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Friday, 14 July 2017

The Weird Genius of Digimon World - [Part 2]













Evolution

I referred to Pokémon a lot in the last part of this series because, whilst I’ve stressed that the series have a lot of creative differences, Pokémon undoubtedly created a lot of expectation of what Digimon World would be. Bandai could easily have released a complete clone of Pokémon and have likely been successful.

But they didn’t, which led to a lot of disappointment.

First getting to grips with Digimon World is frustrating. Many of its mechanics are obtuse (more on that later) and it’s vague about what exactly a lot of the different systems it has actually do. Digimon World is a surprisingly deep game, but it’s not particularly clear.

Much like the animated series, the player is cast as a young boy who unwittingly finds himself transported into the digital world through his Tamagotchi device. Once there, he’s tasked with restoring File Island to its former glory after a mysterious force has caused most Digimon to forget where they came from and abandon the city at the heart of the island.

The player is given a partner Digimon as their sole companion throughout their playthrough. Rather than steer closer to Pokémon and adhere to a more conventional J-RPG structure, Digimon World sticks to its virtual pet roots and has the player focus on raising and training their partner Digimon instead of building up a party or team.

This central virtual pet conceit is really unusual precisely because few other games, especially RPGs, have ever dealt with it. Much of your time in Digimon World is spent feeding your Digimon, taking it to the toilet (wait too long and it’ll poop on the floor), and training it at the local gym. It’s a quaint, surprisingly moreish loop of gameplay that stays engaging for far longer than you’d expect it would.

More importantly, it’s something the player has to actively engage with in order to succeed. Recruiting other Digimon, expanding the city and exploring the further reaches of the game world require that the player understands and takes care of their little virtual critter.

All of this simulation-like focus on raising, training and caring isn’t just done for the sake of it, however, Digimon World has a rather expansive evolution system, one that allows the player’s partner Digimon to evolve into a host of different forms throughout the course of the game.


Whilst players are initially given a Rookie level Digimon, eventually, in around six game days, it’ll evolve into a Champion level Digimon. Then, if they’re really on-point when it comes to training and caring for their partner, it’ll evolve into one of the games stronger Ultimate forms.

Getting an Ultimate level Digimon in Digimon World is a genuine challenge. In fact, evolving your Digimon into anything that’s half decent requires significant time and effort in order for it to pay off. Most evolutions are determined by a Digimon’s stats, and it’s here where the developers adhere to a more conventional J-RPG design, with Digimon able to be trained in a range of areas including HP, MP, Speed, Defence and so on. More importantly however, the number of care mistakes (such as pooping on the floor, not feeding your Digimon) contribute to the evolution that you’re most likely to get, tying the game’s virtual pet elements directly into how you grow stronger as the game progresses.

Evolution in Digimon is more of an art than a direct science, even fifteen years on from the game’s initial release, you’ll still see forums pop up debating what leads to a Digimon evolving into what form*. It’s a system that, like I mentioned earlier, is weirdly obtuse, vague, and you have to remember, was released at a time when the internet wasn’t a common fixture in many households. All of this makes the quest to evolve your Digimon that much more of a personal discovery, rooting around a game system that isn’t willing to divulge much information.

So, whilst it was possible to get a super-useful critter like Greymon as your first Champion Digimon, it was more likely you’d be left with the poop throwing Nunemon or Sukamon for your troubles; both of which would struggle to fight their way out of a wet paper bag.

Digimon World went one step further by having your Digimon eventually die. Rather than be locked into one partner for the entirety of your playthrough, your partner Digimon would eventually pass away, becoming reincarnated as a Digi-Egg, and forcing you to start the process all over again.

I can’t stress enough how this weird, poorly explained but fascinating system is at the heart of what makes Digimon World so engaging. It’s not always the case that you’ll get the Digimon you wanted, sometimes you’ll have to make do with what you get and it can make future playthroughs of the game just as satisfying as the first. It adds an almost rogue-like element to the game, one where you have to adapt and adjust to a series of chaotic and sometimes unexpected events; plans change, you don’t get the monster you were hoping for, and so now you have to make do with what you have.

Battles

Obviously, raising, training and evolving Digimon eventually translates to one thing; battles. As I said earlier, it was easy at the time of the game’s release to presume how Digimon World’s fights would take place. Pokémon had already established a robust system of J-RPG mechanics, turning what is actually a rather complex dungeon crawler RPG into one of the most widely enjoyed and accessible popular video games of all time.

Rather than filch ideas from Pokémon or from other nearby J-RPGs however, Digimon World goes in a completely different direction. Opting for a real-time combat system, the game’s fights play out effectively with the player taking the role of a ringside cheerleader. Rather than have direct control over your Digimon, or be able to issue it specific actions, you’re instead left with only vague orders or tactics, such as having it focus on aggression, be more defensive, or simply do its own thing.

This is initially an alienating aspect of an already confusing game. Fights can regularly feel as if they’re out of your control. Sometimes, your Digimon will simply stand there for several seconds, gawping, rather than actually fight their opponent.

Digimon will carry out one of three moves that they can be equipped with. The move tree is another poorly explained element of Digimon World’s combat.** Rather than learn new abilities by levelling up, Digimon learn moves by being hit by a move during a fight. Each Digimon has a different “pool” of available techniques that they can be equipped with. Learned moves pass on through your Digimon’s life cycles, meaning attacks acquired in one form will still be available, provided a Digimon can equip that ability in the first place.



None of this however, avoids the fact that Digimon World’s combat itself is by far the most frustrating and difficult aspect of the entire game. Fights can quickly result in a swift knock out because you got ambushed or because the opponent has a faster move than your Digimon does. Animation speeds play a huge role in what attacks are best in Digimon World, locking out the opponent by having your partner (hopefully) spam a weak yet speedy attack is a perfectly viable strategy for almost the entirety of the game. The biggest, most damaging attacks are rarely the best, and understanding how best to take advantage of the game's combat system is hardly intuitive and will lead to countless defeats whilst you get to grips with it.

Yet, for all of its problems, the combat does succeed, oddly enough, at stressing that your Digimon partner is another entity, separate from the player character. Rather than being a robot that will launch specific moves at your behest, your Digimon must be coaxed into doing the right thing, much like training an animal in real life. As with The Last Guardian, the AI’s frustrating foibles; its stubborn reluctance to always do what its told, imbues the creature with its own agency, rather than simply being a slave to the player.

Digimon World’s combat is one of its weaker elements, yet, its flaws highlight how sometimes fixing supposedly broken aspects of a game’s mechanics would result in a weaker overall experience. Whether or not the sometimes ignorant AI was an intended design decision by Bandai, it translates into a more rewarding experience training your Digimon. When you finally level up your partner’s Brains stat so that you can tell it what specific moves to do in combat, something that will take a good amount of time, it feels as if you’ve reached a new threshold with your partner.

Reworking Digimon World’s combat might have made for a less frustrating experience, but it’s debatable whether or not it would have translated into a better game.

This was exacerbated by the game having one of the most inept and incomplete “official” strategy guides to be released at the time. The book went as far as to give incorrect information in many instances. 

** The process by which you learn moves in Digimon World was so vague that it took a forum post in 2013, more than ten years after the game’s initial release, to explain how it actually functioned. 

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