Digimon Survive took a long time to come. Fans have been waiting for a new Digimon game since Digimon Story: Cyber Detective launched seven years ago. So it’s been a long wait, fraught with repeated and multiple delays, a pandemic slowing things down, and even the game changing developers wholesale at one point. Now that it’s here, two things are immediately clear: Digimon Survive isn’t the game that many (perhaps most) fans have been waiting for. It is also, however, very good.
The reason I say this isn’t the game fans were expecting boils down to what Digimon Survive is. Contrary to Cyber Detectivewhich has become one of the most popular games in the series for quite some time, and got a new generation of Digimon game fans on board, To survive is not a monster taming role-playing game. It’s hardly a role-playing game, actually. Principally, Digimon Survive is a visual novel – and while it does include battles with your Digimon, they’re very different from how they’ve played in previous games (adopting an SRPG-style tactical system), and much more toned down compared to visual novel sections.
This means that it’s a much more story-driven game, and its gameplay is wildly different (and also story-driven) as a result. For example, most of your time is spent trying to observe and interact with your environment, and the characters there with you, making choices big and small that can have a profound impact on how things play out – which characters you end up closest to, how your stats grow, how your Digimon evolves, even who lives and who dies (we’ll get to that in a bit) . The visual novel portions of the game are also where most of the story takes place – although there are anime-style cutscenes and sequences, most of the story takes place with a few sprites. lightly dynamic juxtaposed against backgrounds, and text and voice doing the heavy lifting.
“Past Digimon the games touched on some pretty dark themes and even had some deaths – To survive ramps up to eleven, with its horror story vibe and aesthetic. The story, which begins at a pretty, idyllic summer camp attended by the main characters, quickly shows its true hand, presenting a disturbing narrative that sees the characters you’re with begin to crack under the stress they find placed on themselves as they try to survive, their sanity slowly unraveling.”
Suffice it to say, given this emphasis on the visual novel side of things, it becomes paramount to Digimon Survive nail the execution. And fortunately, it is. It mostly depends on the strength of the story. Unlike the Pokemon series, to which Digimon has often been compared (for often superficial reasons), Digimon the media are generally not afraid to sink into their narratives and intrigues. Past Digimon the games touched on some pretty dark themes and even had some deaths – To survive ramps up to eleven, with its horror story vibe and aesthetic. The story, which begins at a pretty, idyllic summer camp attended by the main characters, quickly shows its true hand, presenting a disturbing narrative that sees the characters you’re with begin to crack under the stress they find placed on themselves as they try to survive, their sanity slowly unraveling. As mentioned earlier, these characters can die – and who does or doesn’t will ultimately depend on the choices you make, and sometimes even the order in which you make those choices.
The writing is top notch and instantly sells the atmosphere and tone of the story. It’s a story of trauma, of the grim undercurrents behind folklore, it’s a story of how bonds and friendships can be tested in difficult circumstances, and yes, it’s a story of survival . These are the kind of themes that are easy to get wrong and too clunky with, but Digimon Survive does an admirable job of telling its dark story without ever going overboard, thanks to its writing. There are occasions when it feels a little too “anime” or too practical – but overall, Digimon Survive the writing is a big part of why the story works and why the game hits the creepy aesthetic and tone that it does.
But art style is arguably just as important to the story’s triumph in this regard. Digimon Survive isn’t a graphics showcase – it’s a visual novel with largely static images for much of its playtime, and it doesn’t even fully harness the power of the latest-gen hardware it’s rated for available. But the art style is absolutely fantastic, instantly conveying the idyllic yet eerie nature of the places you find yourself in and the horror you encounter in those places. The characters and environments are all incredibly expressive and end up creating an amazing sense of place – fully immersing you in the game and the story, and where it takes you (literally and figuratively).
“It’s very clearly not a sequel to Digimon Story: Cyber Detective — but honestly, given how well it turned out, I’m okay with that.”
The big stumbles the game makes with this emphasis on storytelling feel like they were largely avoidable (which makes them more frustrating at first). For starters, the game lacks an English dub (or a voice track in any language except Japanese), which is definitely a huge disappointment. The Japanese voice acting is awesome, don’t get me wrong, but Digimon as an IP is big enough to afford to act in English for global release (which it is), and the lack of that just adds a layer of friction to being able to immerse yourself and enjoy the story.
The other problem with the story is the pacing; once it starts it’s almost impossible to put it down, but the first few hours can be extremely slow – they are, in fact, so slow that it can be a good few hours before you get your first battle without tutorial (we’ll get to the battles in a second). While this all ultimately adds up to the tone and aesthetic, as well as character perks, that make the story of To survive so compelling, there had to be a better way to do it that initially seemed less soggy.
The battles themselves are fairly simple affairs. If you’ve played a grid-based tactical RPG, you’ll know how they play out. Digimon Survive mixes things up by drawing inspiration from other games – for example, while recruiting new Digimon, you talk to them and try to answer the questions they ask you to your liking (so basically, like Character).. The battles are well-balanced, and managing your build, skill, and loadout to try and do well in each can become extremely compelling on its own (and is probably the closest RPG-style fans of some of the previous Digimon desired games). These battles are very clearly not the point, and extremely understated in this game, but when they take to the stage, they’re awesome and well worth it.
As I said at the beginning of this review, Digimon Survive is excellent, although not the game many were expecting or hoping for. Players who approach it with an open mind and take it on its own merits may find a lot to like here, from the unique story, to the gripping atmosphere, to the sheer deployability that the game diverges in how the story unfolds can afford. This is very clearly not a sequel to Digimon Story: Cyber Detective — but honestly, given how well it turned out, I’m okay with that.
This game has been tested on Xbox One.