Digimon World: Next Order

This is a game I’ve owned for a while now, but never quite understood or thought I’d like. A former housemate of mine did play it extensively, but the description of the systems didn’t sound at all appealing because the idea of my mons dying has never been an appealing one. That said, something clicked just yesterday watching a YouTube review that this isn’t like Monster Hunter on the PS1 where your pet just outright croaks; it’s more of a gameplay loop more akin to a Roguelike. Now, I’m not one for those, either, but for a game with a narrative, I’m comfortable with a little grinding to work a cycle of reincarnation.

So how is it so far? Wellll…

First impressions

The game starts with you choosing and naming a male or female protagonist and I chose the male and just left it at the default name because I really kinda prefer doing that in all cases because anything else is creepy to me. From what I can tell, the protagonist has just found an original Digivice toy that’s been sitting in a drawer for 7 years and seeing this is originally a 2016 game and your character seems to be in their late teens, this is kinda where believability already is getting stretched because there’s a whole decade not accounted for from 1997 when these things released, and also the original Digivice games apparently also had a full-color backlit LCD screen because why not? So we’re already working in an alternate universe unless something happened and there was a re-release of the original form factor (please comment if so), but you have a shiny new wrist mount for this thing and as soon as you put it in, you get digitized and come face-to-face with your displayed partner, MegaKabuterimon. Haha, just kidding, of course not, it’s WarGreymon, because the series is never going to forget Tai was the main character of the first anime, and hey, he brought a friend, MetalGarurumon, because they’re never going to forget that Matt was Tai’s Lancer, either! I can’t understate how absolutely married to Greymon’s evolutionary line absolutely everything has been for the past several years, including the fact that Omnimon of course is literally engineered from that and the Garurumon line to the point their respective heads are its hands and it’s like basically one of the most powerful Digimon ever.

But since you’re dropped in a void with nothing else of note, running toward them seems reasonable and you’re actually faced with a Cyberdramon first, at which point they swoop in and reveal they’re somehow both your partner despite that being, to my knowledge, physically impossible on the original Digivice and not a feature until the D3 model, which this is decidedly not. Look, I never actually owned one, but I had a friend who did and had several, and my brother had a D3, so I kinda know how this all works, but there’s always a chance I’m wrong.

Anyway, this is where I really started wishing I had some dialogue options because apparently 7 years is long enough that your avatar has a) completely forgotten who either of these two are and b) has also completely forgotten the battling component, so these guys come running up all like "WE’LL SAVE YOU, BESTEST FRIEND IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD!" and your avatar is staring down a giant mecha T-Rex with cannons bigger than he is and his automatic response is a gormless "who are you two?" Even worse than that, his next response is to outright say he doesn’t at all remember commanding them in battle and they just kinda both hang their heads and go, "We’ll… just handle it…" So here they are teaching you the interface in a battle tutorial getting the everliving tar beaten out of them pushing themselves to make sure your avatar’s vacant head doesn’t get pulverized and yes, they DO go so far as to turn into Omnimon as part of the tutorial, thanks for asking! So after ALL of that with them both literally on the brink of death they ask you if you’re okay and NOW the first dialog prompt comes up where your options are basically "Never felt better!" and "Are YOU okay?" and by GOD I took that second option because there’s a certain level of oblivious that it takes to not even be worried about two people who were being thrown around like ragdolls on your behalf even if you don’t know them from Adam that honestly would make me feel everyone would be better off if they’d just shoved him into one of those cannons and shot him into the sun.

Meanwhile, since they’re not going to voice act your name entry, here I am crying in my seat as they’re basically addressing me directly as they desperately try to save my life as the cost of their own while this avatar has been happily standing there with the lights on, but nobody home this whole time and this is exactly why I rarely name any avatar after myself: in games like this, it makes it much less painful when your options are this limited. So anyway, you get dumped on a caveman’s front lawn with these two guys capital "D" Dead and the caveman is like, "oh, don’t be sad, since they’re both your partner, they can both be revived, and isn’t it so special you have two!" And I’m just sitting there FAR sadder than this avatar has any indication of being as he just stares blankly at everything going on and if everyone weren’t addressing ME directly I think this would’ve been the point where I’d have turned the game off for lack of any means of reaching through the screen to shake this solid-skulled protagonist just to see if it would even rattle, but thankfully when presented with the eggs it’s basically a first person view, so of course reviewing the options I decided I was going to do the right thing and bring them both back in a form that would eventually turn into what they’d been before they died protecting me. Because it certainly felt they were protecting me personally in that intro rather than the guy standing off to the side wondering if he should scratch his lunch plans for all this.

There are a couple more dialogue options, but all of them have exactly one blatantly obvious choice for anyone with any kind of sense or basic empathy or frankly understanding of video games, quests, or helping people, and by this point I’m incredibly glad I’m only nominally in control of this waste of air because OMG is he ever a waste of air and the game does the same thing Cyber Sleuth does and has him motion around for a few seconds and throw up some punctuation before someone "summarizes" because this is supposed to let you project when you don’t have dialogue options, which I’m sure don’t actually matter here, either. At least in Cyber Sleuth it was entirely possible to pick a wrong option without it being so blatant and your avatar there is significantly smarter.

If I feel like I’m being harsh on our protagonist, it’s because I am, and it’s entirely deserved, because when I find myself desperately wanting more and better dialog prompts, you have crossed over into bad game design and his inability to do even the basic math that at least one of his saviors looked a bit like the pixellated creature he’d JUST seen on his toy screen even if he had complete amnesia on everything he’d once known about the thing and at LEAST offer me a prompt of something vaguely intelligent like "IT’S YOU!" or "You’re REAL!?" knocked me so far out of feeling any connection to my avatar that yes, I did basically completely ignore him and start feeling like they were addressing me through the screen, and when you disassociate with your avatar that hard, you are absolutely experiencing some bad game design, and bad writing while the game is at it. I don’t think I’m asking for much here. Just a couple more dialog options in a segment where they were already going to have them anyway. Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth has some of the same problem in that they tried to have it both ways and make your protagonist a blank slate to project on while also making him/her a distinct character and it didn’t work well there, either, but at least the character there wasn’t so daft I wanted to shake them.

Anyway, you revive your pals, get a brief tour of the town, and are escorted to the Training Hall where you need to grind out your stats for a while and take care of some basic needs just to get into the swing of things and this is about where I left off my first session after managing to Digivolve them into BlackAgumon and Psychemon (which I had assumed was the same thing as BlackGabumon, but is apparently somehow a Vaccine form), so at some point I know I screwed up with their care and feeding, but that actually made me want to figure out HOW.

Other than maybe being a little slow on the draw because the HUD is very non-traditional, the only thing I can really think of is that when they turned their noses up at particular foods, I assumed hitting O would just, like, take me back and let me try again, rather than having to Praise/Scold/Ignore them on it, because your starting foods are meat and mushrooms and I certainly don’t know what these things eat! You don’t feed a cat a salad and you don’t feed a rabbit bacon; it just seemed reasonable that they’d be nice enough to tell me if they were a carnivore or herbivore so I could give them something they could digest, but apparently this counted against me somehow. I may have let them get fatigued, but I had assumed that getting them to 50% when that would happen was, like, something you were supposed to do before they rested. Anyway, this was all happening in Hotel California where trying to leave prompted and "Art Thou Sure" and I was like, really not sure, no, but seeing as I had additional grinding to do before it would let me leave without telling me I’m a monster, I saved and quit the game and went to bed.

And basically jumped right back in at the first opportunity the following day, after realizing Rookie was actually enough to leave without everyone accusing me of throwing babies to the wolves.

I do have to say that the game quickly establishes these two as your partners and that’s the biggest thing I’ve always appreciated about Digimon as a franchise. Pokémon and its "Gotta catch ’em all!" tagline made them feel much less special, especially because the games always forced you to switch them out for whatever Gym was next and often just to get you to it (darn level 20 Tentacruels in the waters require their own whole team to contend with), whereas Digimon is like "You are responsible for this living being, who was made for you specifically, and your mission is to become best friends, the world depends on it!" This sort of "one and only one" attitude means you get much more invested and because they’re roughly as smart as humans it makes it much easier to see them as a partner and friend. Having two of them immediately feels special and I greatly appreciated that even if the vapid avatar serving as my means of interacting with the world didn’t. This is also very different from Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth in that it’s not about team building or raising them as something that doesn’t feel like an equal or greater being. Let’s face it, if a sufficiently grown Digimon doesn’t like you, they can generally solve it with the small effort of stepping on you, never mind the sheer number of blades and heavy artillery they end up packing. This is generally less apparent in the games where they all sort of get scaled down to a uniform maximum height, which is just as present here, but many of them are multiple stories tall at their official heights and again, all your faves tower over full-grown adults at like 9-10 feet tall and depending on the media that can be pretty standard for anything passing for an adult humanoid form or hilariously tiny compared to the walking skyscrapers they are elsewhere. Basically any Champion or higher could pick you up by the head and smash you through a wall. Playing nice probably helps avoid that. And it’s not like bad decisions don’t happen in the series; Tai absolutely mucked up his relationship by forcing his partner to Digivolve into SkullGreymon – something that immediately became just as dangerous to him as the enemy.

But in terms of combat, treating your partners like intelligent beings and sitting on the sidelines cheering them on actually makes sense. You as a human have limited offensive potential, so serving as a vending machine dispensing items and encouragement makes perfect sense for your role in the proceedings. The controls for it might be a bit wonky with twin stick controls in some menus, and it certainly takes some getting used to with your L1 and R1 acting more like a slide than a toggle in some use cases, but the ideas aren’t terrible.

Be nice to your sister!

If there’s anything it will inevitably be compared to other than the previous Digimon World games, it’s the relatively contemporaneous Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth just because they released in the same general window for the same franchise and got basically the same amount of attention, but the two simply are not the same type of game. Both are nominally JRPGs, but the whole gameplay loop is just completely different between them, as is the focus of the story. Cyber Sleuth is much more concerned with its human cast and the most comparable character to your position here is actually Nokia, though strictly speaking she does absolutely nothing to deserve it (not that your avatar does here, either, the breadcrumbs the game throws you to slap them into common decency notwithstanding). That said, your protagonist in Cyber Sleuth actually DOES deserve everything they manage to claw their way toward and that begins with you as the player trying to Frankenstein yourself a working body, and when the game tries to have its cake and eat it by making your avatar in any way their own character, while it still doesn’t really work, it’s at least not so immediately intrusive.

For what it’s worth, the two also have a couple shared characters that also puts them in the same universe, or at least the same multiverse. Different multiverses are totally a thing even in the same franchise (Power Rangers does it), but the sheer amount of stuff that’s actually linked by this game is pretty impressive.

The way both games handle the Digimon is also drastically different. Here, they’re easily the smartest people in the room, where in Cyber Sleuth their intelligence is quite a bit more questionable because literally every interaction has to be valid for any of them, so you can be given a pop quiz on theoretical physics by a baby and promising to hit the beach someday with The Adversary and all of it happens by text message. Digimon in that game obviously are intelligent, but they generally don’t seem as intelligent (Wikipedia browsing excluded), which is something that’s always been a niggling problem for me, and the average person doesn’t realize they’re anything more than mindless attack dogs Hackers control with an app. Here, you’re forced to put your faith in them to act in their own best interests and yours and you only occasionally get a say in how they handle things. It puts you personally distinctly out of control of the situation and I count that as a good thing. On top of that, with the goal here being to recruit people to the town you’re helping, most of what you’re doing to make that happen involves kicking some tail to prove your worth, but even that is maybe about 50% of it and the rest has quite a bit of variety, ranging from fetch quests to just checking up on them again once you have the right other person recruited. There are also some who offer daily events, like the ice golem who asks you to keep him frozen so he can keep living in a volcano without melting or the metal golems who give you a one-time logic puzzle you can attempt once a day until you get it right. It’s their world and they’re in control, but most importantly your partners interact with the world and just have their own personalities out of a seemingly pretty deep pool that’s fixed per form. They have their own emotional state and will do things like get excited and run ahead or comment when their favorite food is nearby and that’s totally stuff that adds a sense of life and personality to them and it’s all especially well-chosen, giving earlier forms a childlike enthusiasm while later forms feel more mature. They feel very much like living, breathing creatures here and your relationship with them is far more personal compared to Cyber Sleuth.

