Monday, February 12, 2018

RPG Talk: Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth

In which I talk (write) about RPGs from a storytelling perspective...

Platform: PS Vita (though it's also on PS4)
Release: 2016

I'd never played any of the Digimon RPGs before, because I'd come into the franchise through the anime rather than the Tamagotchi-like virtual pets and the first RPG I tried out made it clear that most of the gameplay was built around raising and collecting rather than having a plot.

But what sparked my interest in the franchise was the bond between human and Digimon partners and not the collecting, which has never been a feature of any of the anime series.

The anime had a strong Dragonriders of Pern feel to it, but for children, in how the partner bonds work. Partner Digimon are intelligent, capable of speech, and potentially powerful, but also childlike and unfailingly loyal to their humans. Your Digimon will always be your best friend, even if you're too caught up in yourself to realize it.

Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth nicely straddles the line between getting the feel of the anime while also allowing for collecting, and though Digimon is primarily thought of as a children's property, Cyber Sleuth is clearly meant as a nostalgia vehicle for older fans who are now adults. It has all the rookie and champion forms of the partner Digimon from the first three anime series and most of the other notables as well. It's possible to collect tons of Digimon, but the player isn't required to do so. A solid team of six to nine Digimon with a mix of types should be enough for the main playthrough (not necessarily optional bosses).

Unfortunately your Digimon won't talk to you in your party (the ones you leave at the farm like texting you though!), but aside from that, it feels like this could be the story of a new anime series.

You can choose your protagonist's gender, and by default they are named Takumi Aiba if male and Ami Aiba if female, though they can be renamed. Both of them sport goggles (because a Digimon lead protagonist has got to have goggles!) and are supposed to be in high school, not that we ever see them or any of their friends going to class. The player also gets to choose a Digimon from a set of three to start with. I chose Terriermon, who debuted in the Digimon Tamers anime.

For the rest of this post I'll refer to the protagonist as Ami, because I played through as female, and there are some things worth commenting on specifically because of the female playthrough.

The game takes place in a near future Tokyo where a virtual reality form of connectivity is popular in all walks of life. EDEN is probably closest to Slack and Discord in that people hang out in this virtual reality for both social and work-related reasons, but when people are logged in, their mind is 100% there and their bodies are left hooked up at home, work, etc.

While going to a shady part of EDEN where all the hackers are supposed to hang out, Ami and her friends Arata and Nokia are attacked by a mysterious entity called an Eater, and though Arata and Nokia escape, Ami seems to be caught just as she logs out. Rather than appearing safely at home, she's spat out in the middle of the city half-digitized and in a panic. In short order she's rescued and recruited to work for a private investigator, Kyoko, setting up the rest of the game.

Now a half-digital, half-physical being, Ami can go back in forth between any digital connection and the real world. Unlike her friends who have to log in, she can jump into a hospital's computer network from one terminal and hop out through another. If you ever wanted a slice of Tron as a mainstay in your JRPG, this is the place to look! Along with the mysterious Eater, other entities called Digimon have appeared in EDEN and hackers have taken to using them as tools, thinking that they are simply rogue programs.

Ami learns that her real body is lying unconscious in a hospital, thought to be a victim of EDEN Syndrome, which periodically affects people who have logged into EDEN. Its cause is initially unknown, but eventually she learns that those who suffer from it had been devoured by Eaters while logged in. Worse, Kamishiro Enterprises, which runs EDEN, seems to be aware of the issue, but is experimenting with EDEN nonetheless.

Like the anime series, things escalate as the digital and real worlds cross over and the Eaters aren't on anybody's side. Ami's friends have their own hidden histories as well as Ami herself, which she has forgotten.

The storytelling feels very much like an anime in that as new information unfolds, new questions arise. It does take a little while to get going, with a lot of time spent doing odd jobs for Kyoko, but thankfully most chapters are short. Even once danger becomes apparent, there are plenty of breather moments where Ami can, and sometimes must, do tangential tasks to continue the main story. Usually what appears tangential is not so much later on, but it really feels odd taking side jobs while rampaging Digimon are on the loose.

The result makes it feel more like an anime series though, the kind that goes 30-40+ episodes and has time for levity and side stories without hurting the main plot.

Though the game allows the player to pick a gender, it does have a few points where it feels like the female protagonist was written in at a later date as an afterthought. There's one point where the player is hired by a male classmate to help him figure out what kind of gift to get a girl he likes. Kyoko tells Ami that she's not like other girls so maybe she should go ask some of her friends what this girl might like. Aside from this comment being presumptuous, it feels like it was done mostly to force Ami to go through the quest in the exact same way as the player would if they were playing Takumi.

There's also a request later where the player needs to hunt down the origin of these incredibly lifelike female dolls. The guy selling them gives what is likely the same line of dialogue to Ami as he would to Takumi, noting how the protagonist has an eye for girls. While I'm fine with Ami being lesbian or bisexual, it's not hinted anywhere that she is prior to this point, so it feels like lazy writing, with the designers assuming that the player is playing as Takumi.

