you to fully explore the complicated web of possibilities, because unlike Pokémon, most Digimon can both evolve into and de-evolve into multiple other Digimon. I’ll admit that I put a fair number of extra hours into the game just trying to make ’em all.
Each time you evolve or de-evolve a Digimon, it reverts back to level 1, so as long as you keep evolving, someone on your team is likely to level up in every battle, and their evolutionary strength is at least as important as their level number. As you move through the game, you encounter more highly-evolved Digimon, but the evolutions your team should have reached by those points should always be up to the challenge. The end result is that grinding never really becomes necessary, but you may choose to do some anyway, especially if you’re any kind of completionist.
Your Digimon who aren’t in your party hang out at a digital farm, where they can train to improve their stats, work to create items for you, or hunt for cases you can solve. I always had plenty of items, so I mostly had my farm buddies hunt for cases. Unfortunately, this led to my one disappointment with Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth — they only find two types of cases, and they get repetitive quickly. You either find and battle a person who’s treating their Digimon badly or go to an area and find a lost item. Sometimes, that lost item is clear across the level from the entrance, but other times it’s just a few steps away. Either way, it’s not that entertaining after the first few cases. It is a minor annoyance, though, since these cases are entirely optional.
Presentation isn’t everything, but fortunately in this case, the game’s look and sound are up to the same standard as its other aspects. I would have appreciated a few more unique environments, but those that are present are all interesting. Most mix the real and digital worlds (in accordance with the plot) and feature real world elements that are fairly static with digital elements that are a bit broken and chaotic, but not to the point of being a distraction. In battle, it’s great to see the Digimon I know and love/hate from the cartoon — I had Metal Etemon on my team for a while, and I couldn’t help but smile the first time I evolved someone into Veemon.
While I mention visuals, I have to pause a moment to mention that the designs of the females in the main cast are troubling. Take a look at the captioned screenshots to the right of this review — that’s really how Kyoko, your boss at the detective agency dresses, all the time. And your buddy Nokia is just as bad. But at the same time, they’re solid, admirable characters! Kyoko is a skilled and respected investigator, trusted by the local police. And although Nokia initially seems a little too focused on her own good looks, she grows to be a true champion for the cause of protecting the defenseless. Albeit a champion whose wardrobe would cause the police anywhere she goes to watch for an accompanying pimp. It left me very conflicted at times, but in the end, I decided to think of them as confident ladies who have decided that their sexuality is their own and they’re going to flaunt it. I’m probably not right, but I like the rest of the game enough that I’m willing to be optimistic in my interpretation of its motives on this one, even knowing that it’s likely just pandering.
On a more positive note, although the voice acting is strictly in Japanese, it still sounds to me like the cast does a great job. And the universal language of music always makes itself understood, which is nice in this game, because the music is great. The varied themes heard throughout match their scenes and help keep your interest on the game without becoming distracting. I’d absolutely listen to it outside the game. (Well, maybe not the battle theme for a while, after hearing it over 1000 times over the past few weeks, but given time, I’d go back to it too.) If you’d like more info on the music, you should definitely check out Neal Chandran’s review of the soundtrack — he liked it as much as I do.
With that, I’m not sure there’s more that I can say that would be useful to you. I put a total of 80 hours into Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth, and I really enjoyed the vast majority of those hours. The few that I didn’t really enjoy were the ones I spent finding lost items, and I only did those because I chose to search them out. If you’ve got any nostalgia for the cartoons, purchasing this game is a no-brainer. And if you never saw them, all you’ll be missing out on is the feeling of “hey, it’s that guy!” Cyber Sleuth is a great game, and one I heartily recommend.