It’s become an almost unspoken truth among Millennials and other nerds watching cartoons and playing games in the mid to late 90’s that Pokemon was the better video game franchise while Digimon held the mantle of having the better Saturday morning cartoon show. The history of Digimon games in the west has been spotty to say the very least. Pokemon was recently declared to be the most popular and profitable media franchise of all time, in small part due to the massive popularity of it’s main-line and spinoff video games made even more popular thanks to new media platforms like YouTube reinvigorating nostalgic players and bringing in new fans. Digimon was never as lucky in this regard. While a few Digimon games were released on various Playstation and Nintendo platforms over the last two decades, none of them saw even a fraction of the popularity and sales success that the Pokemon games did, and even fewer people were actively advocating for them on modern media platforms like YouTube or Twitch. Even the physical Digimon Trading Card Game fell flat on its face after two sets and was left in the dust by the still ongoing and wildly popular Pokemon TCG. It was very clear that at least from a marketing and brand perspective that the yellow mouse had thoroughly trounced the orange dinosaur in the west, and the playground question of “Was Pokemon better than Digimon?!” was over, at least as far as western license holders were concerned.
Cut to December 2019. The newest upcoming games in the Pokemon franchise, Pokemon Sword and Shield are under heavy criticism for a multitude of reasons. Many older fans who had been playing the series for over twenty years had finally become disillusioned with the franchise, largely because of its unwillingness to change and the removal of several iconic creatures and features from previous games. Pokemon had cemented itself firmly in place as being a family-friendly franchise for kids and had become a brand of such colossal size that it no longer had the ability to take chances or deviate from what fans had come to expect from previous installments. This was done if for no other reason than to satisfy the increased demand of shareholders who need to see constant growth in a company forced the Pokemon developers into the corner of stagnation.
This was very much the mindset I found myself in as a soon to be graduating college student. As nostalgic as I was for the days of “Gotta Chatch’em All!”, I had simply become tired of Pokemon. Not to the extent that I was using obnoxious hashtags or writing death threats to Satoshi Tajiri like some of the more rabid fans were, but enough that I was going to take a “pass” on Sword and Shield when they came out, and if the people looking forward to game ended up enjoying it, it would be no skin off my nose. But still, the desire to play a Pokemon-like game kept picking away at me during this time. I wanted to play a monster collecting game with a bit more depth to it than Pokemon, but not something that would completely kick me to the curb as a Shin Megami Tensei game would. Enter Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth.
Originally released for PS4 in 2015 by Bandai Namco, and then re-released on the Nintendo Switch in October 2019 and bundled together with the sequel Hacker’s Memory, Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth (Complete Edition) is a game that combines the monster collecting and raising of a Pokemon game with the story, character design, combat, and the heart of a modern-day Persona game, topped with a fresh coat of Digimon paint. While the game(s) comes so very close to being the definitive Digimon console experience for a niche demographic hungry for monster-collecting RPGs and a nostalgia for Digimon (aka me), I have just enough nagging issues I was unable to overlook that drag the game(s) down from being an absolute masterpiece. It’s by no means an unplayable waste of time, in fact, several elements I’ll discuss later on highlight how great of a JRPG and story experience it can, but even with my rose-colored nostalgia glasses on, this diamond has plenty of visible flaws. In a sentence: It’s almost great. Almost.
I feel It would be a disservice to describe beat for beat the stories of both Cyber Sleuth and Hacker’s Memory because I think they’re good enough to experience for yourself, but for the sake of this review I’ll give a basic outline for both. Both CS and HM are games that take place in Japan in the near future. Technology has become so sophisticated that its given rise to a virtual world called Eden, an online hub integral to everyday activities such as shopping, banking, and business. Similar to the cyber world Oz from Mamoru Hosoda’s Summer Wars, Eden acts as secondary space separate from the real world that everyone is a part of and uses on a daily basis. Despite being a paradise of new and exciting technology, Eden is also filled to the brim with tech-savvy hackers who engage in various criminal acts such as stealing private information, taking over user accounts, and planting viruses/malware to disrupt society. Hackers use programs called Digimon to battle one another for territory and status. Many hackers form gangs such as the ruthless Zaxons and the rock-and-roll-inspired Demons to cultivate their power to better rule and conquer territory as a group, while other hackers prefer to operate alone to avoid police detection.