And a red hat that doesn’t go

This game does have quite the sense of style for all its failures. Combat initiates whenever you make contact with an enemy Digimon and if others are near enough, they’ll join the fray with matching angry face emote boxes, or if they aren’t, they’ll run off with a blue sad face, having been shut out of battle by the circular border that appears. The really cool thing, though, is the battlefield needs enough open space to work properly, so each battle begins with everyone running into position, including your avatar, and in some cases that means everyone has to hoof it to a more open area a small distance away. Having your avatar make a beeline for the sidelines while everyone else lines up in their starting rows—which are almost immediately broken—is a very cool and kinetic way of getting things started just because of the moving parts of the parties and the way the rotating border fades in. This is what indie devs fairly recently called "juicy" and it’s something I really do appreciate in games. A kinetic entrance is great whether it’s the battle entrance of the 2D versions of Final Fantasy III or the menus flying in in Final Fantasy VII and here it happens at a snappy pace and keeps visual interest wherever you look while also more or less sending everyone dynamically to fixed positions. It just works. Even better, when you defeat enemies, at the end of battle they all get up and run away, and when I say "away" I mean "all the actual way to the area exits no matter how effective you are at otherwise following them." Even if that exit is to town, but STILL! Not like other games where they’d maybe take a few steps and fade out or just explode into data cubes where they lie; no, this is a game where Digimon death is actually a serious enough concern as a reality of life that they go through the effort to ensure you know you didn’t actually kill them.

Add to that that your avatar mercifully takes the rap for losing a battle and while he spends way too much time going on about how it sucks before rushing to your mons, he does rush over to at least one of them before it blacks out to imply he picked them both up and you’re all dumped back into town, which is pretty fantastic, actually. Far better than a Game Over, though it does apparently subtract a bit from their lifespan.

I also have to admit your avatar’s visual design is good, though I don’t quite understand why he’s constantly losing his floating dice collection from his pockets other than possibly visibility in the dark, which his dyed hair streak also glows in despite having normal lighting in bright light. I imagine the female protagonist stands out even better with the amount of hot pink on her ponytail.

Best of all, you’re actually in the Digital World here, so you can fully expect to see all sorts of electronic components seamlessly married with the organic landscape and the game logic immediately kicks in. Oh, you want to harvest a lemon? Sure, it’s an electric lemon and it spawns near the giant resistors sticking out of the ground with huge ones next to the power plant. Because lemons are sour and so is sticking a battery on your tongue (maybe, ish, depending on who you ask, but "sour" is the most common response). Yes, all manner of fruits drop from the same tree; it’s a fruit tree, not a vegetable tree! Now come over here to collect your daily allotment of meat from the garden, fresh out of the ground on the bone. What? Why does it grow out of the ground? I guess I never really thought about it; why would anyone think that’s weird? (Yes, that last one is paraphrased game text!) This place absolutely plays by its own laws of physics, but it all makes sense when viewed with innocent eyes.

What is this feeling?

In terms of the experience, I found myself quite surprised. It’s fun! Remember fun? Like, this game may have a teen protagonist, but so far it feels like an E10+ game (which is the actual rating) and without having to be all serious getting in the way, it manages to be fun and exciting by doing something different and its gameplay loop even just in the first area is a wonderful collectathon that makes literally everything rewarding.

Your Digimon will alert to things in the field and they’ll even lay out hints on whether it’s food they like or if there’s an NPC nearby or just harvest points and that alone makes them feel like they’re just as much on the same adventure. They almost always have something to say, whether it’s that they want to get a move on or just shouting with joy and running ahead and it makes them feel alive and independent. It’s these sort of behaviors that really make the whole experience. Finding out that, yes, there are things they do and don’t like and that, yes, they’ll literally reject their own favorite food is the sort of enlightening thing that makes them feel like they have a real personality and maybe that they’re sick of always eating the same thing, even if it’s totally random.

If a mon doesn’t Digivolve before a set time limit, it will keel over and reincarnate, and unfortunately Digivolving is easier said than done because each form has varying requirements. You unfortunately not only need to interact a TON to learn these requirements, but also to learn what mons are available, which means you get a drip feed for interacting with random behaviors. The problem is they’re random and while you have a fairly reliable rate of them, it’s also random what’s revealed of your next potential forms to look forward to and requirements don’t reveal until the form does, so you can be sitting at getting 1 requirement revealed for several actions and you can only get a maximum of 3 each time, so it can be quite frustrating trying to navigate what you need to reach a new form before you have to start over. Even worse, they’re distributed to every last one you’ve unlocked, which means there may not be enough to go around for the ones that are most immediately relevant.

If there’s a saving grace, it’s that the Training Hall has training in it and this can quickly raise stats. This isn’t necessarily optimal, but it does get your baby mons in fighting shape quickly. As far as stat raises go, it beats out anything else in the early game, even if it is a bit rough to manage. You also get bonuses for time of day, day of week, A/B week, mood, growth spurts, food bonuses, training skill bonuses, and friendship and rivalry for when your mons are training nearby or directly opposite stats, respectively. Using these wisely helps things add up quickly. The game will also throw in some just for funsies and it’s hard to tell what if anything a given one does if any of them do anything different. The way it works in effect is that you’ll get bonus tiles on a linear series of squares that quickly light up in sequence and your goal is to arcade game them into stopping, ideally, on a bonus tile, so the more bonus tiles you can throw on it, the better your chances are of getting that extra boost for the effort. I wouldn’t call it fun in its own right, but it can be very satisfying to come up with a good configuration. You’ll also earn a bit in adjacent stats for the one you’re training, but this largely doesn’t amount to much unless it’s for HP and MP, which just deal in higher numbers and thus gain quite a bit more for that.

They also get 10% of their stats from previous incarnations and apparently the game is nice enough to remember the highest you ever achieved in each stat, so it really is a Roguelike in that manner. There are skills that add a 1% bonus to stack up to 14%, but that’s probably something to save for later.

If a battle is going to be particularly dangerous, the pre-battle entry sequence actually puts additional "WARNING" graphics up. This is essential for knowing just how screwed you might be, because level has little to nothing to do with how powerful an enemy might be and your partners don’t actually have a level so much as stats and an age. If you actually need to know what you’re getting into, look at the name banner’s color instead: a nice, pleasant blue means you’re going to win, even if they’re still aggressive toward you. Pink means there’s going to be a little challenge and that they’re going to aggro you, no question. Most guides seem to neglect to mention white, which is apparently "incredibly dangerous, but non-aggro." If you see red, which definitely looks particularly angry, you’re somewhere you don’t belong and should turn around immediately, hopefully before they see you, because there’s no winning that. They will squish you with their little finger and they’ll aggro from halfway through the visible area to do it, so it’s unlikely you’re going to be more than 2 steps from the door anyway and that’s a GOOD thing for you and your mons because getting creamed does legitimately shorten their lifespan.

That said, with good timing, you can punch far above your weight, because cheering as your partners land a hit or take damage can give an automatic critical or reduce the pain they’re taking. The biggest problem, of course, is that there’s a fixed cooldown each time you use it and that often simply doesn’t line up well, but it’s an excellent system that does more than it says it does (it only actually says you get Order Points from it) and you frankly just have a higher maximum for defending than you do for attacking for Order Points.

All of this leads to an experience that’s quickly rewarding on a relatively short game loop.

Be it ever so humble…

More importantly, as the game progresses, you quickly get more NPCs who gift you things daily, which can be quite useful when it comes to your care and feeding tasks. If you’re smart, you’ll learn how to time things so you can reach a bathroom after feeding your mons and the NPCs do a good job of explaining the game systems, of which there are a lot off the bat, though some of them reveal themselves more organically regardless. In absence of a manual (which there is no digital manual or encyclopedia in-game, you HAVE to talk to these folks), they’re able to give decent explanations to game systems that you’ll probably want to write down for reference or otherwise quickly internalize.

If there’s anything that shows the game ramps up fast, it’s when the town immediately overnight becomes a massive city, which takes far longer to navigate unless you teleport, and teleporting is a good idea for the most part, the only caveat being the bathroom you’re used to is outside Jijimon’s house and nothing tells you this on the map, nor does it tell you there’s also a bathroom in the Training Hall after the city is an actual city again, which might just be faster.

When this happens, it unlocks an absolute buttload of stuff, including a whole new farming system where you can choose to plant different things, including some of the things you were otherwise getting 1 a day for free, though you only get 2 of them, and even one that gives you 1 every 2 days, which makes it far less important to make it back to town. In fact, around this same time, it will open up for you to get a Tent, which opens up camping. Your initial Tent has only 3 uses and setting it up near enemies wears it down much faster, BUT, it has many useful functions, acting as a sort of universal reset to a few different things depending on the situation. For one, it can act as an emergency bathroom break, which might be useful if you run out of portable squatty potties, though since they’re enemy drops and Numemon in town will give you one every day, that’s harder to run into than one would assume, at least if you got the Adventurer Starter Pack DLC, and OMG do I recommend it, because it gives you comfortable margins in basically everything useful where you’re otherwise clamoring for every Bit (money unit) you can get to try to make do with the 3-4 random freebies you can get each day and what little you can buy. After a while things can quickly become self-sustaining and when the little encampment inexplicably becomes an austere metropolis, it opens up options in your daily crop output and even lets you slowly "improve" the fields and raise your partners’ STR in the process for an hour of in-game time (which is a minute of IRL time, because the Digital World, unless canonically synced in a given story, just does have a faster speed than the human world).

But back to the Tent, if there’s no latrine nearby and you’re out of items, the Tent can provide in exchage for one of its limited uses. If your partners are hungry, you can cook, and it’s the best way to unlock the best properties of Nut items, though given their rarity and lack of stunning effects right off the bat, that’s not saying much. It’s also the only means of turning poisonous items into something incredibly useful, particularly those red Unlucky Mushrooms you’ll find lying around and wonder what the heck they’re for. The answer, my friend, is +50 to everyone’s MP that they keep for the entire lifespan of their form and which gets paid forward. So yeah, collect every poisonous mushroom you can in this game. Cooking makes all the inedible stuff safely edible, though at the same time that may also destroy some of its better effects. If you can’t carry any more construction materials, using the Tent will automatically put all of it in "storage" for you to be added to your resources when you get back to town and you’ll also tally trainer EXP as you would hitting town. You can rest if there’s nothing else going on to replenish some Stamina, HP, and MP, though with the right skills, this is less important than it could be unless someone went down in battle and you’re short on items. You can even camp out overnight for a better night’s rest in the field, because unlike most games, sleeping does not necessarily automatically cure all ills and may even make your partners sick, even in town. It’s always a good idea to sleep in a building and any building (or at least the Training Hall and Jijimon’s House) seems to suffice, but the Tent suffices without interrupting your progress. If you don’t completely break it, it can be repaired for free, but if you do, repairs will cost you. I can’t say how much because careful management is easy enough and it tells you ahead of time what its durability is and thus have not had to shell out yet.

