‘Digimon Survive’ Is The Best Visual Novel Experience Fans Didn’t Ask For
For those who grew up in the 90s and early 2000s, Digimon has always been considered a kind of rival Pokemon franchise. While today we know which of the two won, at the time, Digimon was a real contender. From multiple anime shows, manga adaptations, virtual pet toys, trading card games and movies to video game series, the Digimon the fan base was thriving.
At the end of the day, Pokemon was the popular choice as a cute creature taming and battling franchise scene in Japan (and the world really), leaving Digimon in its dust. These days, the Digimon series leaned more towards the turn-based RPG visual novel, leaving attempts at pseudo-Pokemon games behind. It was a slow formula transition, with Digimon Survive removing all traces of the previous games behind, forging a possible new path for the franchise.
Digimon Survive is the franchise’s first visual novel and tactical role-playing game. It attempts to balance the usual heavy gameplay in a JRPG and scale it down to a much smaller amount, with grinding being almost absent from the game and random encounters being an optional battle on the map. Instead, most of the game is story and characters told through the lens of a visual novel.
This game is the kind of JRPG that usually requires a few playthroughs or the use of a guide to fully understand. Many of its systems are unexplained and critical story decisions are understated at times, with choices determining the fate of certain characters. Those who wish to have more control over their story or predetermine how their partner Digimon will evolve can benefit from researching the requirements beforehand.
Unlike previous games, Digimon Survive places more emphasis on horror and survival elements, with its characters possibly dying during the course of the story. As for the plot, a group of college students on a summer vacation in the Japanese countryside seem to wander into another universe after visiting a remote shrine in the forest. From there, the group teams up with their partner Digimon who fights to protect them from the malevolent Digimon who wants to use the children as ritual sacrifices. It’s a whole new level of danger for the Digimon setting, one more suited to a world full of “digital monsters”.
The choices you make control your fate and that of your friends in this dangerous new world. The story pivots in different directions based on your actions and who players make group decisions with – even the smallest choice can have devastating consequences. This can be stressful as the right choice is never really telegraphed, with characters often reacting differently to what might seem like a fairly innocent comment or compliment. It’s all very well done too, with each character having been fleshed out with flaws and insecurities that can lead down a dark path if left unaddressed. Unfortunately, the chances of interacting with the characters are limited, and the tough decisions about whom to comfort after the events of the story will force players to choose between their favorites, possibly dooming others to their end.
The art and visual novel aspects are stunning and really enhance the story. If the elements of the visual novel were of lower quality, the game would really suffer, but the developers at Hyde pulled out all the stops. Unlike his contemporaries, Digimon Survive features animated 2D characters with high levels of detail and an impressive range of expressions and interactions. The voice acting is also high quality and the characters each feel fleshed out, reaching an almost animated quality with drawings and animations.
The relationships between the various characters and their partner Digimon also feel quite real and authentic, with each having a unique connection and backstory. The art and writing of the story really carries the game as a whole, as the actual gameplay elements are so sparse. Without such care in visuals and storytelling, the game would have suffered greatly.
Globally, Digimon Survive feels like a fusion of many different games into one. It draws influence from the horror visual novel genre from titles such as the zero escape series, Dangarompa, and Doki Doki Literature Club. The new grid-based combat is a layered tactical system that combines elements of Fire Emblem: Three Houses and In the breach. Overall, the split between gameplay and visual novel narrative is roughly 80% novel and 20% gameplay, again similar to something like 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim.
The core element of gameplay in Digimon Survive is the battle system. During story encounters, Digimon may be forced into combat and must fight to survive. Here, players can choose a team from their roster (both story partner Digimon and recruited Digimon) and move them across an isometric terrain made up of squares. Digimon takes turns moving, attacking, using items and dabbing. Story-based Digimon partners can “digivolve” in the midst of battle and help turn the tide against the enemy.
Interestingly, movement is one of the most important elements of combat, with Digimon’s placement on the field relative to their target influencing the effectiveness of a moveset beyond the usual elemental weaknesses/resistances. Attacks from behind are very effective, while attacks from the sides are only moderately so. This gives Digimon with higher move scores the ability to dash quickly and land massive hits against enemies. This is also how the AI plays battles, which is best seen when auto-battle is enabled. That being said, I don’t recommend enabling auto-battle for major story elements, as these tend to have multiple stages and the AI tends to burn through health and attacks pretty quickly.
The way you recruit more Digimon to your side is similar to how it works in the Shin Megami Tensei series, with each individual Digimon having a different answer to a set of questions. Answer correctly enough and players will have a percentage chance to recruit the Digimon to their team or request an in-game item. Different Digimon will drop different items, this is a useful way to farm specific items as the game has no shops or change. Otherwise, objects can only be found by exploration.
Whereas Digimon Survive is definitely not the Digimon game fans have been looking forward to, it’s a strong contender on its own merits. The evolution from horror to the isekai experience is well overdue and a welcome change to the monster fighting RPG genre. Those who prefer the more traditional, combat-heavy JRPG experience should give it a pass, while gamers who really enjoy the Digimon franchise and are willing to try a new, more mature game should definitely give it a try. While it lacks gameplay and could use an overhaul to explain some of the more complex elements, overall, Digimon Survive is an interesting and unique addition to the franchise that won’t be soon forgotten.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch edition of Digimon Survive. A copy was provided to us by Bandai Namco.