The story of Cyber Sleuth revolves around the rise of a young detective (the player can choose to be either male or female) who’s body becomes corrupted after saving their friends from an unknown creature called an Eater. After the encounter, the hero is saved by a mysterious woman named Kyoko who helps them obtain a new virtual body. This new body allows them to “Connect Jump” into various cyberspace worlds to fight hackers, evil Digimon, and even sometimes into a persons digitized soul to purify them. Knowing that the power of the Connect Jump would be extremely useful for her detective agency, Kyoko offers the hero a chance to become her apprentice and gives them the title of the “Cyber Sleuth.” The plucky young detective then works to solve cases over Eden and the real world, all the while a bigger plot involving the Digimon, the hero’s past, and the Eaters slowly begins to unfold around them.
Hacker’s Memory takes place during the events of Cyber Sleuth and revolves around new a new protagonist named Keisuke who joins the Hacker gang Hudie (Butterfly in Chinese) to find his stolen account while getting himself caught up in the dangerous world of Hacker gang wars and the mysterious actives of the Kamishiro corporation. While Keisuke learns the ropes as a Hacker for hire under Hude, he’s constantly being pulled along by a masked man named K, who seems to be the only one capable of pointing him in the right direction of his stolen account, and who everyone at Hudie is reluctant to trust. Everything may not be as it seems, however, as Keisuke begins to have has doubts over whether or not the account he’s so desperate to find may not even be his. Could the family he’s come to love at Hudie be hiding something from him or is there more to this than meets the eye?
While you can technically play both games in any order, I’d recommend playing through Cyber Sleuth at least once before playing Hacker’s Memory, as several key events and characters may confuse you if you don’t have a least a casual understanding or who these people are and what’s going on in Eden during certain chapters. Also keep in mind if you have clear data from Cyber Sleuth, you’ll only be able to transfer over your Digi Medal collection, Field Guide entries, and a few bonus items into your Hacker’s Memory playthrough. Items such as Digimon, memory, money, and consumable items can only be transferred to a new Cyber Sleuth run. The same applies to new Hacker’s Memory runs.
If you’ve played through a JRPG taking place in modern-day such as Persona 3 or 5, you’ll probably end up enjoying the stories of both Hacker’s Memory and Cyber Sleuth. Similar to Persona 5, both games revolve around a group of teenagers that form a special team and fight evil with special powers and abilities that many of the adult characters don’t have knowledge of or access to, and only they are uniquely qualified to fight against a terrible force threatening to destroy the world. Also like Persona, the stories are heavily steeped in modern anime-style troupes. If at some point in this game you roll your eyes when you see the main characters are saved from a tough situation by the power of working together and believing in friendship for the fifth time, this may not be the game for you. Otherwise, as long as you know what your in for, the coffee-fueled escapades of the Cyber Sleuth will be right up your alley.
Both games revolve around a cast of exponentially quirky characters such as the hyperactive but good-natured Nokia (she emanates precious idiot energy), the quiet and reserved Yuuko, and the stoic but ultimately kind-hearted Arata for Cyber Sleuth. These characters share a “long lost family” dynamic, as many of them were childhood friends who drifted apart as they got older, and they now have to have to reunite to save the world. One of Cyber Sleuths major themes is trying to let go of mistakes from the past and trying to learn from them, and as such many of the character interactions involve our leads mending fences and the learning to overcome each other’s weaknesses to create a strong team during the latter parts of the story.
Juxtaposed to Cyber Sleuth, the character developments in Hacker’s Memory rely on a “small family dynamic”. After the main character loses his account, he drops out of high school and is in desperate need of a new family, which he finds in the Hacker group Hudie. Some of the highlight characters include the stubborn and strong Hudie leader Ryuji, the cheeky ladies man and second in command Chitose, and the tsundere master Hacker Erika. The major themes in Hacker’s Memory are the discovering of one’s identity and the separation of a person’s online identity and their real-life self. Are they one and the same, or are they completely different? This is a question that is extremely pervasive in our current online culture of Twitter wars and forum boards, and the story goes out of its way to explore these ideas, especially with Erika and the protagonist’s relationship.