However, there are some incredibly cool parts of playing Cyber Sleuth as Ami. Ami and Arata get to be opposite gender best buds without any romance getting in the way, which results in a friendship that we rarely, if ever, see in a JRPG. Arata never sputters or says anything about Ami being a girl and his trust in her is tremendous.

Aside from that, the rest of the human cast has a female bias, leading to scenes like a trio of girls going on a rescue mission for another girl. It's shocking in a way, seeing critical story moments play out without a single dude on screen. Without a male protagonist, it happens more often than you'd think, especially in the later half of the game.

The character designs were clearly done with attention to the male gaze, so there's a lot of cheesecake to wade through (with the worst offender being Rina Shinomiya with her peek-a-boo jacket), but the female cast contains a large variety of personalities and none of them, not even the initially passive-looking Yuuko, is a shrinking violet who needs to be protected.

Nokia is particular behaves more like a protagonist in a shonen series than even the player character. She's headstrong, willing to charge into dangerous situations because it's the right thing to do, and while she might not be the sharpest tool in the shed, she never gives up. Nokia is the one partnered with Agumon and Gabumon, who are the main Digimon of the very first Digimon Adventure anime. Personality-wise she's very much a hot-blooded shonen protagonist, but she's a girl, and that's cool.

Arata, by contrast, is a more measured personality. Along with Nokia, he's one of Ami's closest net friends, and he's usually played as a cool hacker sort of guy. He's the one with the computer knowledge, the badass Virus-type Digimon, and the guy most likely to help everyone out of a pinch. But despite his prowess, he's hilariously geeky in other ways, with one side quest that is all about helping him through a scavenger hunt fast enough that he can win a rare comic book.

This is also makes it harder when Arata goes rogue later in the game. Since we know he's not a one-dimensional power-hungry guy, we want to keep trusting him even when he's discovered a way to absorb the Eaters into his own body. Once everyone's past is uncovered too, we realize what a burden he's carrying as the one who made the decision to abandon their childhood friend so everyone else in their group would survive.

It turns out that eight years ago Ami, Arata, Nokia, Yuuko, and her brother Yuugo, were part of the EDEN beta test and something went horribly wrong and all five of them ended up crossing over into the digital world.

An Eater followed them there, beginning the corruption of the digital world as well as devouring Yuugo, who sacrificed himself so the others could escape. Arata was the one who prevented the others from going back to save Yuugo, realizing that they didn't have a chance against the Eater.

The memories of the surviving four were erased so they could grow up to lead normal lives, though over the course of Cyber Sleuth they get those back, and the reason Arata is going crazy is he is trying to get enough power to protect everyone now that the Royal Knights of the digital world are trying to eliminate the human one in retaliation for having introduced the Eaters.

After punching some sense into Arata, and either defeating or convincing individual Royal Knights to stand down, the reunited team head for the digital world to destroy the Mother Eater, the central nervous system of the Eater hive mind, and rescue Yuugo, who has been trapped inside the entire time. (Notice our three girls and one boy rescue team!)

It's a pretty good show with a lot of self-sacrifice and the power of friendship, with Ami even risking her life to try saving a human villain who merges with the Mother Eater to become the last boss.

After the digital world is freed, the main system begins a reboot to restore the world to its earlier, healthier state, even though it means that there is a good chance that all the Digimon will forget their adventures with their human companions since they'll be rebooted as well. The ending is rather bittersweet as the humans are sent back through the portal to the human world and all the Digimon that had emerged in the human world are similarly flying back to where they belong. Many familiar faces say farewell as the two worlds expect to be cut off once more. It's very reminiscent of the Digimon Tamers anime and is a similar kick in the feels.

Also, all the stress of Ami's digital jumping have been taking its toll on her half-digital body's stability, so she actually does not complete the journey back, but shatters and her friends later gather at the hospital to see her physical body hasn't woken up.

They also discover that the real world has been rewritten in the wake of the closure between the real and digital worlds, so they've effectively returned to a different timeline, where things that had happened in the world they remember are no longer true. Someone who was previously a villain (due to being possessed by a Digimon) is now a good person and other people who they had known, no longer exist.

Of course, all that would be a downer, so after the credits roll, there's a sappy sequence that I admit I was a bit teary-eyed over. Ami wakes in a limbo to be greeted by Alphamon, the Digimon that had disguised itself as the human Kyoko. Alphamon tried finding all the pieces to Ami to reassemble her, but couldn't do it by itself, but it had help, and then the camera pans to show all the Digimon in the player's party from the final battle, which quite likely includes the most beloved of the player's collection (mine sure did).

It was a pitch perfect ending, having the player's own Digimon finish the reassembly of their character, and Ami eventually wakes up in the real world, where she finally meets the real Kyoko, who had been in a coma as an EDEN Syndrome victim herself the entire time Alphamon had been masquerading as her. The final scene is Kyoko offering Ami a job, and so it looks like they'll be working together again, or for the first time, depending on how one looks at it.

Cyber Sleuth isn't the highest class story out there, but it does what it need to very well for the fanbase it's designed for.