Time to digivolve.
Similar to how Sonic offshoots rarely live up to their Mario counterparts (I still shudder over Sonic Shuffle), Digimon games have unfortunately paled in comparison to Pokémon games. With the exception of several DS titles like Digimon World: Dusk and Digimon World DS, Digimon games have had a long record of scoring rather mediocrely. Perhaps that's not too surprising given that Pokémon is a longstanding Nintendo property and has a pedigree of popular cross-media adaptations in film, TV, card games, stuffed toys, what have you.
Yet between the two, Digimon's premise would seem to be a better natural fit for a video game—a group of teenagers who discover monsters in the Digital World who digivolve to the next stage when their human partners defeat evil Digimon, face their own inner darkness, and ultimately mature. It is a lighter, entry-level version of the latest Shin Megami Tensei: Persona titles, a comparison that Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth accomplishes with surprisingly good success.
Coinciding with the one-shot manga of the same name which ran about a month before the game's release in Japan in March 2015, Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth follows the life of Aiba (you can choose the male Takumi Aiba or the female Ami Aiba) who receives a mysterious program called Digimon Capture while wandering the chat rooms of a popular virtual world called EDEN. This program gives him and a few of his friends the ability to befriend Digimon who also function as powerful hacking tools, leading many hackers to explore the darkest alleys of EDEN known as Kowloon in pursuit of stronger Digimon. Unfortunately, while scouring through Kowloon, Aiba and his friends encounter an Eater, a tentacled, grayscale, Lovecraftian entity that literally eats data, and Aiba's virtual avatar is unceremoniously ripped from his physical body, making him yet another victim of the dubbed EDEN syndrome.
Aiba soon awakens in the real world in a blue, half-cyber body in the middle of Tokyo, but in a stroke of extraordinary luck, Aiba captures the attention of a detective named Kyoko who promptly whisks him away to her agency. Kyoko realizes that Aiba's half-cyber body is the perfect means for uncovering the secrets of EDEN cyberspace and its creator, Kamishiro Enterprises, so she hires Aiba to become an assistant cyber sleuth (hence, the title) who has the unique ability to solve digital cases that her agency cannot handle. And along the way, Aiba will hopefully learn of a method in curing EDEN syndrome and be restored back to normal.
The script for Cyber Sleuth is elevated and more mature than the fun-filled adventures of the typical Digimon storylines, especially if you're a fan of the first few seasons of Digimon (like I am). Where the story hits home the most is in the tension between hackers using Digimon as mere resources for power and those who wish to treat them with the same regard and respect as other sentient beings. As you progress from case to case, you'll explore fairly faithfully recreations of a four-story Nakano mall, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Akihabara, and other areas of Tokyo as well as various layers of EDEN cyberspace. Many of these regions don't really extend further than a few panels, though, unless you count the dungeons that come with them. These dungeons, albeit rather simplistic ones, reveal that the Digital World is slowly overlapping the real world, creating strange shifts in the fabric of reality.
While the story moves at a brisk pace through its twenty chapters, its main issue is in how the story is told. Instead of having characters interact with each other in the scene proper, nearly every conversation has the characters sitting still in the background with them sort of talking to each other in a transparent green-screen overlay. It's like watching a stage play where the actors don't move around the set, but have their body doubles talk to each other about what's actually happening in the scene. The effect is as disorienting as it is to explain it.
Progressing from plot point to plot point involves a lot of unnecessary canvasing too, running around every area in the hopes of triggering the right flag for the story to move forward. Whether it's unlocking conversations with keywords, finding a person who's hidden somewhere in Eden or Kowloon, or just figuring out what the hell to do next, you'll need to suffer no small amount of backtracking. Speaking with Kyoko or Mirei, who stations the DigiLab, usually helps if you get lost, but the story should have been designed in a way where getting lost doesn't happen as frequently as it does.
Aiba will also receive a ridiculous number of DigiLine text messages that are shallow ways of having Aiba interact with the cast of side characters and with Digimon placed in the DigiFarm (more on that later). The only useful messages are the ones that notify you when Digimon are at max level in the Digifarm or that a training regimen in the Digifarm has finished. The other messages are a smattering of one-line responses with NPCs and Digimon that don't matter, Digimon posing trivia questions that repeat themselves, or Digimon asking questions about Aiba's personal life which also repeat themselves. The DigiLine would have been better integrated if your replies applied different effects that would impact combat, award you items, or sway relationships with NPCs in a meaningful way.
That said, the bulk of the production value that might have gone into cut-scenes has gone to the more important part of Cyber Sleuth: the Digimon themselves. All 240 Digimon who are available to be in your three-man party are wonderfully colored and animated, both as fighters in battle and characters running alongside Aiba in the field. Most attacks by a Digimon have the same animation, but each Digimon has a signature attack that's uniquely animated and will be certainly appreciated by Digimon fans. Having BanchoLeomon, ShineGreymon, and Omnimon watch your back is a Digimon fan's dream come true.
The majority of battles in Cyber Sleuth aren't terribly challenging so long as you pay attention to strengths and weaknesses based on type. All Digimon can be classified as vaccine, data, or virus, which have a roshambo-like relationship, and also have an elemental type like fire, lightning, light, and darkness. As a result, combat is extremely fast and loose, with attacks dealing up to three times the normal amount of damage if you have the right lineup of Digimon. In fact, most bouts can be won before each Digimon in play has taken a turn. On the flipside, though, this means that having the highest Mega-level Digimon might not matter if the enemy has the advantage solely based on type, to the point that it can trump turn-by-turn strategery.
Beyond that, it's not until the back-third of the game that bosses and optional Cup arenas start challenging your tactics. Having the proper types of Digimon still matter by default, as bosses tend to have triple the speed of your party, sometimes taking multiple turns in succession without giving your Digimon the chance to retaliate. But having a healthy stock of items and the well-leveled team of Digimon with the right attacks and types can usually take them down. The game, as it should, encourages you to have a diverse party of Digimon at your disposal so that you can cover all your bases.
That can sound like a lot of grinding, but Cyber Sleuth makes the leveling process expedient in numerous ways. Digimon level up at a rapid pace, giving a free refill to both HP and SP, so you can usually use magic attacks fairly liberally without having to go to the DigiLab to recover. The DigiLab also offers the DigiFarm, where you can store excess Digimon for training while you're out solving cases. You can even have Digimon absorb other Digimon for experience points if you really need it.
Obtaining new Digimon isn't a strain either. You don't need to weaken and capture enemy Digimon; all you need to do is encounter that Digimon enough times in battle to get a full scan rate. So if you do decide to take an hour to grind, especially at around Chapter 15 or beyond, you will be rewarded with plenty of extra yen to purchase items and extra Digimon to round out your team to make it worth your while.
The only major hurdle in improving your Digimon comes near the endgame where digivolving to the final stages requires them to meet a hefty list of requirements. That's par for the course if you want the best Digimon in the game, but apart from a few special cases where you'll need to complete specific cases first, all it usually takes to get a Mega-level Digimon is careful management when it comes to friendship levels and patient digivolving/de-digivolving. A little bit of effort goes a long way.
Despite a few flaws in the storytelling and the combat system—although both move at a favorably brisk pace—Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth is still handedly the game that Digimon fans have been waiting for. Its faithful translation of an extraordinary roster of Digimon into fully-realized models lays the groundwork for future Digimon titles in this console generation. With more refinement in character interaction and less of a need to roam around in search of story triggers, this Digimon series could re-establish itself as a premiere RPG. Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth is the shot that Digimon video games have long deserved.