By ZombiePie 13 Comments
Preamble - SPOILERS INCOMING!
Every year when GOTY season rolls around, I award a special commendation titled the "Ostrich Award." This superlative goes to the game with the most significant delta between my opinion and the game's consensus between reviewers and the internet. I recognize wholeheartedly I am a stubborn person and react to change and popular gaming zeitgeists by sticking my head in the sand, and pretending they do not exist, hence the name of the award. I know ostriches don't bury their heads in the sand, but you get the idea. You might wonder how this random lecture relates to Digimon Survive, but it's simple. I'm having a perfectly "okay" time with the game but have been shocked to see people talk about it with effusive praise on various online channels. I know the game recently was subject to a review bomb by thousands of people unaware it was primarily a visual novel, but for the most part, people and publications are recommending it even at its asking price of $60. That last part is bananas to me, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Jan, a noted fan of Digimon, echo most of the problems I have been having with the game during the Bombcast.
Some real pressing issues with Digimon Survive make it only recommendable to the most die-hard Digimon fans. Even then, this game might not be the nostalgia trip you are looking for if you want to experience a pure encapsulation of the tenants of what makes the Digimon shows special. I'll just come out and say it: I don't think this game is worth $60. Even when you judge the game as a visual novel, it's a rough time that takes FOREVER to bear fruit. If I had to speculate, I suspect Namco Bandai was aware of this possible shortcoming and the game's limited appeal overall. Many circles have pointed out, as Jan did during the 8/2/2022 Bombcast, that it seems as if Namco Bandai has zero confidence in the game as it was released with almost no promotional backing. And what trailers the game did have primarily highlighted the monster raising and tactics side of things instead of the visual novel aspect, which is the lion's share of the game. I get that the lack of a Digimon movie or anime tie-in opportunity limits what they can do, but it seems like Namco Bandai sent this game out to pasture, considering how little love and attention they have shown the game, which makes it one of the more bizarre games to assess.
The Good: Yes, There's Stuff To Like In This Game
Look, I'm not going to stand here and say I don't think there's anything redeeming about Digimon Survive. The game has its share of fans for a reason. The turn-based tactical combat feels nostalgic because it takes more notes from Final Fantasy Tactics than modern contemporary releases. The tactics aspect of the game, which I think is the worst part, is breezy and accessible for the generalized audience the game appears to be targeting. People that have not touched a single modern Fire Emblem or XCOM game do not need to worry about being overwhelmed outside of a few late-game scenarios.
Digimon Survive also bleeds charm from top to bottom, and exploring its cast of characters is delightful. It is a love letter to the growing portion of people who have aged with the Digimon series, particularly those who remember the first two seasons of the original series in the 1990s and are looking for something that compliments their newfound maturity. Likewise, when judged purely as a visual novel, it does a pretty miraculous job of conveying a "Best Hits" rendition of what the shows and movies share across multiple episodes or theatrical releases, but in Survive's case, in a single package. I cannot deny that there were characters in Survive I began to care about and was compelled to see their character arcs to the end. I also want to say the game's middle chapters are its best and did a lot to get me reinvested in its story after what I consider one of the slowest starts to a game in 2022. When shit started popping off both on the battlefield and in the story, the game reminded me of peak Digimon Tamers or Digimon Adventure tri.
Speaking of Tamers and tri., I should note that Digimon Survive represents a recurring thematic of the IP very well. The game tackles darker themes like death, depression, and anxiety with grace. Some publications have expressed surprise that Namco Bandai gave a game with the Digimon name featuring ritual sacrifice a greenlight. Still, I think that's reasonable ground to cover for the Digimon IP. Remember when a little girl watched her Digimon DIE IN FRONT OF HER EYES and spent an entire season wracked with depression and PTSD? Did none of you get to the end of Tamers, by which point multiple characters and Digimon died horrible deaths? And what about the Digimon Adventure tri films having multiple montages in which you watch dozens of characters meet grizzly ends? Did we all just up and forget about that? This game having child murder makes it more authentically Digimon than almost every previous Digimon game, and I think that's commendable.
