Review: ‘Digimon Survive’ is the best visual novel experience that fans didn’t ask for

For those who grew up in the ’90s and early ’00s, Digimon was always seen as a sort of rival to the Pokémon franchise. While today it is clear which of the two won out, at the time, Digimon was a real contender. From multiple anime shows, manga adaptations, virtual pet toys, trading card games, and movies to video game series, the Digimon fan base was thriving.

Ultimately, Pokémon was the popular choice as the cute creature-taming and fighting franchise scene in Japan (and the world really), leaving Digimon in its dust. These days, the Digimon series has steered more towards the visual novel turn-based RPG, leaving the attempts at pseudo-Pokémon games behind. This has been a slow transition of formula, with Digimon Survive removing all trace of the previous games behind, forging a possible new path for the franchise. 

Digimon Survive is the franchise’s first visual novel and tactical role-playing game. It attempts to balance the usual heavy gameplay in a JRPG and crunches it down into a much smaller quantity, with grinding being almost absent from the game and random encounters being an optional battle on the map. Instead, the biggest part of the game is the story and characters as told through the lens of a visual novel. 

This game is the kind of JRPG that generally requires either a few playthroughs or the use of a guide to fully grasp. Many of its systems aren’t explained, and critical decisions in the story are underplayed at points, with choices determining the fate of certain characters. Those who wish to have more control over their story or pre-determine the way in which their partner Digimon will evolve may benefit from researching the requirements ahead of time. 

Unlike the previous games, Digimon Survive has more of an emphasis on horror and survival elements, with its characters being able to die over the course of the story. Plot-wise, a group of students on a summer vacation in the Japanese countryside seemingly wander into another universe after visiting a remote shrine in the forest. From there, the group is teamed up with their partner Digimon who fights to protect them from the malicious Digimon who wants to use the children as ritual sacrifices. It’s a whole new level of danger for the Digimon setting, one more fitting for a world filled with ‘digital monsters.’ 

The choices you make control the fate of you and your friends in this dangerous new world. The story pivots off in different directions depending on your actions and who players side with on group decisions — even the smallest choice can have devastating consequences. This can be stressful as the correct choice is never really telegraphed, with characters often reacting differently to what may seem an innocent enough comment or compliment. It’s all done really well too, with each character having been fleshed out with flaws and insecurities that can lead down a dark path if not dealt with. Unfortunately, there are limited chances to interact with characters and hard decisions on who to comfort following story events will leave players having to pick between favorites, possibly dooming others to their end. 

The art and visual novel aspects are stunning and really heighten the story. If the visual novel elements were of lesser quality, the game would really suffer, but the developers at Hyde pulled out all the stops. Unlike its contemporaries, Digimon Survive features animated 2D characters with high levels of detail, and an impressive range of expressions and interactions. The voice acting is also high quality and the characters each feel fleshed out, reaching an almost anime-like quality with designs and animation.

The relationships between different characters and their partner Digimon also feel quite real and genuine, each having a unique bond and storyline. The art and story writing really carry the game on a whole, as the actual gameplay elements are so few and far between. Without such care being put into the visuals and storytelling, the game would have heavily suffered as a result. 

Overall, Digimon Survive feels like an amalgamation of many different games in one. It pulls influence from the horror visual novel genre from titles such as the Zero Escape series, Dangarompa, and Doki Doki Literature Club. The new grid-based combat is a layered tactics system that combines elements from Fire Emblem: Three Houses and Into the Breach. Overall, the split between gameplay and visual novel storytelling is about 80 percent novel and 20 percent gameplay, again similar to something like 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

The core gameplay element in Digimon Survive is the battle system. During story encounters, Digimon may be forced into combat and have to fight to survive. Here, players can pick a team from their roster (both Digimon partners from the story and recruited Digimon), and move them around on an isometric field made of squares. Digimon take turns moving, attacking, using items, and buffing one another. The story-based Digimon partners can ‘digivolve’ mid-battle and help turn the tide against the enemy. 

Interestingly, movement is one of the biggest elements of combat, with the placement of Digimon on the field relative to their target influencing how effective a moveset will be beyond the usual elemental weakness/resistances. Attacks from behind are highly effective, while those from the side are only moderately so. This gives Digimon with higher movement scores the ability to quickly dart in and score massive hits against enemies. This is also the way the AI plays out battles, which can be seen best when Auto Battle is enabled. That being said, I don’t recommend turning on Auto Battle for the major story elements, as those tend to have multiple stages to them and the AI has a tendency to burn through health and attacks fairly quickly. 

The way in which you recruit more Digimon to your side is similar to how it works in the Shin Megami Tensei series, with each individual Digimon having a different response to a set of questions. Answer enough correctly, and players will have a percentage chance to recruit the Digimon into their team or ask for an in-game item. Different Digimon will give different items, this is a useful way to farm specific items as the game has no stores or currency. Otherwise, items can only be found through exploration.  

While Digimon Survive is certainly not the Digimon game that the fans have eagerly been awaiting, it is a strong contender on its own merits. The evolution of the horror to the isekai experience is well overdue and a welcome change in the monster battle RPG genre. Those who prefer the more mainstream, battle-heavy JRPG experience should give it a pass, while players who genuinely enjoy the Digimon franchise and are willing to try a new, more mature game should definitely give it a go. While it is lacking in gameplay and could use a rework in terms of explaining some of the more intricate elements, on the whole, Digimon Survive is an interesting and unique addition to the franchise that won’t soon be forgotten.  

This review is based on the Nintendo Switch edition of Digimon Survive. A copy was provided to us by Bandai Namco.