Art Design and Character Models
Going back to Pokemon for just a second, one of the chief complaints from fans of the franchise regarding Sword/Shield is that models used for each monster in previous entries in the series developed for a handheld console were now being reused and almost copy-pasted into the HD games coming to consoles for the first time. These models and the 3D world they inhabited did not look great by most accounts and were poorly received by many fans. In contrast to this, the creature models in Digimon Story made almost four years before S&S look incredible. Each Digimon is rendered beautifully in 3D, complete with smooth walk cycles (Digimon follow behind you like in Pokemon HG/SS), battle animations, and even a unique cutscene for each creature used during their special attack in battle. The variety of available Digimon is also impressive. As someone who watched every Digimon series from Digimon Adventure to Digimon Fusion, practically every Digimon I’ve ever had nostalgia for is available to collect and battle with. Even new additions such as Alphamon, Sistermon, and Examon quickly became some of my go-to party members during the endgame.
The cyberworlds of Eden and Kowloon look like something out of Serial Experiments Lain or Tron. They’re exactly what I’d imagine the internet would look like if it was a place you could actually go walk around in. Public locations such as the Eden Free Area are very sanitized, clean, and are very warm and approachable, while the dens of Hackers and the Hacker Zones of Kowloon contain dark colors, have streams of unknown data flowing in the background, containing winding paths, and are laid out in such a way as to create fear and anxiety in the player as they explore each floor. Standalone areas created with URL codes provide a sense of variety as you’ll be hard-pressed to find a map design recycled more than once as you complete missions and collect new Digimon. Overall I find the cyber world of Digimon Story to be an immersive place that I often find myself getting lost in and have fun exploring for hidden items and accessories.
Locations in the real world that the characters interact with aren’t so lucky in this regard. While they don’t look terrible, some models can be easily clipped through and seem to have been rendered in lower quality than the rest of the game’s locations. You’ll be spending the majority of the time exploring in Eden so this isn’t too big of an issue, but just know that this game won’t exactly go down in history as one that will compete graphically with something like Horizon Zero Dawn or The Last of Us.
If the game(s) had one definitively perfect thing they did right that I had absolutely zero issues with, it would have to be the music. The OST of Cyber Sleuth/Hacker’s Memory is the perfect combination of techno-inspired tracks with a few hints of punk and even a small amount of RNB for good measure. Some of the game’s more tender moments are accompanied by a few slower tracks with a heavier focus on a slow orchestral piano sound, but the main appeal of the soundtrack is the techno and alt-rock overtones. I personally found the entire soundtrack to be very easy listening and even found myself headbanging to a few of the games more bombastic tracks. This is definitely OST I’ll be coming back to and adding to my workout mix.
90% of the games NPCs simply aren’t worth talking to. You’ll spend several hours in Cyber Sleuth solving cases and doing shopping in a home base area located in a strip mall called Nanako Broadway. This area has tons of people walking around, several floors to explore, and lots of stores to visit, but outside of the arcade and the cafe, the upper floors have almost nothing interesting to see outside of the same five or six NPCs who will repeat the exact same lines of pointless dialogue at the beginning of the game as they do as the end credits roll. An example of this is the owner of the takoyaki shop on the third floor who constantly tells how his takoyaki is “the best in the universe” and that “you’re not a true local until you try it!” During my initial playthrough, I assumed that you’d eventually have to do a side quest for this character or that he’d say something different as the story progressed, but this was not the case. From Chapter 1 to Chapter 20 all this man would talk about is his octopus filled delights. He was hardly alone in this regard, as pretty much all non-plot related NPCs in every area had no change in dialogue after you initially talk to them.
This makes the world of Cyber Sleuth feel hollow and empty. It slightly disincentives exploration and often times broke my emersion of the world and its characters. RPG games like Fire Emblem Three Houses and Dragon Quest will go out of there way to ensure that NPCs always have something different to say after you’ve helped solve a problem or will react to a major occurrence in the story. This helps keep the player engaged in the world and creates a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. For a game that was released as recently as 2015 and then rereleased in 2019 on the Switch, it feels extremely lazy and is honestly kind of inexcusable for such a modern RPG.
