The long wait for Digimon Survive is finally over, with players at last able to dive into this unusual entry in the series. Fans expecting the usual fare from a Digimon game might be understandably disappointed, but for those with an appetite for visual novels and tactical RPG combat, there is plenty to get your teeth sunk into here. It might not be the best Digimon game you can buy, but it is certainly one of the best visual novels to come out this year. From the writing to the visuals, this is an exceptional title, provided you know what you're getting ahead of time.
While it features creatures familiar to Digimon fans, this title stands as a departure in tone and genre from previous instalments. Digimon Survive serves as a mystery visual novel with surprisingly dark imagery. Particularly in the opening chapters, the game is closer to a horror story than we certainly expected. There are even a few jump scares mixed in to contend with.
As the title implies, this is a story of survival, with player decisions impacting which characters make it to the closing chapter. The game’s central characters are primarily middle school students on a class trip. Their plans to visit some historic ruins are scrapped when an earthquake blocks the path. Instead, Takuma and his classmates are led to a nearby shrine. Aided by the Digimon companions that they meet, the students find that they are in another world with seemingly no way home.
It is a straightforward premise but Digimon Survive offers plenty of branching storylines to explore based on decisions that players make. Siding with certain characters can boost Takuma’s stats and even strengthen his relationship with other members of the cast. These stats manifest themselves in the way that their Digimon digivolve and the boosts that they give each other on the battlefield. It is a really solid, organic way to make the visual novel portions of the game feel important and valid rather than just a wall of text to slog through to get to the combat.
Make no mistake, Digimon Survive is a visual novel with tactical RPG elements mixed in rather than the other way around. You will spend the majority of your time reading and listening to the solid voice cast rather than fighting other Digimon. The biggest criticism we have of the game is the long gap between the game’s initial combat tutorial and the next time you use those mechanics. The first several hours of Digimon Survive are spent on the visual novel sections, and it isn’t until you get through the entire prologue that the battle system shows up again. The pacing picks up from there, but it makes the opening hours of the game feel slow when compared to the chapters that follow.
If you’ve played games like Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics, the combat in this game will hold very few surprises for you. Positioning and strategy are paramount, with Digimon able to boost allies or shield them from blows if they are adjacent to them. Digivolving can give your Digital Monsters a massive boost in stats and attacks, but it slowly drains their SP so it needs to be used sparingly, especially in early levels. Most combat encounters can be beaten with a change in strategy; we thankfully didn’t have to do much grinding to overcome the challenges. It would have been nice if the combat didn't feel quite as tacked on to the visual novel aspect of the game, but what is there pushes the story forward nicely.
Most of Digimon Survive’s main cast have a Digimon partner that accompanies them wherever they go, but there are plenty of others that can be recruited to your cause through the game’s Free Battle system. When you see a Digimon you want to recruit during a Free Battle, simply select the Talk option from the menu and target your desired creature. A minigame in which players select a verbal response to the Digimon’s statements follows; the correct responses will net you a better chance at recruiting them at the end, but the choices sometimes feel too random to predict. If you want to catch every Digimon in this game, you’ll need to invest a healthy amount of time to do so.
Combat isn’t the only dangerous thing you’ll do in Digimon Survive. The game’s visual novel portions offer choices for players to make that can impact more than just stats and affinity. Making certain choices can result in characters dying and their Digimon companion disappearing from the game forever. Characters mourn their friends and lament their choices along with the player who made them in one surprisingly mature and heart-breaking plot development. You don’t expect that kind of darkness from this series, but it works well to remind you of the cost of survival.
While the combat in the game doesn’t pack many surprises, the writing around it does. We’re reminded continually that these are children in this harsh environment who are fighting for their lives. They come to blows and push back against each other, react harshly to the stress of their situation, and rally together in a wonderful way that is, by far, the highlight of Digimon Survive. You believe in the friendships you’re seeing and, as a result, stress about how your choices will impact them. The occasional typo in the text doesn’t change the fact that this is a very well-written and well-presented story.
When you’re not fighting or reading, you’ll be exploring the strange, time-displaced world the characters find themselves in. Most of these sections are easy to navigate, but they do offer the chance to uncover some secrets. The most interesting mechanic in the exploration portions is the use of the character’s smartphone camera to uncover hidden creatures and environments. Essentially, it will take several playthroughs to find everything that Digimon Survive has to offer.
Digimon Survive is one of the best visual novels to come out so far this year, with plenty of heart and tension to carry you through to the final act. Fans looking for an engaging story with well-written and presented characters that deal with life-and-death situations will enjoy the ride, while players focused on the combat will probably find that the game comes up short. Despite its sluggish, padded start, Digimon Survive is well worth the long wait.