Another thing you can do in town is make improvements, which costs materials you gathered, so all that mining ahead of time does pay off aside from the trainer EXP it gives you. Not everything is easily attainable off the bat, but improving the Fields for farming should be and it can open up a whole new field to plant in, so that’s probably your best first choice because it lets you double Meat up with your few training buffing veggies. You’ll definitely want those. Otherwise, if you can swing taking the Shop to level 2, that at least gets you a step closer to being able to buy a better Tent, but unless you’ve gotten absurdly lucky or been very well-informed and persistent with Metals mining you may not have enough DigiSilver to get there quite yet seeing as the only early game source of it is rather hard to find and isn’t exactly generous with it. The Restaurant also gives you some interesting bonuses if you can stomach the cost, but I wouldn’t actually call it an effective use of your money with the initial offering. The stat raises might be worth it if you have money to burn and can’t stomach training. Tuesdays are half price, though. Once you recruit Renamon, the selection doubles and you’ll want to get the first upgrade if you haven’t already, because Thursdays are half price in that one and one of the upgraded recipes gives a whopping +1000 to MP, so you’ll be wanting to abuse that every chance you get. The biggest problem is that a single meal is unlikely to fill up your partners, so you drop quite a lot of Bits for something with modest effects that you can do yourself for free and they still walk away hungry. Maybe upgrading it more might give some unique bonus to it, but it falls into a very strange slot of being only very briefly useful until you can recruit Greymon for the Tent to really get yourself going on more modest, but reliable gains over time. The Training Hall also can be improved, but more importantly has its own improvement system where by paying out the nose you can upgrade the training equipment and as bonkers as it sounds, that’s probably the best use of all the money you’ve probably amassed by the time the option becomes available. Just choose wisely, because it won’t let you upgrade all of them all at once, and it takes quite a lot of usage on a given machine to get it to a point where you can upgrade it from "stored power." The game actually tells you this, but it still is esoteric enough that I didn’t realize what they meant until much later. I found out by complete accident that I wasn’t locked out of upgrading everything; it just didn’t roll what I had left until I randomly decided to check again and stumbled across it.

Other game systems

Digivolution is a matter of training and luck. Unlike Cyber Sleuth, you need to meet certain stat requirements to have them potentially evolve into a given form and even if you meet all those requirements, you can’t immediately control which they turn into, though there are systems for that later. That in particular blew chunks when I was going for one Mega and the game decided I met the much lower requirements for one I didn’t want and shunted me straight into it in the middle of training because the time came due, even though I had plenty to grind the last stat or two it would have taken for the one I wanted. In fact, it at least had the decency to do it that way rather than wait until I had the appropriate stats and then fail the coin toss to give me the one I wanted. But until you get the ability to lock them out, what they turn into is completely random. And even then, some forms require you to have recruited a townsperson to make their form available, even if you otherwise meet all the requirements.

Digimon also gain stats MUCH faster the lower their evolutionary tier, so it’s probably in your best interest to de-sync them so when one gets returned to a baby form you have another one that can take you against much more powerful enemies than you’d otherwise be able to handle if they were both in the same boat.

The weirdest thing, though, is that every time they reincarnate, you get the opportunity to either name them or leave them as their species name Pokémon style, and while everyone else seems to nickname theirs, guess who’s the Ash Ketchum in the room saying "well mine doesn’t have a nickname, but-" because I frankly find it more enlightening to know what color swap I’m dealing with without having to look in a menu. And yes, there are color swaps. There’s literally hundreds of these in the game; you think they’re above re-skins? It’s actually an important game mechanic because only the "base color" ones become town NPCs; all the re-skins are your enemies or else do daily events with you. There’s later an NPC who can rename them freely.

Otherwise, there’s an attack learning system whereby sometimes, rarely, you’ll pick up an attack skill when a partner Digivolves, but otherwise you’ll randomly learn it when an enemy uses it in a battle a bit like Final Fantasy Blue Magic if Blue Magic were a pain in the patoot and only gave you the spell if the RNG felt like it. This makes it basically impossible to pick skills up with any reliability because battle rewards simply aren’t additive in most respects and it could take several tries of seeing the ability to actually get it and that can be a right pain when you’re in a position like I ran into where you need one for a specific purpose and your party is far too powerful and one-shots the only mon who can give you what you need basically as soon as battle begins, which left me pretty despondent thinking I had to wait a whole lifecycle before I could even try grinding it. Luckily, that actually made me powerful enough to get it from elsewhere and I found that one by accident and I was able to pick up the skill after buying a Tamer Skill to make it more likely, which has honestly taken the rate from "I’m never going to learn this" to "oh, cool, I picked up another one!" The whole idea isn’t necessarily bad, but if it had been explained in any way rather than something that just fell from the sky, it would allow a little more reliability than "guess you have to come back later," which is always the most frustrating thing a game can do to me because I generally take grinding as a challenge and getting locked out of things because I either am too powerful or because there’s no physical way to grind to a high enough level to take on an enemy always throws sand in my gears and in any case it’s not fixable, that’s generally the point where I put the game down and don’t come back to it. Here it’s ultimately fixable. This system is unfortunately not explained at all in-game and without a digital manual, it was off to Google and searching a few of the top hits before I actually found an explanation.

But that brings me back to the biggest feature the game lacks: any kind of guide that doesn’t come from repeatedly having to talk to NPCs or a search engine. It’s nice for immersion to talk to NPCs, and I recommend that every RPG allows you to do that to explain basic mechanics that will become readily apparent in practice, but so much of the game goes either completely unexplained or otherwise does not become apparent in practice even if you manage to find the right NPC to serve you the right menu of long-winded prose that some sort of "hold on, let me write this down" feature that could boil it down to a bulleted list would have been incredibly helpful. Even charming if they’d come up with a handwriting font or two to write it all out on lined paper somehow, maybe chicken scratch for the boy and something like Catholic Schoolgirl (yes, that is a real font name) for the girl. While this would give several NPCs less to do, I think that that wouldn’t have necessarily been a bad thing for the sake of convenience given not all NPCs actually have a function.

The sights and sounds

In some ways, this game is quite a bit nicer than Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth in that your partners can grow quite a bit taller than in that game, though far from the building sizes they are in the show. Still, it’s not a bad feeling overall since the game is designed quite well to ensure they can feel big and still move around. They still don’t follow you into most buildings if only because that would make it too cramped to see, but the buildings are all designed with high enough ceilings they could have and I get the impression it may have been intended and removed since the game simply hides them and the interface, but sounds continue to play.

The music also feels a lot more like the show, though it may be more like the Japanese show? It’s not exactly spot-on, but there are bits of the Japanese music that do get remixed into at least certain new themes. It has more of the feeling of being "right" for Digimon, though, with a cheery feel in the sunny plains that first greet you as you venture out into the world.

The Digimon themselves are the same apparent models as in Cyber Sleuth and a) that’s perfectly fine and normal, b) that means they share all the same benefits, and c) they fit into the game in ways that they didn’t fit into Cyber Sleuth because of it. Their increased size lets their features breathe appropriately and I must say those who are designed with lots of facial detail like Leomon benefit big time, which I say for him specifically because in Cyber Sleuth it was distracting how his facial features felt crammed, where here it just felt natural, as it should.

This originally having been a budget Vita title, they did a lot to clean it up, but it still has relatively simple lighting and that stylistically works in its favor. In fact, time of day transitions in a small, subtle flash and that alone tells me you’re actually being warped to a whole new pre-baked area rather than new assets being loaded in where you stand, which would plain just take longer. Loading it all in at once with pre-baked shadows is nothing dirty; it just means the game does a little more on initial load to move the assets it needs into memory or even that it hides that loading while the game is going on so it can swap and discard the old environment. Star Ocean was doing this as recently as the PS3 and it has several benefits, including less processing, better shadow detail, and frankly just more control over how things look, which works best for this style, where a real dynamic cycle would actually feel a little too realistic and put too much reality into the whimsy. It’s totally seamless here and there’s zero complaints from me. I would much rather have it that way than chew up more resources than the system can handle. And I must say the shadows are handled quite well for the environments especially. That said, side-by-side screen shots of the PS4 and Vita versions show they did quite a bit of work to make it look nicer on PS4. Other version differences make the two incompatible, as much as I’d have liked to take it on the go like Cyber Sleuth even if it was less pretty. Otherwise, being a Unity game doesn’t cause any problems, and I say this because of everything going on with Unity, there is nothing in this game that can be blamed on any real or perceived shortcoming of Unity as an engine. Unity as an engine is very powerful if you’re interested in tapping its potential and the fact the developers left the logo in at the beginning is an act of bravery in an industry that usually takes the opportunity their paid license offers to hide it. The game is gorgeous. Stylized, yes, but stunning in that style.

The environments are otherwise varied and all of them retain some sort of purpose depending on your needs at the time. It’s a pretty world that should be familiar to fans of the previous games of the series and even the show, though the show doesn’t pack the electronic elements quite so densely into the environment. Most importantly, it feels cohesive and logical in its own way, where the sideways logic makes perfect sense if you just turn your brain the same way. The Digital World may be whimsical, but it’s consistent. You’ll find Conductor Lemons near the various electrical components, fruits and nuts mostly under trees, mushrooms growing near the walls and in shaded areas like under trees, and some items only appear at certain times of day, with mushrooms being more varied and plentiful at night. If there’s any real complaint, it’s that what counts as a "wild mushroom" and what counts as a "vegetable" seems a little askew, because vegetables apparently just don’t grow wild and are only available as enemy drops, while the Scratchy Grass counts as a mushroom because it’s just lying around as scenery. For that matter, given how many nuts have "fruit" in the name and the fact there are actual nuts like acorns and chestnuts that count as fruit for in-game purposes, item consistency really isn’t the game’s strong suit. As you do progress into more desolate areas, you’ll find that produce seems to just be lying around more often, though in some cases it also makes sense in context since one of those spots happens to be one you have to fight for to harvest more like a stash. In some cases I actually feel kind of bad about harvesting produce from the wild because it makes me feel like I’m stealing someone’s lunch, often after I’ve kicked their butt, but at the same time enemies and random produce will reload every time you enter a screen, so it’s really only the material harvest points that are a finite resource per day.

Most tellingly, though, is that this may have been a budget Vita game, but when it was re-done for PS4, they decided the success of Cyber Sleuth meant it was worth pouring money into, from upgrading the environments to give them a little more presence to splurging on English voice acting, though here there’s also mercifully less of it. Unfortunately, what is there is significantly worse, though not so much "terrible" as "foreground noise." That said, I prefer it and really would have preferred it in Cyber Sleuth as well, but if it had to be one of them, I think this one needed it more if only because it’s just so incredibly well done and makes the dialogue quite a bit more tolerable. Seriously, the cast is fantastic and either came straight from the show or otherwise are pretty spot-on for what I’d expect to hear from certain mons. Look, I haven’t watched the show more than maybe a couple partial episodes since the first season and I understand actors don’t own a role for their whole life no matter how many times they may have been blessed to get it. Voice casts change, but everyone, or at least everyone except Yukimura, sounds exactly how you’d expect, and they’re doing a fantastic job with what they were given.

Everyone and their concussions

If there’s anything especially irksome about your protagonist, it’s that this vacuum of brain cells is pretty quickly revealed to have gotten their extra special Digivice from a tournament 7 years ago, which means that they were competent enough back then to compete at it. Oh, and also you meet two of the others from it, both of whom remember you from the top 4. Seeing as neither of them advanced beyond that, that places you winning or getting runner-up and seeing as you’re special enough to have two partners and a backlit color screen, it’s probably a safe call to say you won, unless it’s later revealed that the winner and their three best friends have been running around fixing things while you puddle along, which doesn’t make you a very good hero, or else are the villain, in which case the world is doomed. So unless your avatar is revealed to have just woken up from a coma after a massive head injury, there is literally no reason for them to have been that stupid about their own partners. Canonically, this would have put them in 5th grade, but then apparently so were the others because the three of you are all the same age as high school seniors, i.e. 17-18, meaning you may have been 10 or 11 when you did it, but that’s still old enough where you weren’t a toddler prodigee or something. There’s no reason this nitwit should have forgotten literally everything they knew about Digimon, because any 11-year-old fan’s knowledge is encyclopedic. That’s something that transcends any particular franchise or long-suffering parent who wishes it could just be drugs because that would be cheaper and have fewer names to remember and some of them might even be familiar.