I found the game’s combat to be a bit underwhelming. Each Digimon has a specialty attack that only they can use (with an admittedly a cool custom animation for every Digimon) and it almost always ends up being the most powerful move they can use. Each Digimon learns new attacks and support skills as they level up, but outside of a few AOE healing skills, buffing skills, and a handful of skills that effect Chain Bonuses, almost all of the attacks learned through level up are basically worthless. Similar to Persona, each Digimon can be customized with the moves they’ve learned between changing forms. For example, if Palmon learns the Anti-Poison skill at level 12, she can then equip that skill even after digivolving into Togemon. You can keep up to 20 learned skills in your Digimon’s storage, but you can only use six of them at a time. This can actually be useful for customizing strategies when facing specific boss encounters, but it hardly matters because specialty attacks usually end up doing so much damage that other damaging moves hardly ever matter., and as such aren’t worth swapping out support skills for.
The game has a number of skills that can help supplement a Digimon’s move pool so they can deal different types of elemental damage, which sounds great on paper but is ultimately pointless for a number of reasons (I’ll get into that in the Type Match-Ups section), but in particular, because most Digimon only tend to learn one type of elemental damaging move as they level up. For example, Angewomon has a specialty attack called Celestial Arrow that deals 100 light-based magic damage to a single target and has the ability to remove buffs to the target. This ability is usable at level 1. Angewomon then learns the skill Holy Light III at level 45, which does 95 light-based damage, has less accuracy, and costs roughly the same amount of SP. Why would I ever use Holy Light III over Celestial Arrow? Aside from the minor SP cost difference, one move is clearly better than the other, so of course, that’s the move I’m going to spam over and over again during every battle. The SP cost difference of moves is hardly noticeable because of the availability of healing spots and abundance of restorative items you’ll get as random drops from enemies. This means that most of the time when you learn a damaging move such as Awesome Quake, Nanomachine Break, Woken Palm, or Ice Archery, they hardly ever matter and aren’t worth a move slot. Even moves that target all enemies are unhelpful because they deal so little damage that you’re honestly better using a more powerful single-target attack to take out an enemy one shot as opposed to just slightly denting all targets.
Similar to Fire Emblem’s weapon triangle, Cyber Sleuth uses a rock paper scissors system in its combat using four main Digimon types: Vaccine, Data, Virus, and Free. Virus beats Data, Data beats Vaccine, and Vaccine beats Virus. Free type Digimon deal and take neutral damage from all types. On top of this also lies an elemental type chart similar to the Pokemon franchise. Fire beats Grass, Water beats Fire, Electric beats Water, and so on. The problem with these elemental match-ups is that they largely don’t matter because of the much bigger emphasis on the four Digimon types. For example: say I have a Fire Vaccine Digimon and they battle a Virus Water-type. Even though Water beats Fire in the elemental type match up, it largely doesn’t matter because the damage modifier that Vaccine receives against all Virus types is so strong, and the damage they do in return is so weak, that it mitigates any possible advantage you thought you might have had. After playing through both Cyber Sleuth and Hacker’s Memory I never once had to memorize or pay attention to elemental type advantages because as long as I had a Virus to a counter a Data type and so on, I could easily win every fight by mindlessly spamming specialty attacks and tossing out occasionally healing. I beat about 90% of random encounters with sped up animations on auto-battle because of how vanilla the combat felt.
Lack of an English Dub
Yes, I’m going to be that guy. I’m fully aware that certain types of games from Japan sell fewer copies in the west than they do in other parts of the world. I’m also aware that casting, ADR, and recording an English dub for a niche franchise like Digimon would be a big expense that would eat heavily into any localization budget. And yes, I’m aware that for the vast majority of people who freely choose to buy a Digimon game in 2019 (especially one so heavily steeped in anime tropes and cliches) that they are exactly the type of consumer that wouldn’t mind hearing the Japanese dub of the game, and in fact would probably go out of their way to tell you “how much better the sub than the dub” is, however, this game still needed the option for an English dub, if for no other reason than it would help open up the game for a potential new audience.
I honestly don’t mind listening to Japanese, but some people want to hear the dialogue in their native language when they play video games. It’s also sometimes difficult for people to listen to one language while reading another. It’s a skill not everyone has, and I think it’s unfair for localizers to blindly assume that everyone can do it. Just because I spent my early twenties watching bad fansubs of One Piece for hours on end and am used to reading while watching doesn’t mean everyone is. Cyber Sleuth isn’t the only Japanese game guilty of this by any stretch, but one of the first things that turn someone away when I try to recommend the game to them is its lack of an English dub. Considering the great characters the story has to play with and the fact that the protagonist of both games is silent and has a majority of text lines, I don’t think a quality dub would have been that hard to crank out for Cyber Sleuth or Hacker’s Memory, especially with the extra time given to them during the development of the Switch port.
