Digimon don’t become champions overnight.
The eternal understudy, Digimon gets dragged into the mammoth shadow of Pokemon far too often. Aside from the suffix, there’s very little similar between the two series. Nowhere is this distinction more obvious than the returning Digimon World series, a role playing game that put me in a completely unique, unfamiliar, yet strangely engrossing role.
This is not where you’re going to find a straightforward RPG battle system and linear story, like we saw in last year’s Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth. In fact, the setup is almost identical to the PS1 original from all those years ago. Which is to say there isn’t much of one.
"Animal Crossing with cockfighting might sound like the strangest comparison ever at first, but I found the methodical approach Next Order asked of me as I raised and groomed my Digimon partners to be scratching those same, compulsive urges."
A young man or woman is sucked into the digital world to find it under threat from a mysterious rash of rampaging Machinedramon. You and your two partners are quickly thrust into helping resolve the mystery of what’s happening with the rampages, as well as bringing all the scattered Digimon residents back to town at the behest of a Jijimon. However, this doesn’t happen through the expected structure of RPGs that Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth followed.
Animal Crossing with cockfighting might sound like the strangest comparison ever at first, but I found the methodical approach Next Order asked of me as I raised and groomed my Digimon partners to be scratching those same, compulsive urges. The game runs on a clock, leaving you with only so much time within a single day to do whatever it is you’ve set out to do.
Instead of the dungeon crawling that I expected, I was carefully watching the stats and growth of my Digimon as we trained in the gym. A continuously moving story thread made way for a freeform adventure where I chose to adventure out to the field for more supplies and new Digimon to come join the city. It’s a game that doesn’t hold your hand much further than explaining that mechanics exist, and how they work is often left to discovery or more likely, guide work.
"Slow starts don’t last forever though, … before too long you’ll be emboldened to adventure just a little bit further each day."
The game draws upon the connection to the often overlooked origin of Digimon as a Tamagotchi for boys, and as part of raising your partners, you not only need to mind their stats and health, but also their happiness, discipline, hunger levels, weight, and getting them to the bathroom before an accident. For what the game is trying to do, I’m fine with all of these factors being in play, as it’s literally the game. Having to run your Digimon to the potty is the one anachronistic piece of design I really wish had been left behind, forcing you to drop whatever your doing in whatever area to use an item, or if you lack those, running all the way back. It breaks the pacing consistently and was little more than a nuisance.
Nuisance is probably the perfect word to describe the beginning of the game as well. Just like the city you’re trying to build, you start with no resources to your name but the partners at your side, freshly reborn after your first run in with a Machinedramon. Healing and care items are few and far between, and attempting to venture out into the world before using the gym to grow your buddies to respectable “rookie” level Digimon is a futile endeavour.
Slow starts don’t last forever though, and while the gym remains throughout to be one of the best ways to grow your partners, before too long you’ll be emboldened to adventure just a little bit further each day. Areas are compact enough that you don’t waste a ton of time retraversing through them toward a goal. As you train and grow, the city will become more populated, which brings more of the tools you would expect in an RPG into reach such as item storage and fast travel.
"While this does place a premium on raising them right, the actual influence you have during a battle might be frustratingly minimal to some players."
With the right tools, you can push even further and continue the cycle of growth. There’s a narrative push towards exploring some areas, but you can venture just as far in any direction as your can handle at any single time. The game soon settles into a rhythm where you go adventure and recruit, get worn down, and spend some time within the city training while preparing for the next go.
Now, I can finally talk a bit about the combat. Rather, the lack of combat. One of the most unique aspects of the game is the exact role you’re placed in with regard to the fighting, and it’s as passive as the rest of the game. Just like in raising them, Digimon are their own creatures and you’re more influencing their success and occasionally guiding them as opposed to commanding them like Digimon Story or Pokemon.
While this does place a premium on raising them right, the actual influence you have during a battle might be frustratingly minimal to some players. You’ll toss out items, direct how freely they’ll spend their attack power points and which foes they’ll focus on. Beyond that you can cheer them on when they connect big attacks to gain ‘Order Power’, which can allow you to order specific attacks. It’s quickly spent but thankfully battles never last too long. There are attributes and types to each Digimon that determine effectiveness against each other and what kinds of moves they can use, but they’re not as easy to understand offhand as Pokemon, and contributes to the near requirement for a guide.
"Growing the city to be able to more easily grow your partners, in order to further grow your abilities to repeat the cycle is where the engagement comes, and in that, it succeeds."
Digimon World Next Order puts its focus and has its hooks within growth, and everything positive is themed around it. Growing the city to be able to more easily grow your partners, in order to further grow your abilities to repeat the cycle is where the engagement comes, and in that, it succeeds. Even the lacking role of the player in combat is in service to the fact that you’re raising your Digimon to do the legwork. During that raising process however, eugenics plays a bit of a strong part. Digimon will Digivolve when they cross certain stat related thresholds and can branch out into several different forms based on how you raise them.
However, unlike how you can prevent a Pokemon from evolving with a button press, Digimon are locked into that form as soon as you hit the requirements, wether you intended to or not. It’s not the end of the world, you’ll eventually reset with new Digimon regardless, but because of this system, Next Order also bucks the usual RPG logic of raising your team members evenly. I struggled with my Digimon both moving along the same path, regardless of how carefully I raised them into different evolution thresholds, which put me at a disadvantage against stronger Digimon.
Luckily the world you’re raising your digimon in is bursting with colour and life. The bright colours of the world pop off the screen and make each area feel distinct. Unfortunately the music is far more generic and unmemorable. You’ll likely tune out the repetitive music after a few hours, but a strong art style does help make it a world worth exploring.
Even against all the gripes and jank the game has put me through, I enjoy it for the highly unique experience. Digimon World: Next Order is a dense game with layered mechanics and some mechanics from the heyday that probably would have been smarter to drop, but the feedback loop of growth the game weaves in all aspects of design is very well done and drives any engagement I had in a game that otherwise, I would have been quite bored with. A very well done digital adventure, assuming you think you’ll like the experience.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Great theming and feedback loop revolving around growth, and does a great job casting you as in charge of raising these creatures. Great art style coaxes you to explore the world. Combat system, while not super involved for the player, works for what the game is trying to do.
Dense systems that frequently require a guide impede learning curve, babysitting stats to make sure you go down two digivolution paths isn’t fun. Bringing your Digimon to the toilet breaks any pacing and isn’t fun. Combat system not very engaging and isn’t for everybody.
Digimon World: Next Order is a different breed of RPG in a pretty stagnant genre, and for what it tries and does to bring this old favourite to modern times, I have to commend it somewhat. But what it does is in places archaic, or not explained well enough to be managed properly without a guide.