For what it’s worth, the other characters are mostly pretty good, but the stand-out is actually Yukimura, the chocolate-voiced Guilmon who acts like a cross between a butler and the adult in the room when the kids are running around alone. Guilmon is a pretty interesting choice considering it has the Digital Hazard symbol taking up half its torso and is a Virus type, meaning by all accounts he should be the biggest threat in the game, but somehow despite being more or less a walking apocalypse waiting to happen, Guilmon always seems to end up with a good Tamer who manages to prevent him from destroying the multiverse. Because no, seriously, anything with that symbol slapped on it is really dangerous enough to wipe out both the Human and Digital Worlds, but then ending a series with "YOU FAILED TO SCOOP MY POOP! NOW ALL REALITY IS REDUCED TO NOTHING!" might be seen as a "downer" ending inappropriate for children. But hey, Yukimura would sure give it gravitas! It honestly feels like Yukimura is more the type who’s well-adjusted enough that he’s probably going to avoid doing that regardless of how bad Kouta might screw up, though, and to be entirely fair, Kouta doesn’t seem to have a much better grasp on the whole "Digimon" thing than your protagonist despite having made it to the semifinals of a tournament on it. He also comes off as very much a Mediocre White Guy with a White Savior complex, so if anyone is going to screw up that badly, it’s him, and he’s not going to understand how. Seriously, Yukimura just sort of magically Digivolves on cue when there’s a Cyberdramon around and Kouta manages to come up with and shout "Show them the power of the Crimson Dragon!" all on his own acting like he was the one doing anything here and they BOTH get one-shot creamed for his insolence and he’s lying on the ground, as a human, mind you, all like, "But- But you Digivolved!" and Yukimura just sort of apologizes because there’s no possible way he can explain the Digivolution tiers or why Kouta is an idiot before they both pass out from being blasted by a person-sized cannon. Which, I mean, is a better outcome than most people would generally hope for after being blasted by a person-sized cannon. Anyway, that’s where the story screeches to a halt until you manage to collect Mega-level Digimon to beat the boss.

In comparison, Himari and her Salamon Rikka are pretty well-adjusted and Rikka quickly turns into a Gatomon because these three kids can’t possibly be divorced from the victory lap this game is taking on their partner choices (Gatomon being the villain turned literally necessary surprise partner of the original series, making Guilmon the only one so far who was a main character in anything else). Himari is far from the Team Mom and/or love interest lone major female characters tend to be in these things, being much more a voice of reason on equal footing with everyone else and actually having her own personality as a spunky, if maybe slightly abrasive teenager who adores her partner Digimon and probably single-handedly managed to keep Kouta alive while they were wandering around the digital wilderness with her good sense and generally being good at not dying. Seriously, if Kouta managed to get himself and Yukimura killed, I have to wonder if they’ll BOTH end up as an egg, because cramming baby Kouta full of vegetables and training his Wisdom stat from birth back to 18 might not actually be a bad thing. Himari is absolutely the type to call it as she sees it when someone is being an idiot and I swear if anyone would manage to make Kouta Humavolve into a Functional Adult, it’s her. Though if she’s doing everyone the service, the protagonist might actually need it more. Otherwise, Himari is probably the only reason any of them figured out there’s food lying around literally everywhere before Yukimura ate Kouta with perfect table manners and I pretty much guarantee she’s the one who managed to get them to a power plant as the thing that looks most like human civilization in the world so far for Jijimon to notice and send you after them before they all starved on a diet of 2 lemons, a mushroom, and a random nut a day.

Otherwise, Jijimon is something of a recurring adult influence in the Digimon World games and serves as one here, being a brilliant tech expert despite looking like a fossil twice over with his caveman garb and geriatric appearance and voice. I won’t say he’s necessarily the "wise old man" so much as a brilliant scientist of sorts in spite of his primitive appearance, albeit the primitive appearance of someone who might have tones of a primitive "wise man" carrying a staff with a "lion’s paw" on the end, meaning a) somehow a "lion" is a thing that exists in the Digital World or at least is acknowledged and b) while it’s cartoonishly squishy in the beans and lacking claws, he’s managed to claim a trophy from one. Actually, I guess digging into the lore, Jijimon is a sort of Aslan figure in the Digital World, being old as its creation and hiding shocking amounts of power he doesn’t normally show, so making him a brilliant anything and everything is appropriate enough. Though it does raise some questions on how he can be indefinitely old when he’s actually one of the available partner evolutions and under that condition is going to either evolve or keel over after a week.

Carousel man kept me going around and round

Actually, let’s talk about that, because unless the game specifies that fighting drastically reduces a Digimon’s lifespan, it makes absolutely no sense that everyone else in the Digital World lives a perfectly normal life and your partners are caught in a constant cycle of death and rebirth where they might maybe manage to grow to the ripe, old age of a month before they die and are reborn. I’m not a Digimon superfan, but I do vaguely remember from the show that most Digimon don’t actually Digivolve that quickly unless they live one heck of a hard life and end up fighting a lot, which I seem to recall being a defining characteristic of Leomon specifically, because by all accounts, Digivolving is HARD. Like, Leomon pretty much showed that by managing to train enough to turn into Saberleomon for like 2 seconds and even then he couldn’t hold it because he didn’t actually have a Tamer like the main cast trucking around a Digivice and a Crest that enabled them to basically age to an adult at whim. And to the Japanese show’s credit, they all kept their childlike voices, where the English dub made a point to make them sound older. The crew in the show really were basically kids forced into premature adulthood on a temporary basis through the power of technology and friendship and more than a little BS. Leomon in contrast had to claw his way to it over the course of his entire life and was legitimately a mature adult, in a world where several other mature adults never made it even to match his natural Champion level.

So when you look at all the people of the town here, you legitimately start in a tiny daycare that suddenly explodes into a city basically as soon as some actual adults are introduced. And they’re legitimately adults. They’re professionals in some cases, like the Garudamon who’s already established a career as a treasure hunter long before you showed up. Almost every service that costs money is run by a Champion or higher, except Tentomon as the item shop, and to be entirely fair, he’s the first vendor you find. Plus Tentomon is, like, really smart, at least in the English dub. I’ll admit he was actually my favorite of the original series, much more a thinker than a fighter, generally being the last to wade in, though far from a coward afraid to do so. Also, fun fact, but apparently Tentomon in at least some of the Japanese media has a Kansai accent, which seems to be retained for this version of him, and translated into a strange mix of a Southern accent here peppered with some intentionally cringeworthy slang, and it’s wonderful.

Meanwhile your partners seem to be in a rather nightmarish accelerated cycle of death like you’re feeding them arsenic every meal and not even Rikka and Yukimura are subject to that in the same span, though that may just be because "story time" and "game time" are two wildly different scales in this game, which to be fair makes it work at even a basic level because you need to grind to Mega to continue the story even at this early stage and that’s probably going to take 3+ cycles of rebirth depending on whether you’re using a guide or not. I broke down and used one just to keep the game moving, but if you don’t, you could be stuck going 4, 5, or more cycles before you stumble into your first Mega to make your first real boss anything but an exercise in futility.

I mean just to give credit where credit is due, mechanically, any time your Partners have a sweat drop icon, that’s chiseling away at their natural lifespan, and they can enter that state if their Stamina bar gets too filled up (the game says fatigue sets in at the halfway mark and the game is a dirty liar, because it actually seems to be closer to ⅓ full, 40% at most) and this is really easy to do in the Training Hall, but it also happens if their MP gets too low to cast, which may legitimately happen if you don’t keep good track of it, especially if you’ve entered a more challenging area and aren’t letting it refill between battles, as it does tick up a bit over time and some of the best skills you can get help refill it as you run around. Your Partners in particular are probably having a rougher time than anyone else, if only because Yukimura and Rikka more or less alternate staying behind to guard the town while you’re out all the time, and even then, they Digivolve pretty quickly. Being the partners of the protagonist is a pretty rough gig.

And I’m all out of bubblegum

The biggest thing that irks me about stat growth is that there’s less than zero benefit to fighting groups of enemies because you’re only granted the stat boost of one of them. As such, you have a vested interest in trying to pick enemies off one at a time rather than in groups because if there are 3 in the same striking distance, fighting them all separately gets you triple the gains. The only benefit you actually see numerically is to your Tamer EXP, and I’m not entirely sure you don’t just get the sum of what you’d have gotten individually, though there’s also a sneaky feeling you get bonuses quietly slipped in for anything that’s considered "hard." Thankfully, most enemies are spaced wide apart to let you maybe lead them away from the pack to pick off, but some groups are densely packed and rush you down and you can maybe manage to divide the group in half if you’re lucky.

The game also doesn’t seem to handle too many enemies very well. One or two work pretty smoothly, but as soon as you get a third, they start popping around as the game tries to figure out what to do with them and generally it seems to throw them in superposition at the side until it manages to count them all and separate them out like it’s having to create whole new slots to load them into and that somehow in itself is not a gentle process. I can understand a certain amount of that for Vita because Vita is basically halfway between PS2 and PS3, but this is a PS4 port and should not be chugging in its efforts to count to 3. I can understand for battery life reasons only accounting for 2 enemies by default in battle because most of the game is designed with them far enough apart that you’re unlikely to lasso in more than that before the first one gives up the chase, but nightfall by the power plant gives you a group of 5 Numemon who all bum rush you and if you aren’t savvy about splitting that group apart, the engine pretty much has a normal one for several seconds before unleashing the sheer chaos that that many enemies brings. In other words, it has no problem managing them all spamming their attacks and potentially stun-locking your team; it’s just getting them into position and loading their A.I. where it froths at the mouth and runs around upside-down with its shoes on its hands for a bit until everything is sorted out. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if it happened somewhere later in the game for a boss, but it’s there basically right out the gate for a normal enemy group and that’s not the only place it can happen. I have yet to see any situation where more than 6 enemies are possible in a battle and to be entirely fair, 6 is more than enough to completely overwhelm any team that doesn’t have at least one mon who can effectively one-shot them all individually. You can be pretty well boned by as few as 3 depending on the moves they’re packing.

So really, between the absolute banger of stunlock potential, the lack of stat growth, and no real benefit other than getting items and Tamer EXP faster, there’s really not much benefit to taking enemies on anything more than one at a time. But for all intents and purposes, you’re looking at simple addition for your benefit as a Tamer and no addition at all for your Digimon. Add on to that that the Victories stat only counts battles and you are literally hurting yourself by taking enemies on as anything but two-on-one.

Zero to… zero

Like Cyber Sleuth, what you ultimately have on your hands is a mystery of sorts, only it’s handled very differently in that you’re less an investigator and more the meat in the operation while Jijimon and later Taomon do all the thinking. Your character, mercifully, is not expected to understand what’s going on here, which is a good thing twofold: 1) that simply isn’t the character and 2) the Digital World and its operations and logic are something the human cast are overall unfamiliar with and as such they shouldn’t be expected to have the slightest comprehension until the Exposition Fairy buries them under a truckload of explanations. In terms of the mystery here, something is broken and your presence is proof of that, but at the same time, everyone who lives there immediately understands what is wrong and the focus is on why. This makes it a much more straightforward narrative in certain ways and a bit more appropriate to the age rating despite the cast actually being at least as old as the Cyber Sleuth crew.

In many ways I think that works in its favor for the setting, which is far more about the discovery of it all and the human characters being the smallest part of the story, which is appropriate since they’re strangers in a strange land. The whole thing serves its purpose in that you as the player and the other couple humans bumping around all are serving a much larger purpose that the Digimon otherwise have pretty well handled. You’re a catalyst, not a savior, and that’s something incredibly rare in games. If anything, that’s the best word to describe your role in the game regardless of the topic. You’re a catalyst in battle, too. Absolutely none of the game really needs you, but you’re helping out in whatever way you can and that in itself makes the world as a whole feel more special.

