Like most developers who are formally asked about the inspiration behind their games, Bandai Namco was hesitant to name anything for its turn-based RPG Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth—certainly not Pokémon, or Yokai Watch, or even Shin Megami Tensei. And well, they don't really have to name names, since Digimon has an extensive pedigree all on it own. Not many brands can say that they have more than 35 video game titles to their name,al though very few of them have been critically well-received in the West since the series debuted in the US all the way back in 1999 with Digimon World.
As such, being an avid fan of the original Digimon anime series, I was fairly skeptical about Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth, which was on display at a private press event at Bandai Namco's headquarters in Japan. To make make things even more skeptical, Cyber Sleuth (which is just a fancy name for “Digital Mystery-Solvers”, really) was already released on Vita in Japan in March 12, 2015. The game was also only featured as a timed demo that abruptly ended no matter where I was at the end of 15 minutes. Luckily, I was hooked in just one playthrough, and I eagerly played the demo four times in a row.
What became gradually apparent the more I delved into Cyber Sleuth is how similar it felt to Shin Megami Tensei, specifically the Persona series but also a bit from the main series. I don't think comparison lightly, as I consider SMT to one of the best modern RPGs today. The demo started in Shibuya with the main character, Takumi Aiba (you can also choose the female character Ami Aiba), sent to a subway station which has been affected by a Digital Shift. Edges of the subway tracks and the underground tunnels have started to become pixel-ized as both the digital world and the real world have begun to merge. As a result, multiple rogue Digimon now populate the station and one particular boss Digimon is the cause of it all. If that sounds like some kind of strange Persona fog has entered an urban area, setting enemy shadows loose throughout the area, then you're not too far off.
There's also a mystery, with a woman named Kyoko Kuremi who wishes to recruit you so that you can discover the source of the Digital Shifts and the existing of hackers who may be actively destroying the digital space for unknown reasons. You can bet that as you delve deeper into the story, that more clues will unravel why these Digital Shifts are happening, expanding upon the manga by Ikumi Fukuda on which this game is based. Now, considering that this is Digimon, the plot probably won't become as psychological or thematically dark as Shin Megami Tensei, but it's definitely a step in the right direction in elevating Digimon.
As far as the turn-based combat, it's extremely close to the main Shin Megami Tensei series as well. While you don't control your own character apart from running around in the field (with your Digimon alongside you) and entering combat randomly, you have a team of three Digimon who take turns attacking and casting spells using MP in combat. I rolled with Gatomon as a healer, MetalGraymon for physical attacks, and Kyubimon for fire spells.
A comprehensive turn indicator scrolls along the right-hand side that's similar to Final Fantasy X's turn indicator, where using abilities that require more charging time will lower your Digimon's turn order for future turns. Better yet, if your Digimon are lined up in a certain order, you can deal combos based on the friendship levels between your current group. Each Digimon has a particular type and has skills aligned with various elements, so you can use this knowledge to deal additional damage and switch out Digimon that are better match-ups against certain enemies.
All growth for Digimon involve entering a special base area that can be accessed at stations throughout the game. Interestingly, you can both Digivolve your Digimon so long as they meet the level or stat requirements, or De-digivolve Digimon to a lower state in case you want to place it on a different evolutionary track (there are numerous paths) or raise their base stats before Digivolving them again. At the Digifarm, you can feed various Digimon and have them build stats over time, storing them for future use and swapping them in and out of your party later. The third time I played the demo, I realized early on that I could Digivolve Garurumon into one of my favorites, Weregarurumon, and immediately started using him to punch and claw my way through to the boss (who didn't stand a chance).
Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth looks to legitimize the Digimon name on modern consoles and taking a few cues from the likes of Shin Megami Tensei is a smart move, even if it isn't a direct inspiration. The game releases for both Vita and PlayStation 4 on February 2, 2016 in North America.