The keys to the Digimon franchise are handed to Media Vision who do a brilliant job of adapting the IP to a new template.
|Physical English||Yes – AS only|
World-building & Story
Cyber Sleuth picks familiar Digimon elements but shifts them in a new direction, framing the story by following a Tokyo-based detective agency tasked with exploring mysterious cyber events relating to a new virtual reality chat room named Eden which inexplicably becomes linked with the digital world. It’s an effectively fresh take for the franchise, borrowing more than just a few elements from Atlus’ hit Persona series.
The game starts with you choosing a player avatar (male or female) who acts as a surrogate for the audience in exploring this world. Through an early series of events, he or she manifests as digital energy in the physical world and as such gets discovered by Kyoko, a “cyber sleuth” who investigates online crimes and the two begin to take on cases affecting Tokyo – centring on the mysterious Kamishiro Industries and the many groups of hackers which populate Eden.
Early on, Cyber Sleuth spends a long time building its world and establishing characters. Much like Vita contemporaries such as Trails of Cold Steel it takes a little too long to do this – a good 25 hours, but once it does get going the plot is very interesting. Various different factions with different motives become involved and there are plenty of surprises along the way, while the way the digital world and cyberspace in general is injected to the overall story is incredibly well handled.
The game’s storytelling is assisted by its characterization, which is mostly brilliant. Everyone’s motives are smart and relate-able, whether it be Nokia’s noble quest to protect the digimon she finds so adorable to Arata’s more complicated history. Even villains are given sufficient screen time to allow them to properly develop, with plenty of the plot’s mystery coming from their backstory and aspirations.
Cyber Sleuth misses a bit with its protagonist however (named Takumi for me) who remains a frustrating vessel rather than feeling like anything unique. Even for a self-insert he’s dull and uninteresting, constantly pulling faces as a reaction to situations rather than saying anything. He doesn’t ruin the game, but I would have much preferred someone who was easier to relate to with a larger input to the overall plot.
The world-building here is some of the best on Vita, even if it does rely on a few tropes we’ve seen very often on the handheld. There’s a fantastic representation of otaku-Tokyo here (much like Akiba’s Beat or Tokyo Xanadu), an electric town full of unique locations; tall buildings and shops galore. I loved little touches like Tekken 2 posters in Nanako’s arcade or the constant neon signage in Shinjuku, making the whole game feel alive.
The way the Digimon elements are included is brilliant too – Eden, the title’s virtual world, is a blue mass of mesh grids and clean structures that provides some fantastic escapism and is populated by rival gangs of hackers each working towards different goals. Then when the real world and digital world collide, it provides some fascinating scenarios and helps build the mystery that you’re constantly fighting to solve through the story.
Presentation & Sound
Released around the time that many publishers were beginning to invest less in Vita, leading to some dodgy-looking ports with plenty of presentational issues, Cyber Sleuth is a revelation thanks to some beautiful art design and crisp models and environments – making it undoubtedly one of the best-looking games on the handheld.
The character models are undoubtedly the star of the show. They’ve got that well-drawn, anime-esque Japanese OTT style to them – a step above the already impressive models in other Vita games like Atelier. They’re shown with an obvious purple outline which is slightly off-putting, but the way they move and animate looks great – whether it be Nokia’s exaggerated expressions or watching your whole team of digimon follow you through a dungeon.
Speaking of digimon, they receive an equal amount of love which is very much appreciated. These are realistic approximations of the anime designs that as previously mentioned fully animate, waddling around with you as you wander in the digital world. In battle, a variety of attack animations exist including special attacks which normally look brilliant, getting progressively more impressive as the game goes on as the various creatures you’ll raise fire lasers from their eyes or rockets from their arms.
Environments look equally great, but do suffer from some repetition. There are two types – the real world features a variety of locations from the central mall where the detective agency is found to a bustling shopping street and traffic junction. Everywhere sets the tone perfectly – outdoor locations tend to feel vibrant and alive with NPC’s everywhere and plenty of activity while a tower block of flats feels more desolate and dark.
Eden and the digital world are equally impressive, showing cyber-inspired blue dungeons and clean white chat rooms for you to explore. Most interesting are the digital shifts where the real and digital worlds collide – leading to pockets of distorted data appearing in city streets or train stations. Although there’s a disappointing lack of interaction in them, each area is a joy to look at when running through the first time leading to many screenshot-worthy moments.
The issue is that some dungeons are repeated too often – particularly in Eden – leading to them feeling particularly dull by end-game. Kowloon is a particular offender, featuring different levels that aside from changing layout offer little new in the way of visual sights or backgrounds and even less to do other than endlessly run through them.
Sound is decent – voice acting is fully Japanese but each VA puts in a solid performance (particularly Nokia) and it’s oddly amusing listening to the digimon yell out their attacks in the language. There’s some great tracks on the soundtrack, but there’s a few too many instances of silence (particularly in Nanako which is where you’ll be spending a lot of your time) which is a disappointment – as music often goes a long way in setting mood.
Gameplay & Content
While it doesn’t do anything fundamentally new in the realm of JRPG’s – instead borrowing different elements from a variety of places – Cyber Sleuth is just so polished an experience that it’s difficult not to love. The dungeon crawling is fun; the turn-based combat is simple but effective and the monster-raising is just brilliant – every element works so well and particularly when combined.
