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Friday, 4 August 2017

The Weird Genius of Digimon World - [Part 3]













The Town

If raising Digimon is one half of Digimon World, then it's rebuilding the town at the centre of File Island that comprises the other half of the game. Rather than simply make File Town a generic hub from which to start the game off, Digimon World uses this part of the game world for a fascinating part of its level design.

Digimon World is almost completely non-linear in terms of how its game space can be explored. A quick look at the game’s map reveals that it loops around in an ingenious fashion, with the (typically) more difficult areas being at the back of the island, furthest from where the player starts.

Yet, aside from this general tendency, there’s very little order in which the Digimon you encounter have to be recruited. Since recruiting Digimon is the goal of Digimon World rather than, say, completing specific areas or defeating bosses, there’s a much more free-form structure into how each part of the game can be completed.

It’s a tightly interconnected game world that rewards players for mastering its locations and understanding their relation to one another. It’s difficult to find an accurate modern comparison for Digimon World’s level design. It’s (sort of) like a Metroidvania structure, albeit without any abilities that cordon off specific zones. Another similar comparison would be classic survival horror level design. As with Resident Evil’s mansion, there’s numerous paths in Digimon World that interconnect various zones, meaning players that master its level design can benefit from more efficient travelling from zone to zone. This is a major benefit to the player when you consider the fact that their Digimon partner has a limited lifespan and requires feeding and taking to the toilet every few in-game hours.


Of course, recruiting Digimon feeds back into this free-form navigation. Each Digimon that joins the city typically contributes something to the place, be it a new shop, resource, or just an aesthetic improvement. Convincing Centarumon to join opens up the medical clinic, whilst Birdramon sets up a transport hub that can warp you to specific locations you’ve already visited.

It’s an incredibly satisfying gameplay element, as you eagerly wait to see what your latest Digimon friend has contributed to the town. Yet, it also reinforces the game’s focus on navigation and strategy. Being able to tackle any of the game’s areas/Digimon essentially in any order means that there’s a degree of strategy, especially early on, in terms of recruiting the most important and valuable Digimon in order to give you a head start.

I suspect this is why the game is so enjoyable to replay; precisely because each time you play through there’s the option to remix the way you experience things. Grabbing different Digimon earlier/later might make some parts harder/easier further down the road.

Likewise, this links up neatly with the slightly chaotic evolution system. Just as each playthrough is different from a non-linear exploration perspective; you can go wherever you want, it also changes based on the Digimon that you end up having. Finally, this brings together the game’s move system, which, given the different Digimon your partner can evolve into, might prioritise going to different places earlier in order to acquire specific moves. Freezeland is one of the game’s most difficult areas, yet it becomes much more enticing to get there sooner should you have evolved your partner into a water-based Digimon for example.

Chaos 

All of this sums up Digimon World’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It’s a game that plays out differently each time you play it. Exploring one side of the map first and getting a certain evolution might make for a different experience during the second half of the game compared to another player. Despite you starting off in the exact same spot with potentially the same Digimon, you both end up in radically different places.


Yet, these two elements, its randomness and its vague design, are also what can make it so frustrating to play. It’s hard to recommend this game to people without also kindly pointing them to a guide to have at hand. Many of Digimon World’s elements could certainly do with a rework, especially its battle system, which, whilst not terrible once you’ve tackled its initial problems, still remains far from ideal. It’s also hilariously unbalanced when it comes to the game’s movepool, with some abilities being powerful to the point of broken, and others being nearly useless.

Despite these niggles, and despite me having to look at the game without the benefit of nostalgia goggles, Digimon World is a smartly designed game. Its gameplay systems; the exploration, training/battling and town-building, slot together like an intricate puzzle; three disparate gameplay concepts that gel together and enhance one another.

Bandai could have quite easily got by phoning it in, riding the coattails of Pokémon without much effort. Yet somehow, they resisted that temptation and created not only something that stands apart from Pokémon, but a game concept that still remains incredibly original to this day.

Sequels

It’s not surprising then, that Bandai followed up the game with several sequels. Ironically, none of them kept the gameplay ideas of the original game. Digimon World 2 and 3 were released for the PlayStation, whilst Digimon World 4 was released across all three sixth generation consoles.

Digimon World 2 opted for being a dungeon crawler, whilst Digimon World 3 took the conventional approach of meshing the series with contemporary J-RPG elements, much like a PS1-era Final Fantasy albeit on a smaller budget. Digimon World 4 in 2005 went the route of an action-RPG, even going as far as to kit out all the Digimon with weapons

Needless to say, all of these different experiments with the franchise never paid off, and it was the original 1999 game that garnered the cult following. Finally, in 2012, Digimon World Re:Digitize saw a release exclusively in Japan on the PSP, followed by the recent worldwide release of Digimon World Next Order on the PS4 earlier this year.

Digimon World is the kind of game that needed a sequel. Not simply because it’s good and there needs to be more of it, but because it’s a game that isn’t perfect, there’s room for it to grow, develop and iron out the myriad of problems it has. It has room to evolve, in other words. I’ve yet to play either Re-Digitize or Next Order, but hopefully, that’s precisely what the game’s do; building on the core foundations of the original.

Digimon World is an example of a game that works in spite of its problems, and also because of its remarkable originality. If you’ve never played it, it’s well worth tracking down a copy in order to check it out, if only to see how many unique and fascinating ideas it has whirling around in one game.

If you do take a look at it though, you might want to keep a guide handy. You'll need it...

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