If you’re going to force me as a player to listen exclusively to a Japanese dub for the entire run of the main story, I’m honestly fine with that, but your translation of audio I can’t fully understand better be flawless then to make up for it. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the script both CC and HM have an abundance of grammatical mistakes and mistranslations. Just take a look at some of these screenshots. I could maybe understand if these fell through the cracks during the original release back in 2015, but these images are from the 2019 rerelease, as in this game came out last year! This is just inexcusable. If one or two tiny spelling or grammatical errors popped up here and there I honestly wouldn’t even be bringing this up. Mistakes happen even on the most high profile projects, but these errors appear constantly throughout both games, especially in the Digi Line message service.
Even when the script is grammatically correct, characters will often talk in bizarre net-speak and say meme-like words that feel completely out of place during character dialogue. Part of me understands that because the game is literally about internet culture, cyberspace, and gangs of Hackers using code words and leet-speak to encode and send secret messages to each other that I shouldn’t be too hard about this or be too hard on the translators for their attempts at comedy, but they often get so carried away with this that characters will unironically say the phrase “LOLZ” out loud to other characters in conversation. It goes from charming to dumb after seeing it for the fourth time. The bottom line is that the translated script of both games was in desperate need of fixing before the game shipped, and this was clearly not done, most likely to meet a release deadline. I’d be interested to see if Bandai Namco releases a patch to fix the buggy translation in the future, but at this point, I’m not holding my breath.
Most Mega and Ultra level Digimon worth using require a stat called ABI to be high in order to obtain. The only way to increase ABI is to constantly evolve and devolve the same Digimon over and over again just to increase its ABI percentage. The only problem is that every time you digivolve/dedivivolve your monster resets back to level 1. This then requires the player to stop whatever their doing in the story and forces them to do level grinding for several hours just to be able to get a high enough ABI to get their Digimon to the next level and caught up with the rest of the party. This grind is so tedious that it practically forces players to used underhanded tactics like farming for EXP increasing items in the Digifarm and combining them with Digimon like PlatinumNumemon whose personal ability gives all party members an EXP boost after each fight. Once you know what you’re doing and where to find certain items this process isn’t all that long, but without looking up a guide online, an unknowing player could waste several days of game time just grinding out Digimon they want and being held up by the pesky ABI stat. It bogs down the game and adds an unnecessary roadblock to team building and player progression.
Many RPG games have little tchotchkes that a player can collect that give 100% completionists something to spend their time looking for. Digimon Story has Digi Medals that the player can collect as rewards from side quests, battles, or in hidden parts of Kowloon. The only problem is that these are mostly pointless to collect. You’re only allowed to view your Digi Medal collection by talking to a specific NPC in Nanako Broadway, and even then you can only view them after selling the man your medals. After you sell them, that’s basically it. They aren’t used for anything beyond just looking at, which is honestly disappointing. The rewards you get for collecting a certain amount of medals, 50, 100, 150, 250, and so on, are so unsubstantial that I’m not sure why the developers bothered with them at all. On the plus side, the Digi Medals themselves use art from the real-life Digimon TCG, which is a nice piece of nostalgia for anyone who used to collect the cards back when they were available, but other than the nostalgia of seeing old card art, the medals are mostly a waste of time to collect.
Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth Complete Edition is a love letter to both old school Digimon fans and players of modern JRPGs such as Persona and Pokemon. While the music, story, and characters often pop and help bring the world of Eden alive, a few glaring flaws such as the lack of an English dub, a messy translation, and repetitive combat hold the game back from being an absolute classic. In spite of its many imperfections, I had an absolute blast playing these games and experiencing this chapter of Digimon history. If this is what a Digimon game looks like with a small number of unpolished features, I’m truly ecstatic for the day when the perfect Digimon game finally does arrive on the scene. I sincerely believe that this is the best Digimon game currently available for western audiences, and if you’ve been absent from the series for years, or want to experience it for the first time, there’s never been a better time to jump on board, especially if you own a Switch. It’s as I stated at the beginning of this review: The game is almost great.
Perhaps the upcoming Digimon Survive can be the game that finally blows me away and proves to everyone on western shores that Digimon is back and better than ever. Yellow mouse be damned.
A very special thank you to my good friend @Miss_Valty for helping out with the thumbnail art.