Review – Digimon Survive
Since its first announcement in 2018, I’ve been excited for Digimon Survive. As you can imagine, the incessant delays that followed were like daggers penetrating my heart. Signs pointed to this title being relegated to development hell. Then, the pandemic hit, and that only perpetuated my fears. The world began slowing, and with it, my hype was dying an agonizing death. Yet, in all my hopelessness, a glimmer remained.
After years of uncertainty, my faith was finally rewarded as it re-emerged from the shadows, equipped with an avalanche of changes – chief among them was the genre. Initially, it was an evenly split hybrid between tactical role-playing and visual novel, but now, it leans more towards the latter side – 70/30, to be exact. When I heard this, the enthusiasm in my heart was aroused. The narrative was now king but did the delays neuter this digital marvel?
Point blank, the writing is bloody fantastic but comes with a tiny caveat. For those unfamiliar with Digimon, these ideas appear like they’ve been thrown at a wall to see which sticks. Basically, it’s an odd amalgamation of plot points. If you’re well-versed in Digi-lore, however, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I grew up with this franchise, and playing through Survive was a nostalgic breath of fresh air. I was delighted. None of the revelations had me cringing, giving a nod of understanding instead of a bewildered stare. I should note that from the offset, progression occurs at a snail’s pace. It takes about an hour to pick up steam. Once it does, though, it does an excellent job building a world brimming with untold dangers. Most importantly, the mystique around it is enthralling as hell, yet the real crème de la crème lies elsewhere.
Believable characters are a critical difference between visual novels drenched in mediocrity and those soaked in intrigue. Digimon Survive manages to nail it, masterfully injecting personality. When I find myself being legitimately annoyed, angered, or having any emotional response, I’m successfully invested. Admittedly, since the primary setting is a high school, the stereotypical tropes are alive and well. There’s the pretty girl, the hot-head, the laidback friend, and much more. What helps to differentiate it from others within the genre is just how authentic it comes across. All of the teenagers act precisely as you’d expect. Well, in the beginning, anyway. See, as the story continues, everyone undergoes immense development due to their circumstances. They mature organically – nothing feels forced. I was enamoured, and likeability is but only one reason why.
Throughout history, a vast array of titles have boasted about offering choices. They promise the capability to dictate the narrative. Yet, when push comes to shove, I found the claims to be nothing but smoke and mirrors. Digimon Survive brags the same as countless others in the genre but delivers on its word – most decisions have a consequence. The mechanic powering this facet and helping it work is known as the Affinity System.
As the name suggests, it aids in solidifying the relationships between characters. One gripe I encountered with this is the vagueness of the dialogue options. The response I’d assume to be favourable would instead play out negatively. Yeah, it’s a minor stumble in the grand scheme of things and isn’t widespread but exists. For those that dislike that regular stream of exposition, prepare yourselves for a wall. Luckily, all those endearing personalities revved up my engines.
DARK TIMES ARE NEAR!
Digimon Survive isn’t afraid to dive into the dark subject matter. It explores abuse, harassment, depression, and other sensitive topics. It implies deplorable acts, doing so rather nonchalantly. Like, I’m not typically very squeamish, but a couple of scenes are genuinely hard to watch. It gets intense, and the literary work is fantastic at replicating the anxiety brought about by a stressful situation. The tension is thick. Thankfully, the imagery depicting anything grotesque is minute, and even when it does, it’s ridiculously tame. The only times my mouth was agape was usually due to something occurring out of nowhere, catching me completely off-guard. Yes, obscenities escaped my lips on more than one occasion. Look, if it isn’t evident by now, the story is, while family-friendly, a mature affair, tackling anguish. Sure, immaturity is on offer, but that’s for comedic effect.
To remain on the grief train, Digimon Survive does a great job of showcasing feelings. Watching the teens plunge into a cacophony of grim emotions felt all too authentic. None of their situations are romanticized and are shown in a gloriously unfiltered context. It deals with the harsh realities of the digital world – insanity, anger, and depression are thrust into the limelight. For most of my session, I spent my time being swallowed up by interest, watching these events play out. I’m so hooked, and as I sit here having beaten the entire game, I can’t help but be antsy. See, backstories are drip fed to you, enough to pique your curiosity. It’s handled like this to entice you to return to uncover the additional endings and, eventually, the actual finale. If that doesn’t do it, well, having an opportunity to correct everyone’s destiny will.
