At its best, Digimon Survive does an admirable job of recapturing the feeling of early Digimon Adventure, reminding us why we fell in love with this franchise in the first place. But while this fitfully intriguing story occasionally brings new texture to the series through surprisingly dark developments, it all too often feels as if it’s just going through the motions in other key areas.
Digimon Survive: Back To The Past
Digimon Survive’s Visual Novel side successfully recreates the castaway set-up of the first stories to take place in the Digital World. But as it does so, it replaces the accompanying sense of wonder in this other world with a steady, uncomfortable dread. The Digital World in Digimon Adventure was inhospitable due to its alien nature. In Digimon Survive, the threats to the game’s older cast are more actively malevolent.
This is a potent setup, remixing the old into something new and faintly transgressive. But without the character nuance and likeability that comes with the best Digimon stories, Survive and its mostly one-note cast come off as pale imitators.
Survive is also peppered with grid-based battles that pay lip service to the depth of tactical gameplay found in other Digimon titles like Cyber Sleuth, but are let down by shockingly simplistic move rosters and a lack of challenge.
Of Digimonsters And Men
Aside from the story’s initial setup, nowhere is Digimon Survive’s attempt at evoking Digimon Adventure nostalgia clearer than in its cast of characters. Each of them are easily recognizable archetypes, often played out in earlier series entries. The overly-serious upperclassman, laid-back jokester that wants to be taken seriously, bratty younger sibling, protective older brother, and so on. You’ve seen the basic shape of this cast before, and chances are you will again.
Digimon Survive is a fairly lengthy game, and you’d hope that this would provide its characters with time to grow beyond their initial basic traits and cliches. And to the game’s credit, there are a few scenes – often of a darker nature – where characters break away from the expected and change in interesting ways.
However, that isn’t to say that the cast is well-developed as a whole. For the most part, they stay frustratingly static. The storyline is punctuated by battles where Digimon will turn to their human partners, underline their recent emotional struggle and use this as a catalyst for both of them to change. This is a tried-and-true Digimon Trope, but in Survive it comes off as narrative manipulation, paying off an arc without doing the work to set that arc up in the first place.
Digimon Survive offers a wealth of dialogue choices throughout its lengthy runtime. Swiftly slotting into a group leader role over the course of Survive’s first few chapters, you get to decide exactly what kind of leader you want to be. When trying new circumstances present themselves, when tragedy strikes, and even when celebrating a rare win, your clear judgment and guidance are called for. And your choices will be rewarded by three different types of Karma.
Choosing to focus on your companions’ emotional wellbeing and taking a neutral stance will result in you acquiring Harmony Karma. Prioritizing morally just actions even in dire straits will get you Moral Karma. And choosing direct, results-oriented actions will garner Wrathful Karma.
This seems like a good idea, allowing you to roleplay how you want to lead the rag-tag group, but in practice, the Karma system comes off as under-baked. While you’ll be swiftly racking up those Karma points, they have little to no effect on the game for the majority of its story. And then once they’ve faded into the background, Digimon Survive takes a hard swing and has Karma choices majorly affect your ending path in the last few chapters. If Karma had altered story branches or character reactions and relationships throughout Digimon Survive, its late-game importance would likely have come off as less jarring.
Karma has another mechanical benefit, altering which forms Agumon takes when he Digivolves. This is a step in an interesting direction but only serves to highlight how little impact Karma has on most of Digimon Survive’s other systems.
For how initially important Karma feels at the beginning of Digimon Survive, it ends as a missed opportunity for you to make meaningful choices as you weigh up your group’s survival in this strange new environment.
While Digimon Survive spends most of its time as a Visual Novel, it does occasionally allow you to partake in grid-based skirmishes between your team of Digimon and the dangers lurking in the wilds.
This hybrid gameplay style seems engaging at first, but the balance is skewed too much in favor of the Visual Novel elements to work as a true hybrid. Battles come along too infrequently and are often over far too quickly once they finally arrive.
Each Digimon in Survive has a basic attack and a special attack. The basic attacks are standard melee bites and swipes, but each special attack is based on the individual Digimon’s properties. You’ll have flame-based projectiles for Agumon and its kin, healing moves for Labramon, weaker-hitting abilities with a chance to inflict negative statuses, and many more.
You would think that your Digimon would gain an expanded moveset over time, but bafflingly this isn’t the case at all. Your Digimon will only have these two moves right up until they Digivolve into a new form, at which point their basic attack gets stronger and their special move is overwritten by a new one. More than anything else in Digimon Survive, this choice serves to undercut the entirety of the battle system, reducing combat complexity down to a ‘hit them until they fall down’ pattern of repetition.
Digivolving into new forms should feel like a real boost in power, but in practice, reverting to previous forms becomes a necessity if you want any real diversity in your moveset. It doesn’t feel great to want to willingly give up a more powerful form, just to break out of a pattern of choosing the same two limited moves.
To make matters worse, form reversion only applies to Partner Digimon. Any Digimon that you have recruited along the way stay in their evolved forms permanently, once the Digivolution has been triggered. While on the surface this is great for the power levels of your team, in practice it further restricts your choices in combat, leading to your strongest Digimon only really feeling powerful because of higher damage numbers, as opposed to actual choice and control in battle.
Digimon Survive: A Risk That Didn’t Pay Off
Digimon Survive pulls itself in too many directions, attempting to tell a new story while paying homage to the old and welding strategy to Visual Novel verbosity. But it doesn’t dig deep enough into any of its systems or set-up to justify its own rough edges.
Digimon Survive’s greatest success in aping Digimon Adventure is that it provides a decent entry point to the franchise, but fans new and old will find better offerings once they move on to the series’ back catalog.