Gathered after a tragedy befalls our group, I attempt to calm down and plead that we should trust one another. Blood's been spilled, and tensions are at an all-time high for this lost party of teens trapped in a dangerous land. That's not quite the scene I had imagined going into Digimon Survive, a tactical RPG by way of a visual novel based on the sometimes-kid-friendly monster franchise. The dramatic dynamics at play are gripping, but the grid-based battles left me snoozing, souring what could have been a compelling, complete package.
As a visual novel, Digimon Survive is an absolute treat, full of beautifully drawn characters and scenery. Each location has well-crafted character staging with camera pans and zooms, giving these places a sense of depth. I'm often put off by the sparse production values of visual novels, but Digimon Survive keeps the flow of conversations visually interesting, enhanced by a partial Japanese voice-over.
You're put in the shoes of 14-year-old Takuma, flocked by a cast of other young teens trapped in a dangerous world after getting lost on a school trip. Here, each child is paired with a partner Digimon through a mysterious bond that everyone hardly accepts. This unease leads to many difficult situations testing the group's trust in one another, their Digimon, and some characters' grip on reality. While the story starts slowly, I'm impressed by the depth of the characters and learning the interactions and roles each plays within the group.
Early on, I decided who would tend to take my side, who was prone to worrying, who was headstrong and stubborn, and the people who are difficult or insufferable to deal with. I wouldn't say I liked many of the characters for a while (or ever), which is great, and why Survive succeeds in its characterization and relationships. Throughout my playthrough, I loved how I had to learn to deal with each character, to tell them what they wanted to hear in a particular situation, or what they needed to be told for the betterment and survival of the group. The fate of these kids' lives is on the line, leading to an enjoyable tension. Even casual chats can lead to interesting turning points for a character that can drag them back from the brink of being a problem for the team or set them off on an anxiety-inducing path for everyone around them.
Accompanying each kid is a Digimon who appears as the group enters this new dimension. Series mascot Agumon pairs up with you while others like Floramon, Lopmon, Labramon, and Falcomon become tied to the other recurring teens. These creatures play a pivotal role in the story and are linked emotionally with human partners. I'm disappointed by some underwhelming evolutions for the main Digimon, but overall, the interactions between you and the monsters are fun and rewarding. I enjoyed learning how their budding friendships pan out or not, leading to powerful moments in the story that I'll remember for some time.
Choices made through conversations can and will affect the Digimon and how they evolve, which is especially true with Agumon. Because emotions drive the connection between the partners, if your conversation choices lean towards one of the three traits of wrathful, moral, or harmony, Agumon's evolutionary tree will shift throughout the game. These options have overarching narrative ramifications as well, making the one cool link between the story structure and the turn-based battles. I appreciate that my journey can have many different effects on my monsters, but the part of the game where evolutions truly matter suffers greatly compared to the visual novel.
Digimon Survive's tactical turn-based combat is overly simplistic and lacks excitement and strategy. Each Digimon can shuffle along the map grid to position for attacks against enemy monsters. Digimon have a signature move and a basic attack along with up to two additional equipable skills. My favorite part of skirmishes is the management. Using special attacks and assuming an evolved form consumes SP; remaining in base form for any of the main party's monsters restores the precious resource. The few times I had to juggle stages of evolution to conserve SP for a last-ditch attack were stimulating and interesting. Still, that's far from the norm when most battles are far from mentally taxing encounters.
Instead of relying on team composition, formations, and strategically interesting attacks, most encounters play out by just getting your team close to the opposition and hammering them with your strongest ability. Sure, there are elemental advantages at play, and depending on whether you attack from the side or rear flank can yield some additional destruction, but simple brute force typically gets the job done. As a result, the part of this game I was most excited about feels like padding and brings down the overall experience.
Battles also allow for additional Digimon to join your party, but the process is a tedious mess. These recruitment opportunities only come from free battles during exploration and require you to use the talk command to start a conversation. The enemy Digimon will ask you a series of three questions, of which you must respond in the way they prefer multiple times to get the chance to ask them to join the team. It's clumsy and tedious, with many interactions resulting in failure. Despite my wanting to have a cool new Digimon on my team, I eventually decided it was hardly worth the trouble.
I applaud Digimon Survive for being a dark, harrowing, and wonderful visual novel, and subverting what I thought a Digimon story could be. While I wish the combat evolved as much as the surrounding story presentation, it's not enough to deter someone from seeing the narrative through. Don't expect a tactical masterpiece, but rather a well-made melancholy tale depicting Digimon in a light they haven't been in before.