Visual Novels are infamous for the absence of any replay value. One of their most significant faults is an overreliance on surprise. It aims to shock with revelations that lose all lustre in a second playthrough. Digimon Survive does fit that mold, but not entirely. It’ll still manage to blend a fair amount of variation into subsequent runs. It presents differing perspectives that freshen up plot points.
Granted, the conflict is pretty much identical, and the reveals are somewhat limited, but the passion put forth to create a coherent and compelling digital world is glaring. As a sweet bonus that spices up the proceedings, I also noticed morsels of very subtle foreshadowing. They were details I’d originally waved off as frivolous fluff. Well, I was wrong, and I had a blast trying to fill in blanks – something that can only be done through a second session.
Naturally, nothing is perfect in this life, and there are a variety of snafus with the localization. At first, it’s a missing word here or misspelling there, but it rapidly becomes pronoun confusion. Maybe I’m just a God damn pretentious nerd, but canonically, Digimon are, ironically, non-binary, despite comprising of 1’s and 0’s. Survive tries retconning that tidbit by shoehorning genders. The problem here is how inconsistent it is with those identifiers.
On more than one occasion, I saw both “he” and “she” used when describing the same Digimon. The bouncing around was jarring to see and always provoked me into doing a double-take. The worst of it is that it damages my immersion. I’m taken out of my trance for a second before being roped back in – I’m engrossed again. Evidently, the culprit seems to be inadequate proofreading.
A GENRE SHIFT!
The 70/30 split isn’t quite an accurate assertion. To be honest, it heavily diverts itself to being a text-centric romp. If anyone has hopes for a robust, fully-fledged tactical combat system, perhaps reconsider. That’s the furthest from the actual gameplay experience. Battles are barebones. It doesn’t take long to grasp the reality that the TRPG portion of the hybrid is on life support. Hell, it’s tacked on, relegated to being predominantly a side-hustle. To better illustrate just how much of an afterthought it has become, balance is a mess – it’s so abysmal. Hell, the final boss can effortlessly slaughter each of my Digimon in one shot, despite them being a bunch of levels above. It got to a point I jumped over to Very Easy from the Normal difficulty, rendering the monstrosity to hit like a teddy bear. Fortunately, since the remedy is straightforward, frustration never builds up.
Unfortunately, that balance snafu extends into grinding. It’s not a case of struggling to increase my level. In actuality, it consistently ticked up by one with every win. In other words, it’s obscenely easy to achieve. The purpose of mentioning this is to bring attention to the RPG elements, or lack thereof. You see, enhancing myself didn’t garner new abilities, and evolution isn’t tied to it either.
Sure, statistics such as attack, magic defence, speed, and so on had risen, but that’s all she wrote. There’s not much else to cling to for motivation. I concede I still had that dopamine rush whenever my strength rose, but the feeling was fleeting. I acknowledge the attempt to streamline the process by stripping it down, but it has the side effect of also crippling the fun. Without a doubt, Digimon Survive should be an 85/15 divide towards a visual novel.
Despite no longer being a focal point, combat retains some relevancy. In Survive, there are over a hundred Digimon awaiting recruitment. As I’m sure you’ve surmised, free battles are vital to this aspect. I highly suggest seducing a few to the cause as plot-based encounters get dicey, especially, as mentioned, during late-game. The mechanic to do so is akin to Shin Megami Tensei. See, a negotiation system begins and is accompanied by a transparent bar.
By answering a few questions and hitting a threshold, the opportunity to coerce the opposing Digimon to your side presents itself. Once it does, I’m given but a paltry chance for success. That’s right, earning the approval of whoever I’m whispering sweet nothings to might not even be sufficient to attract an ally. Suddenly, it transforms into this tedious cycle of trial and error that relies on Lady Luck and her RNG.