In fact, the game is quick to tell you in many ways that running around acting like the hero is neither asked for nor appreciated. One of the "wrong" responses trying to recruit Taomon to the cause is insisting you’re there to help, which Himari chides you for as Taomon is just about ready to tell you where to go, walking into his home and arguing with him about it. It’s one I made and that reaction of "get out of my house" was NOT what I was expecting, and made me reconsider my position as the player. No sooner does Kouta rush in with Yukimura freshly Digivolved and act like he’s there to save the day than BOTH of them get one-shot. Your role in this game, as a human, is not to stick your flag in the Digital World. If you can be moderately useful in the effort to get you out of it, cool, but you are an insignificant fly and stepping out of line WILL get you swatted.

A little further in…

I should add that I’ve been playing this for a couple dozen hours and the gameplay experience is still quite good, keeping me engaged through the completion of Chapter 1, though I’m being careful about it because of how engaging it is making it easy to play far later into the night than I should.

Each story segment, according to other reviews, is basically a matter of grinding up to Mega to defeat the next boss and that could not be truer for the first one, to be honest, because getting Megas makes the boss trivially easy where it was basically impossible at any tier lower than that. Even the second one, which comes basically immediately after the first one with only a little puttering around in town in between, felt like it needed at least one Mega, though by that point one of mine had reincarnated and I had to train it back up to something that would conceivably survive while the remaining Mega carried. I feel like getting to Mega should somehow put me much further into the story than it does, but then I also realized I never explored past a certain path to a place I thought would come much later in the story and it turns out that no, it’s actually pretty reasonable to go there after a mere 4 cycles of rebirth for your mons, and if that isn’t a bit of a kick in the pants, I don’t know what is, because it feels like going Mega lets you explore far more of the map than it "should," not that the map is actually all that big, nor would it be in the game’s best interests because it needs to be small enough to do the rounds in and it’s a bit uncomfortably large for that already. There’s a certain level of "am I breaking the game, or is this expected" that I’m running into because one would expect the first real boss to pose somewhat of a challenge without being literally impossible and it falls into the bottomless pit of no middle ground between impossible and "my first college try took me less than 30 seconds."

But actually when I say the world is both too large and too small, what I mean is it’s actually quite easy to get from area to area because the first area you step out into, blinking starry-eyed at the bright sun and almost sinfully beautiful skybox, is a hub of sorts that connects you quickly to the first couple areas you’ll visit in the story, even if that’s just a vestigial area hanging off it that happens to have incredibly useful harvests. The fact it’s as massive a single screen as it is makes it hard to navigate and cross, and there’s more than one screen like this interspersed with long hallways and a couple smaller hubs, but that doesn’t make the smaller hubs easy to navigate. One of them has a perpetual sandstorm to apparently hide just how small it is and you will need to use the map here because the area is technically "round" in the sense that it’s "round enough" without being so kind as to have a real curvature to the walls that you can rub against and follow, so any attempt to do that, combined with a lack of any demarcation whatsoever, will have you get stuck and have to take the manual approach. Invisible walls are actually quite a pain here because there’s not always a smooth transition to what is and isn’t walkable and the map is a piece of art that doesn’t accurately capture the actual roughness involved, but while I will complain about that, it’s not a deal-breaker.

But back on topic, all these long, winding hallways don’t do a good job of indicating how far they go and how many screens there are before the next major region, which led me, rather humorously, I’ll admit, to realize my sense of curiosity never led me to the actual end of the starting region, and lo and behold, just going one more screen led me to a starter NPC who made me her "apprentice" despite me running around with a pair of Megas, though to say her tasks ramped up quickly is an understatement, because her first 2 tasks were trivial and her third requested late-game items. Nobody’s made any kind of mention of her and it strikes me that there are quite a few more humans in the Digital World than anyone gave credit for. If she fits into the story and how is probably something to be revealed later, because I don’t actually think the developers made any dialogue exceptions to acknowledge her, though credit to them if they did. They certainly didn’t assume I’d find her. But it’s this sort of thing that works against the game in some ways because when I did have reason to go down that path before, it was rough enough that it felt like a bad idea to spend that much time doing it, especially with the enemies as tough as they were. The only reason I went any further was honestly less because I was directed there and more idle curiosity, though I guess it would have directed me there if I’d been more diligent about asking about where I could recruit more townsfolk. The bigger problem is there are folk to recruit in places I haven’t even found yet, so finding more of those has been a matter of stumbling around blindly trying to figure out what entrances I have and haven’t visited yet.

Another thing that complicates matters is that no matter where you are when you run into battle, it’s going to reposition you in an open area, which is about 50/50 whether it drags you backwards or shunts you ahead, but more importantly changes the direction you’re facing 100% of the time, which could have stood to take a pointer from Quest 64, because like Quest 64 it’s incredibly easy to get lost in a hallway in this game, but Quest 64 only was like that because people didn’t realize that the victory spin set you the direction you started in after you had control the whole time, where here it’s the opposite: it takes control away from you and fields absolutely nothing to get you back on track. This is decidedly not helpful in a place like a sandstorm or otherwise the various hallways that don’t offer much in the line of distinct landmarks. Especially if you passed other enemies by on your way to that point, you can be very easily dumped into the middle of a hallway with basically nothing to say which direction you want to go, and the portals to the connecting areas offer no indication of where they lead, where other games might throw up a name and a few question marks if you haven’t been there yet. This can be, in short, a right pain. After a while you just learn to check the map if you can’t immediately identify your surroundings, but having to check the map constantly breaks the flow a bit.

The "Sender" system is really essential to traveling the world and the Camp system is your best means of keeping yourself in places you’ve managed to reach because in truth, your character moves at a jog and there is no dash that could hasten things a bit and that in itself is the biggest low-key frustration boiling beneath the surface. Maybe a low simmer rather than a rolling boil, but still something I’m really wishing I had some recourse for, even if it were just a pair of magic shoes you had to refill with battle-winning pixie dust. I mean that seriously, because enemies are simply faster than you are, so having a limited choice to outrun them that didn’t mean you could outrun everything would have slotted straight in here mechanically. The game is kind enough to give you breathing room by having anything not close enough to the battle clear away, but that’s not always enough to keep it from being wave after wave, either, and a "congratulations for surviving that; have this to turn tail and run" would have been nice for those cases. But I digress. It’s often most efficient to Send yourself past the entrance of where you’d actually normally go and then backtrack to what you actually want to visit. Returning to town with an Auto-Pilot is basically your best friend as the game sprawls out, and for every 5 times you Send, you can get 5 of those for free, though it would be nice if the game told you how many times you had under your belt than just "nope, not yet!"

I will say you can definitely grind up your partners if you get them out of sync with each other, because running around with a Mega and a Rookie gets the Rookie some really fast stat gains and surviving combat is generally doable with the skills to add Defend to your commands and then the next one after that to make it negate rather than reduce damage. You’ll waste a lot of opportunities to get Order Points for your powerful mon, but even if it takes longer, the ability to get some fast growth out of it and not have to squander your power in early areas or wait on being able to do sidequests is totally worth it, especially because they don’t take in-game time. Grinding battles really is just more efficient than grinding the Training Hall when your mons are in early enough stages to get that growth. The Training Hall has its place, mind you, but that place is really for mons who can’t survive battle or if you really need to throw yourself into one stat to meet requirements because battles seems to have a hard limit on how much a stat can gain, where the Training Hall might, but it’s much higher. For battle, it seems each stat has a maximum it can grow and it will favor whatever is lowest before it overflows into everything else, so if you’re finding your weaker mon is getting a +24 to everything and then getting dumps into HP or MP, you’re probably losing out because of the cap, though it literally just clicked typing that that there may be a skill that raises that, which I’d previously been reading as just gaining more stats at the end of battle. Maybe it does both or maybe it works as I’d thought before, but while cheesing the Defend command to see them through and gaining almost 100 in every stat every 4 battles certainly can work, it probably means a lot of micromanaging and items when they get slapped with status to keep them up when you could get similar benefits in an easier area.

I will also say this: grinding your own Tamer Level is just as important as grinding your Digimon, and the skills you buy can have a game-changing impact. Like, there are guides for this, but the combat related skills can completely alter your ability to progress in the game, particularly getting a perfect defense going to weather attacks. Defending is incredibly low-cost and allows you to keep your mons from getting wiped out by attacks they’re just not equipped to handle once you buy the skill that makes it a perfect damage defense. The biggest thing it can’t protect you from is status, some of which takes your command ability away, but at least the damage is negated and items can handle the rest. You’ll also want to invest in the first fishing skill if you want to catch anything at all, because it takes your success rate from near-zero to about 75% or so, as in as many times as I tried without it before giving up, I literally caught nothing, so that skill basically enables the system. The ability to pack away more items also comes very much in handy. Some skills are very much more useful than others, but the ones that directly relate to your activities are pretty universally useful if not essential. If there’s something that lets you do something, or do something better, chances are the impact is going to be meaningful, whereas passive bonuses are going to be your "leave it for later" deals because they probably only offer marginal returns. I invested into the life extension skills and I literally haven’t noticed a difference. If I could take that back, I’d have spent the points elsewhere. Likewise, the bonuses you can buy for your mood and other stats don’t feel like they do anything at all, but guides indicate gaining the Tamer EXP locked behind all three of them is worth something and for that, even marginal returns will quickly add up. The effect is subtle, but I’ve definitely noticed that my adventures have pulled in over 1000 Tamer EXP where before I was getting a bit over 700, so when I say it’s worth it, I don’t say that lightly.

Your Tamer Level is easiest to grind by mining and I have to say when you buy a skill for a mining bonus, my experience says it actually seems to boost everything BUT the one it says it does, or else each Digimon has a hidden stat that controls how effective they are at mining a given thing since it seems rather intentional in its choices of who mines and high-level mons legitimately seem to do better, with some mons raking in bonus materials like nobody’s business. If you buy a couple of the mining skills, that starts helping you rake things in a little better regardless, and if you have 3 of the initial 4, it doesn’t feel like you really need to worry much about the last one. You’ll likely be swimming in rare materials from the 2-3 stacks from everything else. Ultimately I’d save anything more than that for later. But the act of mining itself is the easiest, fastest means of gobbling up Tamer EXP regardless of the quality of the materials and it only takes a second, i.e. an in-game minute, to mine once, which most often gives a handful of items each time. The rest of how you gain Tamer EXP seems almost at odds with how Digimon function, since you gain a constant stream of little EXP pings just walking around at 10 EXP per step or so based on when I camped and then only walked a very short distance and then camped again, unless it’s 5 EXP per step and it had counted it as 2 steps. I suppose I could get more scientific about it, but the point is you gain EXP by moving, which takes time, which is time you’re not fighting, which in itself can be used as a means of movement since everyone rushes to the nearest clear area and doesn’t take time. You also gain Tamer EXP from battles, any battle to some extent, but your rewards, unlike your Partners’, are additive and feel like they quietly slip in small bonuses for harder ones, so that gives you as the Tamer every incentive to fight bigger battles where that does far less for your Partners, including robbing them of counted Victories for their next forms’ requirements. I won’t call it antagonistic, but it’s something to balance. Battles are a drip feed of Tamer EXP at best, though, so I’d recommend prioritizing your mons in them and just being diligent about collecting all the materials you can. The good thing is for Metal and Stone materials, you end up able to exchange them upward at a 5:1 ratio at the end of Chapter 1, which really comes almost immediately after your first major boss battle.