For those wondering what the deal is about, Digimon Survive involves an original cast of characters falling into the Digital World and discovering some Digimon have developed a thriving society independent from humanity. Unfortunately, to keep the lights on, the Digimon need to sacrifice humans that fall into their world to appease their gods. The Digimon feel justified in their practices because offering people results in peace and abundant resources when done. I want to clarify that this is not a spoiler. This sacrificing mechanic is the game's namesake and a driving core mechanic introduced within the first few hours. While your characters struggle to deal with dwindling supplies and resources, this easy out is always looming over you like a Sword of Damocles. We will discuss this point more in a future section, but it is impossible to end the game the first time with the same number of starting characters. Some have surmised this is why the game has some of your go-to anime trope-laden characters, which might ease the grim reality of offing a child. However, no matter who you pick when the time comes to make an offering, your characters will have an adverse emotional and psychological reaction. On paper, the game's built-in hand wrangling is its best attribute and is bound to leave players wondering what they could have done better. Despite all of its shortcomings, there are times when this game "works," and it is a sight to see.
The Bad #1: The Translation Is Scuffed
If you frequent Twitter, you will find any number of screencaps that depict Digimon Survive's localization in a pretty sorry state. Social media is bound to give you one side of a coin better than the other, but I can confirm the translation job is pretty rough. It is important to note why having a seal-tight localization is especially important for Digimon Survive: all of the audio, including the voice acting, in Digimon Survive, is only in Japanese. Given how few shits Namco Bandai has shown for the game's Western release, it is doubtful an English dubbing will come out for the game. I know some corners of the internet are likely praising the game for not having a dub. Still, the lack of one not only presents accessibility issues but also puts a greater spotlight on the sometimes haphazard translation job. Also, this is not a fully voice-acted game in general. Much like the Persona games, the spoken dialogue pertains to storyline scenes and meaningful character interactions.
The issues plaguing Survive's localization are unconscionable. I have seen placeholder text instead of an adequately translated line on more than one occasion. There's also weird softball shit the localization gets wrong that caused me to break out in hives. The above example is just one where a character misnames a monster, but . In the year of our Lord, 2022, how is that even possible? During the game's more dramatic scenes, there were times when I struggled to accept those scenes at face value because there was a shocking lack of syntax. When listening to the Japanese voice acting, there were many times when long, verbose line-reads resulted in a single five to seven-word sentence. I understand there are times when that is necessary when translating Japanese into English, but damn near every scene in this game has an example of that. Worse, there were a few times when, after talking with a character, I was presented with a dialogue choice for a question I did not understand. Part of that is by design. Usually, the downstream effects of your choices do not come to a head until later. However, sometimes when I selected what I thought was a neutral choice, I saw the prompt that my affinity for a character went down, and I had no idea why my choice would negatively impact that character. If you had issues with the super simplified dialogue wheel choices in Fallout 4 or Dragon Age: Inquisition fucking you over because they lacked context, this game will drive you crazy.
The Bad #2: The Production Values and UI/UX Don't Look And Feel Like A $60 Game
Despite only having five minutes, Jan did an excellent job highlighting the most jarring aspect of the game. Whenever it transitions from its crisp 2D character portraits during the visual novel portions to the almost PS2-looking character sprites and monsters during the tactics portion, you cannot help but grimace. Also, every single 3D render or design in this game looks like shit. The battlefields especially look washed out and lack finer details that are present when the game is in 2D. That is particularly a problem when navigating parts of a field and you struggle to discern why you cannot move to a part of the map. The best example of Survive's shoddy quality-of-life feature set stems from its use of elevation during battles. The translucent blocks that depict your unit's movement area almost need a color-coded gradient to illustrate what parts of the map are higher than others. If you decide to play this game, trust me, you will say, "Oh, I guess that's a hill," or "Huh, I can't get there because I think that's two levels too high!" Worse, the default camera is reminiscent of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance's camera, which might have worked in Tactics Advance because the 2D art there has better shading. Nonetheless, it is a perpetual headache in Survive because it lacks those artistic details. Jutting buttes or hills can block out whatever might be hiding behind them, which sucks.
While I think the character portraits are charming and do a great job expressing the cast's quirks and emotional states, you sure do look at those 2D portraits a lot during its twenty-five to thirty-hour playtime. Likewise, the visual novel portion of the game, being the best-looking part, presents me with a simple question. Why the fuck is this game launching at $60? I don't want to sound like a weeb calculating hours to dollars for review purposes. However, Survive does not feel appropriately priced, especially with the competition in the visual novel market well below that point. Even on the Switch, you'll notice that almost every visual novel is priced below the $50 mark! Sure, AI: The Somnium Files - Nirvana Initiative is right there with Digimon Survive, but that game has way more going for it than Survive! Referring to my blog highlighting the best visual novels of 2021, I need to remind everyone that The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles launched at $39.99/£32.99! Bustafellows, an otome game that relies as heavily on its 2D character portraits as Survive, was listed at its launch at $49.99. Whoever priced this game is shamelessly banking on you to buy it regardless of quality.
