Digimon Survive is primarily a visual novel. This seems to be the big controversy for this title, so I’ll get it out the way first. In this jaunt to the Digital World, you’ll find SRPG combat, point-and-click gameplay, and even mechanics similar to dating sims. Despite all of this and more being in Digimon Survive, you’re going to be spending almost all of your time reading – and we’re fine with that.
At NookGaming, we love visual novels, with over 100 reviews of them. They’re not for everyone, but if you love Digimon, stories that you can’t put down, or visual novels, keep reading.
Let’s Get Analogue
Unlike most Digimon stories, we’re not exactly getting digital here. It starts off in a rural town and much of the story is centered around a local shrine worshiping the ‘Kemonogami’ – something along the lines of beast gods.
Digimon Survive has almost an old mythological feel to it in a way. It delves into the beliefs of people in the past, with talk of mysterious powers and children being spirited away. Symbolism is used to help set this type of scene. It’s a very different setting than most Digimon media, but I found that I wanted to learn more about this world. The producer Kazumasa Habu mentioned in an interview that Utawarerumono was an inspiration for Digimon Survive and both the focus on its own mythology and links that only become apparent in the later game show this strongly – not just the SRPG combat.
If you’ve watched the original Digimon anime, Digimon Survive can be introduced as ‘Digimon Adventure 01, but incredibly dark and screwed up’.
To give more detail, Digimon Survive follows Takuma and a group of other teenagers as they accidentally fall into another world. It’s a strange world, where much of it is forestry and woodland, but odd structures appear sometimes – a familiar school, but completely run down, an amusement park that looks like it was pulled from fifty years in the past, and more. The first priority of course is to survive, but the overarching goal is to find their way back home.
Digimon has never shied away from darker topics. Divorce, death, and problematic family situations have appeared in the franchise before. But Digimon Survive turns it up to 11. Deaths happen. People will have mental breakdowns. Very sensitive topics come up and the children face horrible choices at times. People mention Digimon Survive as a ‘horror’ story, but keep in mind that this isn’t jump scares. While I love that they’ve explored these topics, more sensitive readers might want to give this a skip. Most of the characters have their own traumas that they need to face – and they don’t always succeed. I do feel like certain parts were overacted in a way, but generally enjoyed these darker moments immensely. The characters who survive grow, and it was interesting to see this happen throughout their adventure.
While I’ll be light on detail to avoid spoilers, I will say that the overall plot follows a common Digimon formula. It starts off light, but more troublesome aspects come into play with several antagonists and it eventually escalates to the fate of the world. While there are some negative comments I’ll make about Digimon Survive, the story is incredible.
There have been complaints of Digimon Survive being slow-paced. Some of this is being dismissed because it’s a visual novel. Sorry, but I agree. And keep in mind that note from earlier – I’ve played tons of visual novels. Digimon Survive just has certain mechanics that make it slower than most.
The most obvious is that there are SRPG battles. While the vast majority of time is spent on reading text. These do break it up quite a lot, but also slow down the reading.
Beyond that, I find the main issue to be the point-and-click sections. It means a lot of menu time and moving pointers. This also slows down subsequent playthroughs by stopping the skip read text function too.
Most of the text is accessed by choosing an area, then hovering over someone to choose a character. Then maybe do the same with another character. A piece of the background environment might be next such as a desk. Then you’ll need to click out of that area and do it again about six more times. Then possibly come back to the same area. There are also hidden items, pieces of the narrative, and Digimon to find that can only be seen by scanning the background.
Most visual novels let you get through the text in a much easier way – even the inspiration for this game, which is a visual novel that includes SRPG battles too!
Will You Choose Moral, Harmony, or Wrathful?
Throughout Digimon Survive, you’ll often be given choices. Some of these are for flavor and some to grow closer to another character which lets their partner evolve, but here I’ll focus on the karma points.
Quite often you will be prompted to choose one of three choices. These are ‘Moral’, ‘Harmony’ or ‘Wrathful’ choices – they’re pretty easy to identify as they always appear in the same place on the screen. The names don’t always feel like they fit though, especially in situations when helping someone by being proactive is the ‘Wrathful’ answer. On that, many of the wrathful choices felt somewhat unintelligent so I only chose them when aiming for that ending – even the characters sometimes acted like I was an idiot for choosing them.
Depending on which of these you choose, it affects both what your Digimon will evolve into and which endings you will be given options to choose at the end of Chapter 8. In my first playthrough, I just chose what I felt was the best answer. It turned out that this let me choose any of the three standard endings. It works by how many points you have in that category, so spreading it out gave me access to them all.
The three standard endings themselves I have mixed feelings on. The first time playing through it felt amazing. Every other time, I was less awed because large parts of the endings are the same or very similar. But then I was brought back into it by some really interesting events in the unique parts or by another perspective or additional information about the world. How things panned out in the final scene of the Wrathful ending was something I’d love to see more of in particular.
I’ve mentioned the ‘three standard endings’, because there’s a fourth – the Truthful ending. Digimon Survive includes a post-game, which is needed to unlock this. After completing any of the standard endings, you can start from the beginning with your current levels and items. This gives you a chance to do things better and reveal more about the truth of the world.
I will note that if you’re planning to go for all achievements, you’ll need to complete the game several times. As a hint, recruit a few of any Rookie Digimon that you see. And for the love of Azulongmon, if you see a Palmon, Tentomon, or Gabumon, grab them! Certain Digimon only appear in very limited places and one of the goals is to collect them all.
