You ever see someone with massive, toned arms but embarrassingly scrawny legs? Digimon Survive is a little bit like that person: it overwhelmingly succeeds at being an entertaining visual novel, but completely skips leg day when it comes to its tedious tactics combat. Apart from some serious pacing problems, meeting Digimon Survive’s memorable characters and exploring the grim world they are in make the story at its center very enjoyable. But while this visual novel digivolves in the areas of storytelling and characterization, the slow and mind-numbingly simplistic turn-based combat system crammed into it comes close to spoiling that otherwise enjoyable tale entirely.
The glacial opening hours of Digimon Survive feature a group of quirky high school students who are sucked into a parallel world that’s filled with Digimon. That’ll be a familiar setup for any Digimon fan, but a much darker tone and a new cast of characters means that’s just about where the similarities end. Digimon has always dabbled with dark themes, but what follows here is an unsettling tale filled with intense and traumatic backstories, physical and verbal abuse, psychotic episodes, betrayal, and gruesome deaths, all next to the usual colorful cartoon mascots who turn into sexy humanoids through the power of friendship. Tone Control Police? Yeah, I’d like to report a murder.
Digimon Survive Screens (English Language version)
The perilous story of Digimon Survive sees these students and their destined Digimon partners trying to survive the mysterious and dangerous world they now find themselves in while searching for a way to return to their own. Unfortunately they are also surrounded by evil and sadistic Digimon who are into killing children and monologuing about how much they like killing children in equal measure. It’s a weird ride to be sure, but also one that’s thoroughly enjoyable.
And although it can be jarring at times, Digimon Survive does benefit from both its dark tone and the incredibly high stakes it sets. For example, characters can be killed off in horrifyingly gruesome ways because you didn’t spend enough time developing a relationship with them. Naturally, this transforms them into the worst version of themself and their death is all your fault for being a bad friend. Those stakes work very well in a visual novel that puts its characters front and center, especially since the Digimon franchise has always leaned heavily on the saving-the-world-through-the-power-of-friendship trope – this time there’s just a lot more murdering going on.
The art style is fantastic as long as you’re outside of combat.
All of that murder looks fantastic too, thanks to an anime art style that made me forget I wasn’t watching a Digimon TV show half of the time. Characters are incredibly crisp and expressive – so much so that I almost forgave the lack of an English voice option, which I generally prefer. It’s just too bad that I got used to such stellar graphics in the storytelling sections that make up most of the adventure, because every time I then jumped to the low-res textures and overly-simplistic character models of its tactical gameplay sections the whiplash would nearly break my neck. Digimon Survive’s music is also generally high quality, though there are only a handful of tracks that play over and over again throughout the roughly 40-hour runtime, so unfortunately I ended up sick of them by the end.
A Slow Death
As a visual novel first and foremost, Digimon Survive has you doing by-the-numbers activities like finding hidden objects and building up social links with your comrades, but the story around those things is largely pretty awesome. It’s got some memorable characters, a unique setting, and more than a few neat twists and turns (though admittedly I saw many of its reveals coming from a mile away). You’ll get to hang out with some likable, if a bit one-dimensional, human companions like the level-headed mother hen Aoi and the talkative goofball Minoru, as well as the much more interesting Digimon characters like the ever-lovable Agumon and the surprisingly mature and stern Falcomon. Digimon Survive has got real storytelling chops at all the right times too, and the pivotal moments where it flexes them account for some of the adventure’s best.
The biggest problem with the story is that it moves at a snail’s pace most of the time, with lots of meaningless filler padding out its chapters and characters who absolutely refuse to stop rehashing the same things over and over again – so much so that I was screaming “I get it already” at my television. The opening couple of hours in particular are so oppressively slow that it left an incredibly bad first impression until things finally started developing down the road. But just as things did get going, the fun police would inevitably arrive to shove some needlessly drawn out conversation down my throat. One section had me walking through the identical halls of a waterway to discover the same illusory figures repeatedly (which somehow fooled my character every time, naturally), while another had me bouncing back and forth between a handful of areas as I chased around a group of characters who would argue with me briefly before running off to be chased again. There’s just a ton of wheel spinning that happens in between the otherwise interesting story developments, which bogs down the whole experience.
Thankfully, the relationships you build as you work your way through this world’s mysteries pay dividends and have a meaningful impact on the story, culminating in a couple different endings (plus a secret one that can only be achieved during New Game+). Most of those endings are at least worth seeing once, however accessing them requires mastering a rigid and unintuitive karma system that measures your Moral, Wrathful, and Harmony scores based on dialogue options you choose along the way. Gaining access to some of the endings and getting characters to like you will require learning which kinds of responses one character likes versus another, which means lots of times I wasn’t roleplaying as a character so much as I was giving a response that I thought a certain person would like me for – or, worse yet, just doing it so I could get a high enough score in one category to unlock a certain ending, which took me out of the experience by forcing me to metagame more often than I would have liked.
Digivolve Into Chaos
In between long stretches of visual novel gameplay, you’ll slog your way through Digimon Survive’s absolutely abhorrent tactics combat. These turn-based battles will be familiar if you’ve ever played something like a Fire Emblem game, only this particular iteration of the genre is unbearable in just about every conceivable way. It’s one of the most barebones designs I’ve ever seen from a tactics game: each Digimon only has two moves (a standard attack and a signature move), enemies are samey and predictable, and the battle system doesn’t evolve at all as you progress. In fact, there are so few factors to consider that practically no tactics or strategy were ever required of me beyond choosing my strongest Digimon and rushing my opponent, even on harder difficulties. The result is a repetitive and painfully dull combat system that I found to be deeply offensive, and I couldn’t stand more than a minute of it at a time before sighing deeply and resigning myself to its cold, upsetting embrace.
Which is unfortunate, because the genuinely worthwhile story is interrupted with these prolonged and crude encounters that often drag on for way too long. If you’re hoping to add your favorite Digimon to your roster or are playing on the Normal or Hard difficulties like I jumped between, a certain amount of grinding will be required too, and that means you’ll need to subject yourself to this rudimentary and boring combat system on a regular basis. Digimon Survive also uses a recruitment system that’s similar to Persona 5, where you convince Digimon to join your team by answering seemingly pointless questions with equally meaningless responses to find the answers each Digimon likes. If you correctly answer questions to a Digimon’s satisfaction, then you get a percentage chance that they’ll join your team – which in my case resulted in the Digimon running away about 80% of the time, causing me to have to seek them out and endure the combat system all over again. It’s seriously one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had in recent memory and put an extremely sour taste in my mouth during an adventure I would have enjoyed a great deal more if it wasn’t included at all.
In fairness, the developers did include plenty of options to make the painful combat less prickly by letting you increase battle speed, turn off animations, and even use an auto-battle option so you can just passively watch your Digimon duke it out. There’s even a “retry” option if you’re trying to catch a Digimon and fail due to RNG not going in your favor. Of course, with so many tools that enable you to speed up, skip through, or not engage with the combat system, it’s pretty sad that so much effort has been put into allowing you to avoid playing half of the game at all costs. I would have much preferred if that effort would have been put into fleshing it out and making combat actually fun to play.
There aren’t many compliments I can offer Digimon Survive’s combat, but one is that it satisfyingly rewards players who invest time in developing social links with the story’s characters. That’s because your affinity with a character determines the extent to which they’re able to Digivolve, meaning those you’re closest with will be the most powerful allies on the battlefield. If you’re like me and were hoping to spend as little time in that mess of a game mode, then this gives a huge incentive to spend time with your friends and make sure they’re happy.