The Bad #3: I Got Railroaded Into A Story Route Thanks To A Random Decision I Made Hours Before The Ending
There's going to be a little give and take with this point. On the one hand, I appreciate how Survive makes you assess your choices even if I don't think it provides sufficient resources to make an informed decision. When its survival systems kick into gear and force you to mull over trolley dilemmas, I felt the most engaged with its narrative and characters. However, there's no denying how arbitrary some of its scenarios feel. On top of that, it hits you with pop-ups and alignment chart notifications at almost every turn. As mentioned before, there are times when you pick a choice when responding to something random when talking to a character, and you are notified that choice hurts your standing with another character. The game loves showing you three virtues (i.e., Moral, Wrathful, and Harmony) that grow as you progress the story every waking minute you play. Unfortunately, I don't always feel like these three virtues fit the scenarios the narrative presents. Likewise, while I like it when the game forces the characters into crummy situations, too often, it employs cheap tricks to swing a character out of your favor.
However, maybe the survival politicking in this game sounds appealing to you. Be aware that chapter eight is where your moral choices can outweigh the ones you made during chapters one through seven. In my case, I was teetering between two possible routes, and the eighth chapter hard locked me into one of them after two to three choices. For reference, I completed the game and got the "Wrathful Ending." I will not go over what getting to that route entails or what led to that point. However, it is defeating to know that there is It is also worth noting that Digimon Survive revives an old visual novel trope in that the "true" ending only becomes available during New Game+. With average playthroughs clocking in at around twenty-five to thirty hours, that's a DIRE value proposition. The conclusions available in your first playthrough are considered non-canonical and don't provide you with a fuzzy mitten feeling when you roll the credits. And if you are wondering if the game mixes things up during your second playthrough, I can confirm it does, but only after a certain point. Until that point of deviation, you mull over the same scenarios and character-based prompts with better stats so you can pass skill checks. And that goes on for the better part of an hour.
The Bad #4: The Game Commits The Two Gravest Cardinal Sins In Tactics Game Design
I have spent the lion's share of this blog extrapolating why the visual novel part of Digimon Survive only partly works for me. Now, we need to talk about the tactics part of the game because it ranges from being boring to an absolute headache. I would even go so far as to call the tactics part of the game an afterthought, considering how poorly it plays and its absence of any semblance of balance. The first issue is one that I have with many of the modern Fire Emblem games and their many clones. Too often, you go into a battle and know you will win because what you are up against amounts to pointless trash mobs that have no hope of beating you. In the case of Survive, there are "Free Battles" that you can undertake in between the visual novel social link mechanics that level up your characters and provide new Digimon and items. It would be best to tackle these battles as the story doesn't have as many required fights as you'd think. However, none of the free battles remotely pose a challenge as they usually involve you fighting one to three random monsters, and at some point, they start to blur. Essentially, you're grinding in a plodding tactics system.
However, the lack of difficulty with most tactical battles is a sin even the Fire Emblem franchise is guilty of fudging. This next sin, however, is utterly unforgivable. Taking a note from OG Final Fantasy Tactics, Digimon Survive features large square and sometimes rectangular battlefields and plops you on one side and your enemy on the other. Much like the old-school tactics games that inspired it, Not all of the maps in the game are huge, but the ones that are made me want to eat my eyeballs out of my skull. Usually, I would deal with this issue how I have since the dawn of time: corner camping—however, the AI is programmed to guard and not move until you get close enough to them. This means every battle involves some degree of you needing to cross fathoms of space to get to the action. The reboot XCOM games get away with this due to their fog of war mechanics, but there's no such mechanic in Survive to keep you on your toes and engaged with battles. For the most part, you are plugging along, praying something remarkable will happen, but with no guarantee that it will.
Since the release of XCOM 2, my tolerance for mediocre tactics gameplay is at an all-time low. However, "mediocre" is what the combat in Digimon Survive amounts to on a good day. The required prolonged storyline battles have every box checked in the "generic-ass tactics game tropes" checklist. Percentages being bullshit when you least need them to be? Conflicts that were previously in your favor rubber-banding after a single bad turn? Watching the computer's units enter guard mode when I'm STILL two turns away from reaching them? If you can think of a common design flaw or frustration with the tactics genre, it's probably in Digimon Survive! All of these problems are a shame because if the tactical battles were tighter or faster-paced, I might have been able to stomach the game's snail-like start better. However, as things stand, Survive represents a "fine" but incredibly problematic game to tide over Digimon fans until something better comes out two to three years from now.