I’ll also say being diligent about rebuilding Floatia is in your best interest, because once you get things off the ground, you’re more constrained by what you can mine than anything else and some of the benefits are quite meaningful. The game more or less limits your ability to upgrade the town by where you can manage to survive mining, which is to say roughly analagous to story progress, including the first few generations of grinding. Expanding the farm a couple times to let you grow more veggies will make the Training Hall easier when you need it. Expanding the Sender lets you go more places for cheaper and you’ll be able to do that once in Chapter 1. Expanding Jijimon’s house gets you better daily gifts, which takes you from getting the basic items you start finding everywhere to mid-level items for Level 2. And expanding the Builder itself has various benefits to material costs and probably the other item-based stuff that you end up with toward the end of the chapter, though since I had already done it before any of those NPCs joined, I’ll have to see what happens the next time I’m able to upgrade it. Most importantly, though, in my opinion, is that expanding the Item Shop lets you get a Premium Tent, which has 6 uses and means you can use it for more than just emergencies like the basic model. Generally speaking if you can upgrade a facility, you should. Even if something doesn’t seem immediately useful (like the initial offering of the restaurant), chances are you’re going to find an NPC who’s going to set up shop in the same building and that’s going to immediately benefit from the expanded options.

As I said, the game finds ways to keep earlier areas useful. If you’re looking to gather a certain food item, you can pretty reliably find it somewhere, grab it, leave, and then return to grab it again, and you can also farm skills the same way, because it’s going to take a while to gain them and some of them are only available from a small number of sources. It’s absolutely developer laziness to not save the enemy group state, but at the same time it can also be a Godsend if something huge spawns in and you’re in no way prepared to handle it, because it probably won’t be there if you turn tail and come back. Otherwise, just knowing you can only get certain materials at certain spots keeps you coming back to the areas for that drip feed for improving the town and while it can be a right pain to have to go to the one specific spot certain things are available from, it does mean you can grind your party pretty easily while you’re waiting for them to be strong enough to handle the next boss. While you do eventually get the ability to trade materials upward 5:1, and get NPCs you can send out to gather random materials, it’s never quite enough to fully replace needing to go mine stuff yourself. That and its importance to your Tamer EXP make it worthwhile to form a sort of planned circuit to keep everything rolling in once your team’s stats are high enough to handle getting to a given spot, even if you have to cheese certain battles a bit. Since your advancement is ultimately based just as much on time as it is on stats, there are just going to be times when grinding is your only real activity anyway, so you may as well optimize to build out the town, because that’s going to open up more options for recruiting townsfolk, which is ultimately just going to make your life easier one way or another. That’s the whole game loop; you’re always grinding for some incremental improvement, but none of it will 100% replace your activities.

The only real problem I have with the game as it stands is the story is not very well-paced and most of it relies on you getting powerful enough to beat the boss that’s going to allow it to move forward. It’s not the deepest story by any stretch and it feels like it wouldn’t be nearly as rewarding if the necessary grinding didn’t keep you away from it. "It’s there" isn’t really a shining endorsement, but I will say it certainly moves at a fast clip when you actually get to it, because Chapter 1 ends with 3 character reveals, a reference to the first game in the series, and, if you know what everyone is talking about, the admission that there are multiple Digital Worlds. That said, after that, the main plot grinds once again to a screeching halt until you recruit more townsfolk and in that regard there’s also a lot of "hurry up and wait" in the plot because this isn’t even the first time I was tasked with doing something useful while the adults figure everything out and I feel quite robbed because it sounds like they’re getting information that would have been interesting to know.

Let me just side track a bit to cover Mameo and Luche as a couple of those reveals. Luche showed up right when Kouta and Yukimura got creamed as someone living in the village getting stomped and she’s a small child with a Numemon doll and near-total amnesia. The local Digimon had taken her in and she had a brief happy stint as their guest before everyone went wrong, and she’s the one who named Mameo because of his Mamemon patch on his hat. "Mameo" as a former protagonist looks significantly similar to his original appearance earlier in the series and the game uses this nickname to sidestep the fact you’re probably not going to have a PS1 memory card plugged in to read your old data from. As a person, he’s rather mysterious, but he knows vaguely what’s going on and used his gift of traveling to the Digital World as received from winning the last game to come back to try to fix things, which leads him to giving you a prototype antivirus program that proves quite useful later. Basically Luche is the perky, inexperienced kid and Mameo is that special kind of "Jerk With a Heart of Gold" who at least understands when he’s not equipped to handle delicate matters and does things under the table and I won’t say he’s likable, but he at least is self-aware of that. Mameo naturally would have his own partner if his partner wasn’t stuck as a Digi-Egg from the "curse" he claims he failed to finish the job on last time he was around, so he’s kicking himself for that, but is interested in your ability to do it for him.

This game is absolutely propped up by side missions and smaller story threads and at the start of Chapter 2 the only recourse is to deal with a war. I mean, like, an actual war with barricades and bombed out defenses. Maybe small-scale, but surprisingly less than childish given these folks are dealing with hunger in their fortress and your mission as it stands is to actually help the first side you encounter win it, which makes sense given it’s a war between "Meaty Troops vs. Veggie Troops" led by Leomon and Rosemon respectively and as a human you fall on the "meat" side. This on its own is immediately intriguing were it not for the fact that this also is a recruitment initiative, so you’re actually invested in, y’know, telling the troops to abandon the effort so they can set up shop or whatever in the city. Though at the same time, the way you get embroiled in this whole thing is surprisingly organic, providing safe haven for an injured ally. It just seems a little weird that they could have scaled this up into its own whole game and here it’s just a small effort to get a few townsfolk. Given they all know where Floatia is and ostensibly came from there, this raises a few questions. What started this war? Is it a war over resources as people try to carve out a safe haven after Floatia was reduced to 2 cabins and a porta-potty? If so, why the heck did they choose a wasteland as their new home where resources would inevitably be an issue? All of these will hopefully be revealed as I continue through this, but it unfortunately seems the chapter isn’t going to make itself about this conflict so much as have me quietly end it by luring soldiers away with the promise of food while I pretend to be helping the war effort and I’m pretty sure without looking it up that that’s a war crime. It’s certainly not honoring the promise of being an ally. I think the biggest problem I have with this, though, is that there are enemies within their fort that are absolutely their troops and keep attacking me, so communication is Not Good here and also because of that a large part of the food I promised the ones who decided we were on speaking terms was food their own troops were already carrying, which is just so hilariously bad given they were all worried about running out. Your activities in this area seem hinged on dismantling the war effort by all but kidnapping all of the troops from both sides under false pretenses. There are a few things this subplot does right, not the least of which is introduce actual failure states to your dialogue options where you’re given only one right answer and are expected to remember it. In contrast the main plot is done in such a way that your input probably doesn’t matter all that much because it has to keep going regardless and isn’t going to wait up on a correct response. Ultimately I found myself far more invested in this subplot than the main story and was actually rather annoyed when the main story dragged me away from it. I would have much preferred them to be more solidly integrated.

If I do have to finish this up with one last minor complaint, it’s that your Partners will sometimes get very noisy depending on what sound set they’ve been assigned and it can get immediately and violently grating when you’re put in a position where the same sample to make a Dragonball Z character go, "WHOA! Tone it down!" starts infinitely looping until you can resolve the issue. Generally speaking, since everyone wakes up hungry, you don’t want them to also wake up cranky or undisciplined, because either or both will have them jumping up and down screaming at the top of their lungs and you cannot physically cram food into them fast enough to avoid it being very offputting. The smaller ones actually just have quieter voice samples, but it suddenly stops being cute when you have something twice your height blaring their discontent over a megaphone in your ear. This also goes for when they’re about ready to keel over, because they’ll be constantly stopping to pant, and the adult female voice especially has all the subtletly of a broadway musical number, so you get to "enjoy" her essentially wailing like a banshee every five seconds until she finally keels over and there is nothing you can do about it. If I do have to say any voice is more tolerable to have wheezing their last around you it’s actually the big growly monster voice if only because the low register helps take the edge off the already mercifully lower volume and like a wounded beast it actually kinda sounds like they’re trying not to, which raises a lot more sympathy from me personally that a valkyrie announcing the end of her life with "AAAAAAAAH! 📣" every 5 seconds. None of them is good to have running and even the "I’m tiny and adorable because my planet-busting power is super condensed" voice pack’s "Eeee…" quickly loses any charm it has initially by never stopping until they finally just die. It’s one of the most aggravating situations you’ll encounter in the game because there’s basically nothing you can do about it other than find some activity that skips an hour of time and just keep doing it until the cold embrace of death claims them. I understand why the game does this: it’s basically your last call to do something useful with them. Beat one more boss or recruit looking for a fight, train that last stat the little bit of the way it needs to go to get to the next form instead of dying, etc. But the frequency it loops at doesn’t give you any kind of respite and it’s the single most glaring part of the game where you have next to zero agency to do anything about it.

Story spoilers!

Click here to skip past this section.

No, Chapter 2 actually falls into the trap of focusing a little too much on the human characters, where you learn that everyone is freaking out after learning that the problem you’re trying to solve just got a lot worse. Like, a LOT worse. Like, "maybe collecting so many people all in one place again might be a very bad idea" worse, without spoiling anything, because the danger ramps up HARD at the end of Chapter 1. Himari already is on edge before that hits the fan and the reveal is something she’s completely unprepared for: i.e. she was hoping things could wrap up quickly because she’s trying to raise her twin sisters and they’re only in second grade, so she’s having visions of them starving to death without her, their mother not being in the picture and father seemingly absent in a way you often see with Japanese businessmen, though the game isn’t explicit about it. Just for a bit of Japanese culture, Himari and her sisters are basically orphans. This happens in Japanese society when the parents are simply too busy to raise their kids and there are literal orphanages specifically for this, but Himari being 18 is old enough to hold things together at home while her father maybe visits once in a blue moon and her mother is busy being probably dead. In short, she’s taken the role of mother in the family and has every reason to think a pair of 7-year-olds are incapable of taking care of themselves. Being told the situation keeps escalating means it’s looking less and less like her sisters are going to be taken care of as kids too young to cook. This ends up making her run off to be alone and causes problems as she pushes everyone, including Rikka, away without explanation. Rikka naturally chases after her, but because Himari never told anyone what was going on in her life, namely because Rikka represents something of an exchange she’s not willing to make long-term, Himari just keeps flipping out at her and Rikka has no idea why, which leads to a boss battle where the antivirus program you were given by Mameo helps keep Rikka from changing into a Cyberdramon from the stress combined with Himari freaking out and trying to double back to help her, but is a hard enough boss battle I needed to break out ExE (Extra Cross Evolution) for it, which is a once-daily DNA Digivolution equivalent unique to this game because DNA Digivolution is already a part of other systems. It’s definitely a system you earn and you cannot use it lightly, so that should give you context on the level of hard this boss actually is for a team that’s likewise half Holy element. After you win (which required some generous healing even WITH ExE activated), Himari spills the beans about it and admits she never told Rikka about her sisters because she didn’t want Rikka feeling like she needed to compete with them. Himari’s ideal world would allow for all of them to be together and as such she enjoyed her time in the Digital World to a point, but things have sailed past that point with no hope on the horizon and she’s realized just how bad that is for her family. Out of this, Rikka Digivolves into a flying pink dragon and I’m not going to say she looks exactly like Falkor from The Neverending Story, just that she might want to keep a lawyer handy. Anyway, the two basically hug it out because Himari does love Rikka and Himari commits to healthier coping mechanisms than running off to be alone and pushing everyone away.

Even the parts leading up to this explosion have some good things to say about mental health and self care, with Himari admitting that she’s emotionally exhausted and Rikka making a point to tell her to rest despite them both knowing humans don’t have any physiological needs in the Digital World (which hey, might explain why pet care is basically nonexistent in Cyber Sleuth!), which was a pleasant surprise when I hit that part and really serves to highlight just how much healthier their approach is than one might expect from a teenager in an E10+ game, especially from one this old (2017) and especially from a Japanese developer, bearing in mind Japanese "work yourself to death" work culture actually values you passing out from exhaustion at your desk and people will actually fake it to make it look like they’re working sufficently hard and nobody leaves before their supervisor so everyone is always putting in extra hours, often late into the night. Did I mention there are orphanages to take care of these folks’ children?