You’ll control the protagonist from a 3rd-person, fixed-camera perspective in very traditional style (think along the lines of Final Fantasy VII or Persona 3) and spend your time running through the overworld of Tokyo and the dungeons of the digital world. Environments aren’t particularly interactive, but there are various routes through a given area (despite the game mostly being linear corridors) and you can open plenty of loot chests along the way.
The basic gameplay structure is that you start in the detective office at the start of every chapter and are given an over-arching quest for that section, usually from a member of Digimon‘s extensive supporting cast. You’re then free to do what you want – you can revisit dungeons; go shopping in Akihabara or take on side missions from the quest board to earn ‘cyber sleuth’ points. The freedom is brilliant – the game manages to weave a cohesive tale while still feeling open-ended, something few titles manage; although some of the side quests do require a little too much pointless running around.
Most of the quests – whether for the main story or side missions – involve you receiving instructions from someone in the real world before diving into the digital one. As the protagonist’s body is made of data, he’s able to ‘connect jump’ using access points such as laptops or phone lines, which is both an interesting plot device and handy practical point. You’ll be given plenty of real-world tasks to, but it’s the digital missions that are the most enjoyable – often posing oddly philosophical questions about reality and other fairly deep topics.
Eden and the digital world are full of different areas – you’ll find chat rooms where you can talk to various NPC’s; forums where you can track the actions of a number of hacker groups and most importantly, dungeons – the main one being a multi-tiered area named Kowloon. It’s here where the rest of the game’s mechanics are revealed as you’ll encounter other digimon, battle other hackers and use various hacking skills to overcome puzzles.
In general the dungeon crawling is a you’d expect – you explore paths to find which route to progress in a manner similar to Persona or Trails of Cold Steel. As you gain more digimon you’ll learn skills which are used to solve puzzles, but these never progress much beyond copy-pasting colours onto matching blocks or figuring out the order of teleporters. Things aren’t helped by Kowloon’s repeated backgrounds, which get particularly samey after a while.
Thankfully the repetition is alleviated by ‘digital shifts’ – dungeons where the digital world collides with the real world leading to some beautiful locations that are much more enjoyable to run through. They still don’t have the greatest level of interactivity, but thanks to the ability to save anywhere and regular ‘digilab’ points, you won’t be struggling too much. Things open up even more in the latter half of the game, with a larger variety of digitally-shifted areas to explore which definitely staves off what would otherwise be a feeling of repetition.
Speaking of digilabs, the way the game handles the capture and raising of digimon is probably its biggest boon. You’ll encounter wild digimon while dungeon crawling – and each time you do you’ll ‘scan them’ to fill a percentage of a meter which, when full, means you’ll be able to digi-convert them into a comrade who will fight for you. It works very well – there’s no throwing pokeballs or attempting to tame them in battle, merely encountering them is sufficient.
You can use these converted digimon in battles (subject to memory limits – a nice digital-twist to keeping your party in check) which are probably the most run-of-the-mill aspect of Cyber Sleuth. They’re fine – the digimon fight for you following commands; everything is turn-based and shown on an action bar on the side; you pick from options such as items or spells etc. Each digimon has a number of moves as well as a flashy special attack; extra damage comes from type advantages (i.e. vaccine beats virus) etc. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but works perfectly well in this context.
What’s more unique (and brilliant) is how you evolve your digimon. They’ll level up after battles (extra digimon can be left in farms where they’ll slowly gain exp) and once they reach a certain level can be digivolved, subject to certain criteria being met. Therefore raising stats is important – some digievolutions require a certain amount of hp, while others need a percentage of camaraderie with Takumi (aka they need to have been in battles with him). It creates a fantastic cycle of micro-managing to attempt to get the evolution you want, almost a whole other meta-game in itself.
There are some annoyances – to get mega evolutions you need to go through the tedious process of reaching max level then devolving them to raise their ability level, which adds some longevity for people chasing the perfect party but just becomes busywork for everyone else. The farms also seem to be fairly slow at giving exp no matter how much you level them up, but this is just a minor blemish on what is otherwise a great system.
There’s plenty more beyond this – you can collect medals to sell for money; battle in a coliseum to hone your combat skills or go shopping around Tokyo. Cyber Sleuth is such a dense game with plenty of content – around 40 hours for the story alone and dozens more if you really get into the digivolving parts – that it easily justifies both the price of entry and a constant presence in any Vita owner’s library.
Cyber Sleuth has four extra mission packs which are provided as free DLC – meaning that even when you’ve finished the game, there’s plenty more to do. Like the main game, these missions are pretty interesting – posing moral questions and exploring more of the title’s themes, meaning they’re definitely worth checking out – but especially so since they’re free!
Meshing together many different aspects of other JRPG’s with a distinctly Digimon twist and a great amount of polish, Cyber Sleuth is a brilliant addition to Vita’s library and feels like a culmination in design next to some of its contemporaries. It’s accessible to newcomers and veterans alike and while it suffers from a little bit of overused content and slightly simple battles, the digivolving system; unique plot; fun characters and brilliant quest system serve to make an addictive title that you’ll want to see through to the end (and even beyond!)