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Digimon Survive lost its way

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The itinerary for a class trip typically includes safe, normal things — visiting a historical landmark and learning how to cooperate with people from other schools, for instance. You’re less likely to encounter classroom-sized spiders or intense personal trauma, and hopefully, you won’t be responsible for a friend never returning home. But these are just some of the everyday tribulations for the unlucky band of middle schoolers in Digimon Survive.

Developed by Hyde, Digimon Survive shoulders the heavy burden of evolving the series’ traditional blend of monster breeding and turn-based role-playing — namely, with the addition of visual-novel elements. But that burden proves a bit too heavy to carry. The visual-novel aspects seem ideal for the story Digimon Survive wants to tell, but whether from a lack of confidence in its own characters or a misunderstanding of what makes visual novels a powerful storytelling medium to begin with, it falls short of its abundant potential.

Digimon Survive opens with strong similarities to the original Digimon: Digital Monsters anime: A group of students from different schools gather in the countryside for an educational camping trip. Your usual personalities are along for the ride, whether they want to be or not — the popular girl, the prankster and his serious companion, the moody loner, and the insecure class leader — but there’s no sense of optimistic adventuring once they land in the digital world, the series’ name for the alternate reality where Digimon dwell.

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A conversation in Digimon Survive

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Image: Hyde/Bandai Namco Entertainment

Digimon Survive divides its lengthy run time between exploration, free time, and battle segments. During exploration, you chat with your fellow students, look for key items or paths forward, and generally get a better idea of what’s going on in this strange parallel world; at least, you try to. Digimon Survive is tight-fisted when it comes to doling out world-building and leaves most of it for the game’s final three of the total eight chapters, or about 15-20 hours of the total 60-hour run time.

Even so, the broader narrative’s main beats don’t go anywhere surprising, despite a promising start. It outlines most of what become the key plot points early in the prologue. Digimon Survive is, at its core, a story about what we owe each other, and how we can work together to balance tradition and progress toward a better future.

Here, more than in any other Digimon game or anime, the characters’ monster companions are essentially digital manifestations of their subconscious selves, aspects they have trouble acknowledging in normal life or would like to forget altogether. Learning to survive in a cruel and threatening world is just as much about the practicalities of finding food and shelter as it is about learning to identify and live with your weaknesses.

The problem lies in how Digimon Survive goes about telling these stories, or more specifically, not telling them. Four of the game’s eight chapters drag out what might make a suitable plot for two 20-minute anime episodes into 20 hours, depending on your play style. The first chapter is essentially two hours of four characters arguing about what to do next, only to remain complacent.

The affinity menu in Digimon Survive

Image: Hyde/Bandai Namco Entertainment

The second chapter is more of the same, only now, they argue about finding food and whether they should look for the others, before, once again, doing nothing. There are some worthwhile moments, but Digimon Survive is too happy to drown them in meaningless repetition for them to stand out. Even after finding six months’ worth of food supplies, the next thing the group does is argue about where they can find even more food.

I can see how these ideas would seem solid on paper. Finding supplies is, naturally, an essential part of survival, and when venturing outside could result in your death, deciding whether to risk searching for your missing campmates isn’t such an easy choice. But the execution suffers because it never does anything meaningful or fun with these segments — it never uses them to build character development or tension, and barely uses them to drive the story forward.

If Digimon Survive draws inspiration from Aquaplus’ Utawarerumono games — and the hybrid visual-novel/tactics style certainly suggests it does — it seemingly derived the wrong philosophy from those games. It’s true that Mask of Truth spends nearly 80% of its run time on vignettes and character moments with little significance to the plot that unfolds at the end. In the process, though, it gradually pieces together complex personalities for each important character, so that when the major story developments unfold, you have a strong investment in what’s going on.

Helping Minoru in the forest in Digimon Survive showed me that he wants people to see him as a capable leader. In a later scene with Saki, Takuma accidentally walks into the gym where she’s changing clothes. There’s subsequent embarrassment and an awkward conversation, but the encounter has no wider ripple effects or character implications, least of all Takuma’s relationship with Saki. It’s harrowing to see the normally stoic Shuuji relentlessly chip away at Lopmon’s psyche in chapter 5 to make the loyal Digimon feel as inadequate as Shuuji does. By that point, though, the game only provided a scant look at Shuuji’s background, and the unrealistic pressures his father burdened him with that eroded his own confidence. There’s little time to even get a glimpse of Shuuji’s internal struggles.

Regardless of who’s left alive and what consequences my choices had as the credits rolled, the cast felt much the same as it did when they first met — a set of disconnected people thrown together because circumstances beyond their control dictated that’s where they should be. It’s a missed opportunity, considering the potential not just in Digimon Survive’s wider themes, but in its initially vivid characters as well.

Unfulfilled potential is also an apt description for Digimon Survive’s combat. The systems are standard for most tactics games (which is why I’m only dedicating three paragraphs to their intricacies). Digimon have a standard attack and a small selection of special attacks that require stamina. Attacking from the side or back deals bonus damage, and they can boost defense by choosing not to act in that turn.

A battle in Digimon Survive

Image: Hyde/Bandai Namco Entertainment

You can evolve your Digimon depending on certain choices you make in the story, though this almost feels unfair. The evolved Digimon can easily steamroll most opponents in all except the extra-difficult battles in new game plus. Recruiting new Digimon happens in a Shin Megami Tensei-style conversation, where you try to guess the answers to random questions in the hope that your response matches with that Digimon’s personality. It manages to frustrate even more than SMT, however, since you only get one chance per enemy Digimon for the entire battle.

Combat isn’t innovative, but there’s a simple joy in crushing a difficult opponent with a well-timed evolution, or seeing Agumon spew fireballs across the map. I just wish there was more of it. Also, in keeping with the comparison to Utawarerumono, Digimon Survive has few battles and even fewer variations in map design, which makes combat feel like an afterthought more than a key component.

Digimon Survive was difficult to play, boring for the first half, and mostly just disappointing. The framework for something much more compelling exists underneath the prattle, inconsequential combat, and shallow character development, and you can catch a glimpse at what might have been in some of the story’s better moments. I hope Hyde and Bandai get the opportunity to create another visual-novel-style Digimon game, building on Survive’s foundations to create a lasting and more memorable experience.

Digimon Survive was released on July 29 on Windows PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Bandai Namco. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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