Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth is not unconventional, but it’s often surprising.
At times it’s a glacially paced, by-the-numbers Japanese role-playing game that treads familiar territory for the long-running franchise — kids teaming up with monsters in the digital world. But it also contains flashes of a story filled with moral ambiguity, genuine intrigue and touching character arcs. More often than not, Cyber Sleuth‘s adventure into the digital world is reminiscent of a darkly mature anime, not its namesake’s kid-friendly cartoon.
That Cyber Sleuth is largely able to navigate its narrative complexities with a strong sense of humor and heart might be its most unexpected quality. It’s these traits that keep the game from being otherwise forgettable, distinguishing it from the pack of like-minded monster collectors.
Cyber Sleuth is reminiscent of a darkly mature anime
Cyber Sleuth stars a set of human leads whose trials are both virtual and emotional. The central story begins in the digital community of EDEN, which serves as a high-tech forum of sorts, home to typical internet commenters and highly skilled hackers alike. The silent male or female protagonist accidentally joins that latter group, along with a group of online friends, and is granted a special power: the ability to tame Digimon. This becomes useful when the player character falls victim to a mysterious syndrome afflicting users of the EDEN forum. Others affected by the strange virus enter into a coma; the protagonist instead turns into a hybrid digital/physical being, allowing them special access to the online world.
Discovering the cause behind these dilemmas sets Cyber Sleuth‘s plot into motion. Using the power afforded to them by their new body, the player character becomes just that — a cyber sleuth, a junior detective aiming to rise up the ranks and figure out what’s really going down online.
Although Digimon play a crucial role in solving these central mysteries, for a while the characters mostly take on a supporting role in the plot. Cyber Sleuth is largely the story of its human protagonists, which is slightly disappointing for someone hoping to spend the bulk of their time with the Digimon. Yet battling other Digimon lies at the core of the gameplay, and is easily Cyber Sleuth‘s most addictive facet. Players command up to three Digimon at a time in turn-based battles, choosing between basic attacks and special skills, each with their own attributes and potential status effects.
The fighting system is accessible and seemingly uncomplicated; available options include attacking, guarding, using items and escaping from a fight. But additional facets help to make the frequent random battles something to look forward to, not dread. These include a combo system where party members occasionally jump in for extra damage, and a fairly complex type matchup mechanic, in which certain monsters and moves are more or less effective against others. A Virus-type Digimon is stronger than a Data-type, for example, so it’s important to carry a variety of Digimon with you. Yet while these features complicate and diversify fights, it’s hard to really grasp them. The bonus effects of other stats, like personality types, require outside research, and pulling off a combo seems mostly random.
the player character becomes a cyber sleuth
Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth has a pair of modes dedicated to battle: the online and offline colosseums. Both have players ascending the ranks as they take on computer-controlled teams or, if the system can match you up with one, those of other players. But the online version of the colosseum is regularly plagued with mysterious “network errors,” meaning it’s rarely able to connect you to the service whether you end up playing against a real person or the AI. When it does work, it’s fine — it’s just like the primary in-game fights. The offline colosseum is more reliable and therefore more appealing, but neither offers much more than supplemental fights to take part in. Without the capturing component, they’re also a bit less rewarding than the story mode’s battles.
Even so, an engaging battle system is important, as players will spend ample time taking down other Digimon. Facing monsters in battle is the only way to add them to your own collection, which mitigates what could otherwise be a huge grind. Unlike other monster collecting games, Cyber Sleuth makes it easy to catch ’em all. Simply encountering a Digimon grows its conversion meter; once that meter hits 100 percent, players can add the Digimon in question to their DigiBank.
Although some monsters are rare and others are only obtained through evolution, knowing that you’re all but guaranteed to capture your favorite Digimon just by happening upon them in battle is a relief. It largely eliminates the frustration that can come with monster catching being left up to chance, instead focusing on what’s truly challenging and enjoyable: raising the members of your Digimon collection into their strongest forms.
Leveling up monsters in battle allows players to then evolve them into entirely new Digimon. That system, Digivolution, is one of Cyber Sleuth‘s greatest pleasures, complicating the basic capture method in truly thoughtful ways. Instead of a linear, one-step process, evolving your Digimon is a tactical play. The system is full of multiple pathways, allowing Digimon to transform into totally different creatures, both stronger and weaker. Digivolution is flexible and fluid, and being open to the system is key to progressing through the game’s dungeons and increasingly tricky boss battles.
It’s a shame that the dungeons don’t measure up whatsoever. Both the overworld and the fighting arenas are dull and repetitive; while they’re not quite linear, their uninspired and limited designs are not fun to run through — and it doesn’t help that your character runs at an excruciatingly slow pace. Missions involve doing laps across various areas on the map to locate key characters, engage in important battles or, at their absolute worst, complete annoying fetch quests.
Unfortunately, a large portion of the game is spent traipsing through these uninspired dungeons. But when not fighting, the protagonist is interacting with other characters in cutscenes or relationship-building side stories, which are generally more enjoyable. The narrative’s diminished focus on the Digimon in favor of their tamers is one of Cyber Sleuth‘s earliest, most distinct features. It’s not unfair to assume that most players will pick up the game based on their love for the Digimon characters. But for as great as the Digimon themselves are, what’s striking is that the human characters are often equally entertaining.
Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth has solid writing with a healthy self-awareness and a wonderful sense of humor. While the translation is weak in spots, at times it’s laugh-out-loud funny, adding a great deal of levity to a storyline that could buckle under the weight of its sometimes inscrutable gravity. These moments often arise unexpectedly, too; a serious scene might just as quickly be undercut by a sharp, truly funny joke. Cyber Sleuth handles these transitions deftly and to its own betterment, keeping the game from ever becoming self-serious.
The humor is a welcome throughline in a plot that often spins its wheels. Like a season of anime, the first half of the story largely feels like filler, with copious side missions that are bland time killers in the wait for something major to happen. When Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth really gets going, though, its characters take center stage and shine, encouraging the player to keep moving forward just to spend more time with them.