Now hang on to your butts, because it’s about to get real! There is no shame in scrolling most or all of the next paragraph just for length.

Kouta is the exact opposite and while you were tasked with handling Himari’s delicate emotional state, Mameo was tasked with running after Kouta and Yukimura, who have already been training themselves ragged after the last time they got creamed, but now Kouta is REALLY pushing it and Yukimura is letting him because both of them have felt useless for a while now. The abuse Kouta heaps on is intentional and they both know it, with Yukimura even being on board, because their goal is actually to force Yukimura to Digivolve into Cyberdramon, but somehow keep control of it. It… almost works, but Yukimura Digivolves into SkullGreymon instead (with every indication it’s quite painful on top of it), which fans might recognize as a Dark Digivolution, though the game isn’t quite so gleeful as to bandy the term about. For anyone who doesn’t understand what this entails, Dark Digivolution is what happens when you done F’d up trying to force your Partner to Digivolve selfishly rather than through the power of friendship and SkullGreymon is a Digimon with literally no brain driven only by the instinct to fight, i.e. indiscriminately, which doesn’t go well for anyone in a 10-mile radius. You’re in spitting distance and thus this new tortured, mindless form’s first victims because the antivirus program Mameo gave you simply isn’t equipped to deal with this and fails with a little "paff." I will say this battle is MUCH easier and I wiped the floor with it using ExE, so I reloaded and did it the traditional way to save ExE for something else and having Holy powers was incredibly useful here. Yukimura is reduced to a Digi-Egg and looks like he’s going to be stuck that way just like Mameo’s Partner, but Mameo has you retry the antivirus on it and that removes the dark aura to let him eventually be reborn. Kouta cries it out to you about how it looked like he had it made in life only to realize that despite having good grades, being good at sports, and being able to read people well, he never actually had any plans in life, just assuming a comfortable job, house, and family would fall into his lap without ever having prospects figured out for any of those things and that made him realize he’s "empty," i.e. all of that was just a façade that was going to fall apart as soon as he needed to figure out goals. That’s why he’s been parading around the Digital World like the main character: something finally fell into his lap that looked like any kind of plan at all. Being showed up by, well, you was the final thing that made him realize he wasn’t any more special in the Digital World than he ever had been, and this is basically where I get to talk about the Mediocre White Guy concept, because he’s it. Being a Mediocre White Guy isn’t about not being good enough, it’s about being exactly good enough in a world where you were born with an advantage. A Mediocre White Guy is successful under traditional definitions of "success," ticking all the boxes at school or work, generally being comfortable in life, and only really becoming a problem when that comfort is threatened, which is frankly very easy to do if someone walks in who makes what he accomplished look easy and especially if that someone doesn’t benefit from the same level of privilege. The "wrong" people in lofty positions makes him feel small, like if they did it, he should have been able to do it just as easily, because nothing has ever seemed all that hard. I think it shouldn’t be missed that Kouta in-game is blond despite the 2D art making it more of a light brown, but he’s at least honey-brown and that’s pretty light. This guy has White Privilege. And to go on more about that, there are many types of privilege you can have, money being the biggest, but being attractive, male, tall, and of the politically dominant race in your country all help. He was probably handed an easy decision to join the soccer team or something and dresses both sporty and preppy and early on he’s largely inoffensive, suspiciously so. He is distilled "fine young man" of the sort adults adore and his speech seems to imply that while he’s generally respected by his peers, he doesn’t have much in the line of deep bonds. He was born on Easy Mode and I say this as someone who was born on Easy Mode. The fact he’s reasonably smart, projects an attractive image, and most importantly knows how to use those in his probably shallow interactions with others all add up to a guy who could very easily make a comfortable life for himself promoted to his level of incompetence in middle management and tread water until retirement. He was just hoping it would all fall into his lap like everything else in his life. I was in Kouta’s shoes and basically let everyone around me decide my career path, which separates him from me, but seeing as I’m typing this as a programmer, I can say choosing your own career path is going to work better than anything chosen for you. Kouta went from an unassuming life of coasting on everything the world handed him to needing to figure out an actual future and his inability to think of one is, from personal experience, terrifying. He was handed what looked like a way out and also from experience, being handed that dream and then placed with people who are just more driven and talented than you when you’re used to being on top is both terrifying and mortifying. I understand exactly what happened here because it happened to me. Kouta handled this in an unhealthy way and that ended very poorly for him and destroyed the most important ally he had in every way it could. While he’s wallowing in misery and guilt, Mameo basically slaps him back to reality by telling him feeling worthless is an insult to both Yukimura, who gave literally everything for him, and you as the player rushing in to save him from his own mistakes (twice now). Mameo tells him he’s worth saving and that it’s not Kouta’s place to decide whether that’s true or not. It’s probably the biggest wake-up call Kouta has ever had in his life because it’s probably the first time he’s been challenged to think outside of himself, but it’s a lesson that’s cost him everything. Speaking again from experience, someone like Kouta, with his shallow relationships and insistence that he can fix things if he just tries harder in scenes leading up to this, has probably been taught his whole life that everything about his own success relies on him. That’s its own form of privilege because no matter what you do in that context, it’s hard to see where anyone else is propping you up. And it’s even harder to ask for help because that just feels like a failure – really just as bad as if you’d ultimately tried and failed because you gave up on struggling to do it, even if it succeeds because of it. There’s a feeling of personal ownership of everything you do that doesn’t include others and giving up that ownership means you don’t get to own the result. These battles don’t come out of nowhere; it’s obvious both he and Himari are already having emotional problems by several scenes earlier and these fights are just the inevitable crash, but you can also see Yukimura’s psyche in decline with him insisting he’s a coward unprompted when he’s done nothing to demonstrate that. These feelings of inadequacy are coming straight from Kouta’s unhealthy coping mechanisms rubbing off on him, where everything that goes wrong is somehow your fault and you just need to figure out why. Calling himself a "coward" is something Yukimura does to deflect blame off Kouta onto himself, because even Luche understands Kouta’s own mental state is the problem here, and children being as perceptive as they are she probably understands full well it’s because Kouta is blaming his own lack of strength for the issue even though his physical condition is not at all a factor. Kouta already is very clearly blaming himself because that’s what he was taught to do, even for things outside of his control, and Yukimura is finding ways to do the same thing. Collectively the two of them both feel like they own the responsibility because both of them feel like they own it personally and that the factors outside of their control have to be something they’re personally doing to fail each other. It’s a form of arrogance and it’s often very deep-seated because your internal validation relies heavily on it. That is the #1 thing I had to un-learn when I got out into the workforce, because your failures no longer affect only you in the real world. When you don’t look outside of yourself for your self-worth, you can very easily hold yourself to standards you can’t meet and you will 100% hide that stress because you don’t want it impacting your external image of everything being fine. Only in the workforce failing to meet standards when other people are depending on you affects more than you. This isn’t something that team sports can solve; these folks put in the most effort of any player and often end up the star player of the team. They understand the idea that their team depends on them, but they functionally act as an island within it in ways that can be hard to diagnose because they don’t play the blame game and internalize the failure. That’s the biggest problem with people like Kouta: they put a lot of work into making it look like everything is fine and because of that most people are fooled into believing it, at least for a while. This is where you hear about people who "peaked in high school." The problem came in for him and Yukimura when they tried to force a solution. Kouta was living vicariously through Yukimura and pushing him in ways that he was used to pushing himself, but everyone has their breaking point and Yukimura reached it before Kouta did, especially because Kouta as a human in the Digital World has no way of experiencing the same physical strain Yukimura was subject to or else he would have absolutely crashed and burned first. The most insidious thing about it was Kouta was not asking Yukimura to do anything he didn’t expect from himself; he was expecting exactly what he expected of himself without, once again, realizing his own privilege with his inability to get tired or require food, water, sleep, etc. All of that abuse is a reflection of the own self-abuse he had bubbling below the surface, hidden away from everyone else, that only boils over in front of the player with his failure on full display in the form of the pity party he throws himself when he realizes he’s completely lost the game, that not only did he try and fail, but someone else who was already making him feel inferior had to fix it for him. Yukimura’s only failure in this was buying into Kouta’s unhealthy coping mechanisms when he probably should have been better equipped based on his emotional starting point. I mean this seriously; Yukimura when you first meet him is very well-adjusted and shows quite a bit of initiative. It’s only after the two of them start comparing themselves to others that the problems start. Rikka evolved to Gatomon (i.e. a Champion despite looking much more like a Rookie) and they’re left behind on that, so when Yukimura finally turns into a Growlmon, they figure they have it made and rush off and get creamed. The two then have to watch you waltz in and take care of that enemy, and let me say this: there is no way a Champion can handle that boss. None. Even Ultimates are a big stretch, but the two of them have to watch you waltz in and defeat it and both of them end up stewing over it as Rikka Digivolves to Ultimate (Angewomon) and their attempt to force Yukimura to surpass that straight to Mega ironically results in one of the most dangerous Ultimates there is. The two are not only forced to watch you bumping around being the main character; they’re watching Himari and Rikka beat them to the punch every step of the way and feel inferior to everyone around them. And both of them turn it inward. I can’t say whether that’s better or worse than what it would do to their relationship if Yukimura hadn’t fallen in line with Kouta, because on his own, Yukimura should have been emotionally mature enough to understand that it wasn’t his fault he wasn’t powerful enough and I can only surmise that those butler-like behaviors kicked in in a toxic way making him feel like he was failing Kouta and his slow descent was a result of looking to Kouta as a role model for how to handle that. Kouta doesn’t blame Yukimura for any of it and that could be mistaken for a sort of strength. It certainly feels that way when you’re in that mindset: a stoicism of sorts. With these two, it unfortunately generated a negative feedback loop rather than pushing them apart like one would have expected from Yukimura upon first meeting him. Yukimura endured the abuse because he felt he deserved it and thought it would help Kouta. Luckily once Yukimura hatches again you can find him bouncing around with Kouta in town having forgiven him and Kouta having committed to taking it slow together as actual partners. Mameo, for all his faults, helped Kouta see that there could be second chances in life and that getting help isn’t a bad thing. That Kouta could look outside of himself for his needs. It was the kick in the rear he needed to actually find self-worth from anyone but himself.

Let me just segue into this in case it’s not clear: none of this is okay or healthy. This may be a video game where these things get wrapped up neatly by a conversation, but in reality, this sense of ultra-responsibility for everything is something that’s often taught from an early age and it can stay with you well into your adult life. You don’t "deserve" abuse. Not even if you fail. Failure in itself is not a finality you can never escape. It’s the result of 90% of everything ever. It’s okay to fail. What you don’t want to do is invest so heavily in something that the failure takes the legs out from under everything else. My former CIO had spent many years across the tech industry as a consultant among other things. His motto, as a man of retirement age, was "it’s okay to fail; fail and fail fast." Tying up too much in something that is not going to succeed anyway takes time and energy you can be moving to things you can succeed at. This is where you get phrases like "throwing good money after bad." Failure happens. You can save everything else and try again later from a better position, or you can lose everything trying to make it all work. I am currently the happiest I’ve been for most of my entire life because I finally cut the cord on something that wasn’t working, picked up the pieces, and moved on to better. I suffered a lot of abuse trying to save things over the course of my life thinking that people needed me to do it. I have literally nearly died on multiple occasions because I felt what I was being forced to do to meet unreasonable expectations was necessary. I have crashed and burned more than once and only then picked up the pieces and moved onto something better that worked for me. If any of this sounds like you, I have a word of advice: don’t fear change. There is a certain amount of comfortable stability that can come even from a terrible situation, but you deserve better than that. You deserve happiness, and love, and support. You deserve an environment where you don’t have to feel threatened by others’ success, where it’s okay to ask for help and work as a team so you don’t have to shoulder everything alone. You deserve to understand that not everyone can do anything and nobody can do everything. But you also have to understand that sometimes the problem is you and you need to start fixing yourself first. That same arrogance that makes you feel like only you can do something is a pretty potent force for pushing people away when you need them most. Chiseling away at that makes you both someone who can be saved and someone others feel is worth saving when you need it. Nobody is an island. Society runs because of give and take. Ultimately this form of arrogance is a feeling that giving makes you strong and taking makes you weak. That has pathways to both being abusive and being easily abused. When it’s co-morbid with a fragile sense of superiority, it most easily makes you an abuser, and that’s something that people rarely want to save.