It took me 65 hours and four playthroughs to complete Digimon Survive with all achievements. It might be possible to do it in less, but it doesn’t carry over recruited Digimon if you save at a branching point and play from there.
Battles and Recruitment
On that, the SRPG battles have your Digimon fight it out with others on a grid. It’s a fairly basic system, with units having different ranges they can move, attacks having different areas, and so on. As with many other titles, maneuvering to attack from the side or back helps to increase the damage. Digimon can assist each other with HP and SP recovery if they’re nearby at the end of their turn.
It’s pretty straightforward, but I do like that it’s flexible. You can move, attack, and do a few other actions in any order. You can even undo movement. A lot of SRPGs don’t seem to allow this, having anything be a committed move.
On a less positive note, I found it never to be too complex. Maps are often reused and most don’t have many enemies on at one time. I rarely had to think about more than trying to get a back attack in. Until a sudden difficulty spike, it was overly easy on normal mode too, though there are easier and harder difficulty modes if you wish.
The most notable mechanic of battle is Digivolution. After a certain point, Digimon partnered with the teenagers can temporarily evolve into more powerful forms. This costs SP per turn, but after a certain point, it becomes fairly irrelevant because every enemy will be dead long before SP runs out.
The other mechanic of interest here is the ‘Talk’ one. You can buff your own Digimon by talking, but more interestingly you can talk to enemy Digimon to try and recruit them. Doing this has them ask you three questions, each with four possible answers. It sounds similar to games like Persona or Shin Megami Tensei, but each type of Digimon has set answers so it’s possible to lose battles here if getting it wrong, but still come away with knowledge (or you can just retry). And unlike Pokémon, it won’t help to weaken them first. Answer all three correctly and you have a percentage chance that they’ll agree, which will depend on respective levels. Or you can ask them for an item instead, which can come in handy too.
Overall, the SRPG element isn’t bad, but it’s nothing amazing. The more unique mechanics do help to make it more interesting. If you’re more of a visual novel player though, it’s possible to click auto-battle and almost always win.
The recruitment is more interesting and there are tons of Digimon to collect. One major difference here is that items are needed to evolve these Digimon and most have multiple choices on what form to change into. Evolving these is permanent and there’s no SP cost to having them out in battle, which is particularly nice in the early game and moments where Takuma is without his friends.
My first impression on opening Digimon Survive was very good when it comes to graphics. The sprites and backgrounds are beautiful and there are occasional anime scenes with high production values. It uses techniques like panning over wide backgrounds which are sometimes partially animated, sudden zooms, and sprite movement to create a world that seems alive. Overall it’s still very good, but there are a few letdowns.
Despite having character sprites with actual movement at times, it uses the ‘fish style’ of lip animation. Whenever they’re speaking, their mouths constantly open and close at the same speed and movement, which looks very unnatural. There are also some rough outlines on certain sprites, especially the back views. It’s good that they have back view sprites at all, but it looks like the same polish is missing on some of the little details like this.
In terms of the music, it’s used well to set the atmosphere. As an example, at some points it helps to create a sense of tension with string and piano music when unsure what’s happening or uses a loop of creepy music in horror scenes. Sounds effects are typically fine, except for the occasional inappropriate use of one ‘piano key smash’ noise which seems like it would fit a comedy skit or ‘fail’ moment, but instead happens when talking about people dying and the like.
Voicing is in Japanese and only partial. Voices fit the characters well and it seems the acting is okay, but it can be a little disconcerting to hear the differences in naming. For example, Agumon shouts ‘baby flame’ in English, exactly what he does in the Japanese Digimon anime. But the writing says ‘Pepper Breath’, which is what English Digimon uses. It makes sense why this is done, but can break the immersion a little.
Digimon Survive could use another editing pass. I’ve noticed some spelling and grammatical issues, alongside some other errors. In one case, it refers to a Biyomon as a Patamon and there have been other occasional mistakes like that. It’s not enough to detract much from the experience but is a pity.
While the localization hasn’t been an issue for the most part, I do have to question a few out-of-character lines. From what I can tell, they seem to match up with the general intent of the original Japanese, but the way they’ve translated it seems odd. Like ‘does a bear shit in the woods?’ from a character you’d just not expect it from.
Beyond that, I’ve noticed some inconsistencies. Things being mentioned, then being explained again but characters acting as if it’s new shocking information was most notable.
I will restate that this hasn’t been a problem for the most part. It’s certainly not perfect, but the vast majority of the game has been fine. Much like Utawarerumono with its infamous “Diarrhea Pile” and “Who the fuck are they” lines, these issues are the exception, not the rule.
As a note, while I can’t confirm so it doesn’t affect this review’s scoring, I’ve heard reports that the Nintendo Switch version has performance issues.
I enjoyed Digimon Survive as a visual novel and would highly recommend it if that’s all it was. That said, there is some frustration in trying to access all routes, the SRPG combat gets old after a while, and there are a multitude of small issues that do bring the experience down.
I still recommend Digimon Survive – the story is too good to miss! Just be prepared for a slow haul.
DIGIMON SURVIVE IS RECOMMENDED
Many thanks go to Bandai Namco for a PlayStation 4 review code for this title. The reviewer played this on a PlayStation 5 via Backwards Compatibility.
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A gamer since the days of Amstrad and DOS and someone who has dabbled in a variety of professions. He enjoys a wide variety of genres, but has been focusing on visual novels and virtual reality in recent years. Head Editor of NookGaming. Follow him and the website on @NookSite.