Strategy RPGs are back, in all different shapes and sizes. Out of all of them currently out at the moment, I think Digimon Survive might be one of the better entry points you can find released this year. In a few ways, especially for Digimon fans unfamiliar with the genre, this is great praise. It seemingly has everything they’d want from watching one of the anime series, but with a fun gameplay twist you don’t really get from other Digimon games. This comes with a caveat, however, and it’s that this is also a visual novel-style adventure. Frankly, it’s mostly that.
But that was fine for me because I’m a big visual novel fan. As someone who was primed to enjoy this game, I can confidently say I did. However, that’s about all I can say. Digimon Survive overflows with drive, passion, and ambition, but spreads itself just a bit too thin in an attempt to appease too many people.
In terms of the story, I’d say Digimon Survive does pretty well for itself. You play as Takuma, who goes on a trip with his friends and ends up in a terrifying alternative world. Monsters (of the titular variety) begin to attack them, but a select few partner with them so they can protect them. From here you need to watch your choices carefully and do your best to make decisions to ensure your survival. The characters are very charming, the tone actually goes into some surprisingly dark places, and the mystery was intriguing.
Your game time is mostly spent engaging with the story, so a high-quality translation was a must. In this regard, I’d say it falls below expectations. I don’t think the translation is bad – I don’t think we’ve received truly horrendous translations in years, they’re far less common – but it reads far too stiff for its own good. There’s an odd issue where the lines feel unevenly edited. Some will contain good wordplay, or highlight the charming voice of the characters. Then quite often you’ll also get an awkward dud of a line that would just throw me for a loop.
It seems like all the coolest SRPGs these days feel the need to have a morality system and a branching plot. That’s fair because both of those are pretty fun to mess around with when handled in a nuanced way. Digimon Survive’s take on this is a bit too simplistic for my liking, but I don’t really consider that a massive flaw. All of the major choices of the game exist in three categories: Moral, Wrathful, and Harmony. Where I think this is flawed comes from a personal preference in not wanting dialogue choices in morality-driven games to not make their assigned alignments blatantly obvious. Every choice in Digimon Survive appears in the exact same position within the game’s UI. Left is always Moral, Top is always Wrathful, and Right is always Harmony. This would be great for NG+ playthroughs to streamline the process, but disappointing for a first playthrough when it’s very clear you can game the system very easily.
I think Moral and Harmony have some interesting nuances to them, whereas wrathful is about as silly and extreme as it sounds. I don’t play options like that in games, but I had a fun time balancing my answers. They also made your alignment tie into the gameplay in the form of branching digivolution paths for Takuma’s main Digimon, Agumon. I think this system works well enough, especially for the intended teenage audience not typically used to morality-based games. But if you’ve had experience with the genre and its gameplay tropes, you might not be impressed.
Where the story drags frequently is progression and pacing. This has a bit to do with the game’s foundation in ADV routes, but I also think the plot itself could have used some condensing to keep things moving along faster. Now, in all fairness, I rarely struggled to find where the game wanted me to look. No aimless clicking every pixel, as the devs were smart enough to let you shift your cursor between interest points if you wish. I think there’s simply just too much clicking around in each ADV scene that brings conversations to a crawl. It hurts how the story is delivered, and when combining that with the small number of battles in the game I think it’s quite possible that people might find the story more boring than it really is.
Where Digimon Survive truly shines, in my opinion, is the presentation. This is probably one of the most gorgeous VN ADV games I’ve played in a long time, and it’s clear most of the budget went here. The character sprites are gorgeously drawn and well-animated, and the backgrounds are stunningly drawn. The only downside to the presentation I found is one unique to Nintendo Switch, and that’s the backgrounds being a bit low resolution unless zoomed in.
I’ve said this before, but I consider myself to be a casual enthusiast with SRPGs. I adore complicated systems to sink my teeth into but can be turned away by brutal difficulty spikes. What’s most important to me about the genre is how the game feels to play, though. I like my SRPGs snappy and responsive, which means I often struggle to truly get into them. Digimon performs admirably in this area, but is still more clunky than you’d find in some of the genre’s most beloved entries like Fire Emblem and Square’s Tactics games (counting Final Fantasy and Ogre, in case you wanted to correct me). I wouldn’t compare this to either of them, but I’d compare it to a more approachable version of games like Devil Survivor.
Digimon Survive has some fun additions to the formula that don’t revolutionize it, but certainly make it stand out ever so slightly. Everything mostly plays out as you’d expect from these games, grid and turn-based battles against a large group of enemies with elemental weaknesses. You also can talk to enemy Digimon to recruit them, but what keeps this from being too much of a homage to Devil Survivor (and just general SMT) is that you can also talk to your party Digimon to encourage them and give them buffs. The game already excels at presenting fun dynamics with the characters and their Digimon, so it was a great idea to make the Tamers a subtle part of battles.
The biggest problem with battles comes from the fact that there aren’t enough of them to truly flesh out the systems. The focus was the story, and the gameplay suffers ever so slightly because of that. Not in a way to hurt the experience, but the battles were far too simple for their own good. I wanted more to latch onto and felt it just wasn’t fleshed out enough to do that. Which, despite how much I enjoy the game at its best, is just how I felt from the rest of it.
I love visual novels, and I love strategy games. For a subsection of gamers, Digimon Survive will hit the perfect sweet spot between both of those. It’s got everything you’d expect from a digestible entry with a focus on presentation. However, I couldn’t help but feel that the game is just shy of greatness. Make no mistake, Digimon Survive is good. However, despite its best efforts, I found that the pacing drags and the combat mechanics are unremarkable. If you have enough patience to engage with its story and gameplay, the positives will far outweigh the negatives. It’s flawed, but the heart shines through and it goes down easy thanks to being one of the best-looking anime-style games released in years. Are there better SRPGs to play right now? Sure, but none offer Digimon’s unique brand of SRPG and I think it hits more than it misses.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Bandai Namco Entertainment