Okay, real talk over, but that needed to happen.

Something that does get a subtle mention in this whole process is Mameo’s antivirus has a learning function that he surmises is working better than expected given your ability to unlock Yukimura’s egg, so while that may not restore Mameo’s Partner, it at least was able to learn quickly enough to become useful for others. Mameo as such is kind of OP because he always seems to have some deux ex machina or other in the wings and I feel like if he weren’t kneecapped by not having a Partner it would be him saving the world, not you. Though to be entirely fair I’m pretty sure the game feels that way, too, which is why it takes steps to have him defer to you in emotional matters and take an interest in your twin Partners as a point of interest to help humanize him. I’m not saying it strikes me that he’s on the spectrum or anything, but it’s clear he’s not used to being a team player and taking a supporting role is out of his comfort zone. The only reason he takes that role is because you’re basically tasked with arresting him due to the mistaken impression his lack of success is the direct cause of the issue, and he doesn’t prioritize things deferentially to others. He’s smart enough to make himself incredibly useful and maybe just socially apt enough to not get swatted like everyone else does when they start thinking they’re the hero, which kind of tells me he understands he’s walking a tightrope. It’s an interesting twist to having a previous hero return with all his prior experience and I think the game does it incredibly well. To be entirely fair, it’s very much in the theme of humans in general being a much smaller part of the world. Despite your presence as the playable character, I wouldn’t call you the "main character" or even "protagonist" because your role in the story is "the most active support" and Mameo, unlike Kouta, seems to be coming in with a sense of humility and understanding that that’s his role as well, which probably comes from his prior efforts. He’s already tried and failed on his own and as such giving you his prototype antivirus program because you’re the one most out in the field and thus most likely to have a need for it and then turning around and whipping up another one from scratch says he understands his role perfectly, or at least that he knows they’d flip if he didn’t have a backup plan and they found out he’d given their best hope to you on the sly. Maybe it’s a tough pill for him to swallow, but he gets out the fire hose required to force it down and that’s respectable.

End story spoilers.

The biggest problem with the game is that it’s dangerously fun and that in itself has given me a sense of growing ambivalence toward it as it leads me to stay up way later than I should, which has not been particularly good for me. I say "dangerously fun" and not "dangerously addictive" because in this sense I want to be serious about it and talk a bit about what is and isn’t "addiction" as someone who has a forum addiction from time on Gaia Online. And I say this as a serious matter, because Gaia was always very gamified and that has led to legitimate issues for me when it comes to being on a forum, any forum, and the unhealthy behaviors I fall victim to like any addict. I cannot go on a forum for extended periods anymore, and I need to leave immediately when I feel that old pull. It’s let me see and identify all the hooks that games and such use to get you addicted and that’s why I was able to be a casual solo MMO player for a while when I still had time for that stuff, because seeing and deconstructing the hooks is an excellent way to de-fang them. This game doesn’t have those hooks. There’s nothing like a rush of progress that suddenly hits a wall like is common. Quite the opposite, honestly; everything is more or less on a timer that you can’t do anything to modify right out the gate and it brings the story to a screeching halt, which make the initial handful of generations more aggravating than anything as you continue to learn the systems and come to understand that the game fully expects you to do hours of grinding before you can really get on with it. There’s also no "pay to play" or "pay to win" going on – you really can’t speed anything up meaningfully and your purchase options are severely limited, especially before you find Tentomon. The game in many ways limits you without any recourse and only opens up very slowly to remove your restrictions in a very organic manner. So as far as game systems go, it’s doing what a console game (or really any game) should and operating as a game rather than an addiction machine.

So no, it’s not "addictive" in the sense that many mobile games and MMOs are because it’s not a mobile game or MMO and it’s already made its money by being bought. It doesn’t need to claw for your pocketbook every 5 minutes and has no incentive to keep you against your will. What it is is "fun," and as far as fun goes it’s the most fun I’ve had with a game in ages. Take this as an endorsement: any game that’s so much fun to play that I make poor decisions and start having an aversion to playing it has to be worth playing, because if hours can pass and I find myself once again at 3:00 in the morning wondering where the time went and hating it and myself both in the morning, it’s keeping me engaged, which is incredibly hard for a game to do on gameplay alone. Yes, it is grind-heavy, but grinding is a feature for me because it doesn’t take much thought and Final Fantasy VII is a game I will gladly pop in and grind for hours in just for the sake of having something in my comfort zone. It’s not so much a warm hug as a room-temperature hug with hard edges, but when all you need is a chair to sit in, sometimes you just want a kitchen chair, not a fancy overstuffed heated massage chair. This game is very much the latter, but that’s what makes it so dangerous, because at some point you try to stand up from it and find that your legs have gone liquid and you really have to pee and you’re forced to Octo-Dad your way to take care of all the necessities that have been quietly been piling up behind you.

This game feels like you’re traveling with a couple companions who are very much alive in their own way, each form having its own personality to keep it interesting. And to be quite honest, the ones I find most enjoyable happen to be the various slacker types since they seem to enjoy being around you the most. It keeps things both fresh and comfortable and at times a little strangely flattering as the more advanced forms can get vaguely flirtatious with you and yet your Partners are never all that far away from a childlike phase where they engage in shenanigans like pouncing on each other with a "Hi-yah!" or chasing a hulking Mega who hasn’t reincarnated yet around you or getting excited and running ahead or just complaining at you to get moving and do something because every second is literally a minute for them and they only have a month or so to live and as such wasting their time feels like literally forever to them. It’s so very easy to help them always be something different and it’s just as easy to lock them into a chain that suits your preferences after the game opens up. They are constantly interacting with you, the world, and each other.

Above the fruited plain

The game really can’t be faulted for visual design. Even your harvest points find a way of being different and more or less easily identifiable, even to colorblind players. To put it this way, all of them are a short segment of an inverted cone where rings of light with a nice inward-spiked texture quickly rise up and expand a bit before fading back out as cubes with highlighted edges lazily spin as they float up from the center, and all of them are pretty friendly toward telling them apart by their values alone, with the chartreuse green for Wood and pure red for Stone being quite different values-wise and the gold-toned yellow for Metal naturally being the brightest of any of the three that are attached to specific objects. Blue for Liquid is a bit different from the rest because it actually has split values, using a paler powder blue for its rings and something closer to a denim blue for its cubes, making it stand out from any of the rest, whose values are much closer. It’s this sort of accessibility that really makes a difference, because Liquid is the only one that’s not strictly limited to being attached to one type of object and is often attached to things that are valid to one of the others. Even if you can’t tell the others apart by color, they’re very easy to tell apart by context, so having one that takes a different visual approach when it’s capable of breaking that context deserves recognition. To paraphrase something floating around The Fediverse right now, accessibility is not an "extra step," it’s a step too many people miss. The team here didn’t miss it, and that’s worth pointing out. Thanks once again to Coblis for making this so easy to verify by more than just eyeballing it.

The game is otherwise full of nice details like long grass swaying in the breeze, leaves and petals floating up in some areas, and some gorgeous skyboxes. Street lamps and capacitors emit light at night, as do Conductor Lemons, while various other produce you pick up in the world all do a good job of being mostly easily identifiable with very few exceptions through shape and color, though there are a few cases where you’re expected to tell them apart by whether they’re more of a pure green or a teal color. Fishing gives you a good look at some surprisingly nice gravel textures underwater that you wouldn’t normally see. Some capacitors are burned out and show visible weathering. Lights blink in server racks, even if getting too close does show it’s really just a texture put in front of the model. You won’t get close enough to break the illusion very often. The server rack models also are textured incredibly well and that alone gives them depth that makes it hard to tell they aren’t actually modeled out as much as they first appear. Really, so much of the world has so much care and detail put into it that you know it meant a lot to the artists. This isn’t the type of work you crank out in an afternoon; someone had an original vision, but I’m sure a lot of other people added fine touches just because it would be pretty and they cared. You can’t fake that. It’s especially apparent because the Vita version is a completely different game and to be brutally honest looks like empty hot garbage that belongs on the PS1 rather than a system that’s more powerful than a PS2. I understand it was a "budget" title, but there’s a very good reason the two games are not compatible like Cyber Sleuth is. This isn’t a matter of "pretty things up" so much as "redesign everything but the general map layout from the ground up and fill it out with loads of detail." The team took the opportunity of the PS4 version to make something stunning and when you look at everything they added, there’s really no comparison. And they could have added a lot less and still had a passable game. I imagine a lot of it was still done with Vita limitations in mind, but at the same time that’s not a bad thing when it comes to the bright and bold world the game presents the player. It’s something that’s going to look fantastic to remote play, but doesn’t feel chintzy on a TV. Okay, maybe it looks a bit more like a PS3 game than a PS4 game in terms of polygon count, but all things considered, I really don’t care, because there’s a tooniness to the style that makes that feel unimportant. You won’t be looking at the game thinking it needed to look more realistic. It’s bright and colorful and feels alive. That’s what’s most important.

I also have to say the music being as good as it is helps sell the experience incredibly well. These tunes are memorable and I’ve had one or another stuck in my head for days now, from the placid town theme to any number of regional themes. Everything feels appropriate to the area and has some good strong melodies despite that melody often switching between instruments. You’re unlikely to get sick of any particular theme for the amount of time you spend in an area and the game keeps giving you reasons to revisit earlier areas if only because it’s easier to get certain materials or food items that way.

Is it worth picking up?

If you haven’t picked it up already, I’d say it’s definitely worth giving a chance. I know rental shops are quickly ceasing to exist, but you can probably pick up a used copy on the cheap to see if it’s your thing. I never expected it to be mine, but I’m glad I gave it a chance. If anything it’s more fun than Cyber Sleuth. As someone whose only real experience with digital pets was ironically the Pokémon Pikachu before mine got lost (probably stolen) and later the Pokéwalker, which has a lot less pet rearing, maybe it’s a little ironic I took so well to the pet rearing aspects here, and as someone who doesn’t much like the idea of Roguelikes, I’m rather surprised I’ve taken so well to the cycle of rebirth your Partners have in this game. Honestly I think what ultimately makes the difference here where it hadn’t captured my interest anywhere else is that it does such a good job of making you feel like you’re playing the show in some capacity – something Cyber Sleuth didn’t offer that I missed having. The game takes the "one and only one" the series is known for and makes it two and makes that feel special. You are adventuring with Partners who feel alive in a world that feels alive. Everything feels both new and somehow as it should be.

Is it the prettiest game with the best graphics or the smoothest operation? No. It definitely has limitations that highlight where it came from on Vita. But at the same time those things don’t feel all that important when you’re actually playing. It’s pretty enough and it works well enough and what it has in design makes up for any deficiencies in fidelity. It would be a fantastic one for remote play, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be distracted on a TV, except in very few cases like fishing where it’s clear the bobber could have used a polygon pass and the pole could have used a texture pass just because you’re getting that close of a look. The world is very good at hiding its seams.

But ultimately a game can have garbage graphics as long as it’s fun, and as I’ve said multiple times in this review, this game is dangerously fun and it’s only because of paying the price for that and having some discipline that I’m finding myself getting to a healthy amount of fun-having with it. That has my Stardust seal of approval, which is the highest I can personally give.

…That’ll make more sense if I can ever fix you all up with Jerako.