Every so often, the narrative takes a breather, allowing you to visit friends. I’ve already discussed the Affinity system and the perks of being a social butterfly. What I failed to mention is that it’s optional. You can freely explore or fast-track the story at specific points, but I vote against doing the latter. It’s not because I’m smitten with the writing either, though that’s a pretty good damn reason if I say so myself. The issue is that there’s no in-game indication that this is a thing. Unless, like me, you’re obsessively chatting everybody up, tiny portions of the content can be missed. It’s not an egregious misstep, but for those that love receiving a full facial of context, a little nudge in the right direction would’ve been nice.
BUTTERY SMOOTH FRAMES!
Digimon Survive works like a dream, with zero skips to point to. Animations are fluent and crisp, as is the striking graphical style. Sprites are vibrant, and their dynamic faces and expressive body language help to infuse life into their coded bodies. Every Environment is beautifully hand-drawn, as are the character portraits. It helps the setting feel alive and lush. The bright colours pop and demand your attention, luring your sight to travel the screen. Sadly, there was an instance of lock-up, but I’m not prepared to lambast the game itself. Like, it only occurs once, and it was only after having several, and I do mean several, hour-long play-session that had my PS5 all hot and bothered. Once I introduced breaks to my reviewing routine, guess what?
That silkiness persisted. Battlegrounds could stand to see polishing, though, but since they’re rarely seen, it’s hardly an eyesore.
Excellent music is, considering the sheer volume of video games out today, pretty standard based on that fact. That list, however, dwindles exponentially once it touches on some haunting melodies. You know, the ones that stick with you long after moving on. Well, Digimon Survive has a song that’s currently playing on repeat, deep within the dark recesses of my mind. It’s no exaggeration to sit here and declare that it’s so damn beautiful.
The happiness flooding my heart upon seeing its role in-game is overwhelming. It’s a masterclass and the perfect cap to an excellent visual novel. The remaining tracks, in their own right, are good, but they falter in captivating me in the same way. Now, their quality shouldn’t be in question. It’s just that the soft, docile piano keys mixed in with the plucky strings of the violin make the song in question special.
As I’ve documented, I prefer a solid dub. The language barrier can, at times, make it hard to understand the nuances of both inflection and cadence. Now, that’s not a blanket statement since I’ve enjoyed those titles that are well-done, despite being exclusively Japanese. Well, Digimon Survive fits in with that company because it’s superb. The delivery of the lines is sublime, excelling in exhibiting the emotion of any given situation. The panic, anger, happiness, and insanity were handled convincingly. The performance perfectly compliments the way the character’s body reacts. Now, there are points within the script that aren’t accompanied by audio, and that’s okay. While it would have been nice, saving it for the dramatic instances helps lift their urgency. It and the music were great indicators that stuff was about to go down.
AND THE DIGITAL VERDICT IS…
Digimon Survive is a spectacular visual novel that proved well worth the wait. The characters made a lasting impression on me, birthing an emptiness within the pit of my stomach. Even now, I sit here, reminiscing over my friends in the digital world. There’s just something about them that resonates with me. Perhaps it was their relatability or the charisma exuding from their pores. Hell, maybe it’s the fact that there’s this evident passion put into ensuring their personalities explode, punching you straight across the jaw. That said, I wish the tactical elements didn’t fall to the wayside through the delays. It seemed as though they were poised to be an integral part of the plot line. Sure, it still made it, but the implementation makes it seem like it was done more out of obligation. Regardless, this game is impressive, and I’m hunting for a Switch version now.
The way the character portraits jumped around seamlessly to mimic movement was great. It’s fluent, and the hand-drawn environments are spectacular.
Gameplay is minimal and, as I said, the TRPG portion is barebones. As a Visual Novel, however, it’s amazing. It does have investigation sections ala Phoenix Wright, too.
That doing that’s plastered over the trailers and plays when you hover over the icon on PS5, I’m enamoured. The voice work is great, as well, but, again, that tranquil piano melody is, my God. It’s so good.
I loved the story and the journey of seeing these teenagers going through this ordeal. I mean, not to sound psychotic or anything. The story just grabbed my throat and wouldn’t let go.
Final Verdict: 9.0
Digimon Survive is available now on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4.
A copy of Digimon Survive was provided by the publisher.