As I slumped through several hours of tedious exposition and uninteresting tactical gameplay, I asked myself, “when does this get better?”
I’m no stranger to the concept of slow burns in video games. I’ve played plenty of Japanese RPGs that promise to “get good” after the first 10-15 hours. Visual novels occupy a similar space — they are very story-heavy and gradually introduce their worlds and characters over the first several hours.
Bandai Namco’s Digimon Survive is a mix between a visual novel and a strategy RPG, with a surprisingly dark story that isn’t afraid to dispense with important characters. But despite this promising premise, the game sags under the weight of half-baked strategy gameplay.
Going to another world
Digimon Survive follows a young boy named Takuma Momozuka and his classmates as they take a trip to visit some historical sites in Japan. They suddenly find themselves whisked away to another world that looks identical to theirs, yet devoid of any other human life. Takuma meets his partner Koromon, which soon evolves into Agumon. The other classmates soon meet their own Digimon as well and must find a way to return back home.
Between story beats, Takuma can choose to hang out with his classmates and learn about how they’re dealing with the events that occurred. It’s not a robust relationship mechanic like the Persona series; it’s more similar to that of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel.
During free time, there might be five characters available to talk to, but there are only four points to spend. This incentivizes the player to prioritize their favorite characters and raise their affection levels, which allows you to unlock stronger Digimon evolutions for that character. It’s exhilarating and allows the social mechanics to feel worthwhile and rewarding.
But don’t get too attached — Digimon Survive has the guts to do away with its main characters. This was fine for unlikeable ones — I felt a bit elated that I was rid of them forever. But other characters definitely don’t deserve their untimely ends, and I felt sorry to see them go. That makess the emotional stakes behind these plot twists something of a mixed bag.
The other primary aspect of Digimon Survive is its turn-based strategy battles. The gimmick here is that Digivolving to a stronger form requires a number of CP each turn. For example, transforming into the Champion stage depletes five CP per turn, and the Ultimate stage depletes 10 CP per turn, and so on.
Powerful skills with huge ranges can cost upwards to 40-50 CP to cast, so the gimmick offers an interesting risk and reward system. Once a Digimon’s CP is entirely drained, it reverts back to its base form. If an enemy catches your Digimon doing so, it could very well be KO’d, especially during the late game battles where enemy Digimon are at the Ultimate and Mega levels. Experimenting with different Digimon in battle is one of the strongest elements of the game.
You can befriend other wild Digimon by talking to them in practice battles during free time segments. It works out very similarly to Persona 5’s demon negotiation mechanic, and its implementation in Digimon Survive is just as frustrating. You have to choose a response to a question that you’d think the Digimon would like, but it’s never entirely fair, and often feels like a shot in the dark.
Little else stands out about Digimon Survive’s gameplay compared to other games in the strategy genre. It doesn’t have the depth of Fire Emblem or Triangle Strategy, or the charm of the Utawarerumono series. It’s painfully barebones and feels like a late addition meant to balance out the visual novel aspect.
A Beautiful Presentation
Digimon Survive art direction and presentation are truly impressive. The character portraits are beautifully drawn with crisp detail and sharp lines. The color palette is phenomenal as well, as there is a huge variety of different looks between the main cast’s clothing and the Digimon they’re partnered with. The character models burst with personality and expression.
I especially liked how the camera panned out in and out during conversations to show where each member of the cast was standing in proximity with one another. Most visual novels use a static background and call it day.
By the end of my first playthrough, I felt invested in Digimon Survive’s story. The mystery of how the kids ended up in another world is genuinely intriguing and had me wanting to see how everything would play out. There are multiple endings, and your affection levels with certain characters can influence who lives and who dies, which increases the game’s replayability.
Digimon Survive isn’t awful, but longtime fans of the franchise will likely come away feeling a little disappointed. If the tactics gameplay was up to snuff — or eliminated entirely — the experience would’ve been better overall.
Digimon Survive is available on Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. Inverse reviewed the game on PlayStation 5 via backwards compatibility.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.