The Digimon franchise never hit the same heights of popularity as its monster collecting contemporaries, but has succeeded in consistently maintaining its own offbeat brand. While Pokemon plays things fairly safe, Digimon games have been a bit more experimental with gameplay and story. When I played Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth a few years ago I found it’s systems to be somewhat opaque and the gameplay repetitive, but I could see the appeal for Digimon fans in collecting and exploring the Digital World. While a great deal of Hacker’s Memory is similar or straight up recycled from the original Cyber Sleuth, this time around I found the story and overall experience to be much more compelling.
It’s best not to think of Hacker’s Memory as a sequel – that might be setting expectations too high. It’s more of a side story – Cyber Sleuth Gaiden, if you will. Taking place alongside the story of Cyber Sleuth, we follow protagonist Keisuke through a story weaving between the real and digital worlds. He’s fairly unassuming as far as player characters go, taking a back seat as the story unfolds around his accompanying cast. This story is told piece by piece as you complete tasks from an online job board. As essentially an internet handyman, you’ll be fighting rival hacker groups, hacking servers to help a client win competitions, and along the way small pieces of story are unveiled. Erika, a character you encounter early in the piece, is central to the game’s plot. She’s reserved, rarely leaves the confines of her small, computer-filled room, and suffers from a rare condition which is kept manageable by uploading and storing her memory in digital form. This idea is used to explore some unexpectedly interesting themes around our real-world and online personas.The ‘Digital World’, or EDEN in the game’s parlance, is a physical representation of the cyber world. People log into this world and physically inhabit the space through advanced VR-style technology. EDEN is inhabited by digital monsters. People understand them simply as computer programs and tools to be used by hackers for their own ends, though this understanding will be questioned as the story progresses. For gameplay purposes though, Digimon are important to the appeal of Hacker’s Memory. When you encounter a Digimon enough in EDEN, you can synthesize your own copy of that monster to train and have fight alongside you.
Collecting and fighting Digimon in Hacker’s Memory will appeal to different people for different reasons. Fights are fairly typical for a Japanese style RPG. – two teams of monsters enter and perform actions back and forth until only one team remians. Domination Battles are a new addition to the series, and involve a light strategy game of capturing and holding map tiles, and defending them in regular Digimon battles. In these regular battles you can directly control each move, however I found the inclusion of an Auto Battle option helped me enjoy the game in a way I didn’t expect. Rather than agonising over each move, or selecting the same sequence of repeatedly once I’d found a working strategy, I tackled battles from a higher level perspective. By building a team appropriate for the challenges ahead, I took joy in watching my team fight on their own. This was useful in most battles, as many of the standard encounters are mind-numbingly easy to deal with, so it was nice to do away with the tedium of actively choosing the same basic moves to deal with basic, grindy encounters. Bosses sometimes took some more thought and care in team composition, but were satisfying to topple with a well crafted team and occasionally my direct control where nuance was necessary.
Basic, grindy battles serve an important function – they’re key to building stats of your Digimon, specifically their Camaraderie stat, which increases with each successful battle. You’ll need to be cognisant of these stats to Digivolve your monsters into more powerful forms, and so in this way it is nice to have an easy way to grind for these stats. It’s unfortunate that the environments you’ll be traversing between these battles are plain uninteresting and random encounters with basic enemies while you’re just trying to walk somewhere to complete a quest can make simple travel through these boring computer worlds feel much more tedious than need be.In the end I just played these sections essentially on auto-pilot, turning on Auto-Battle each time an encounter appeared and just inattentively moving around the world until I got to my destination. It seems like a bit of a cop-out to just say that the game got more enjoyable when I paid less attention, but after a while I did grow to appreciate the way it can be played without full attention. I found it to be an almost calming experience – something you can play to relax and ease your mind (until story events or more difficult encounters demand your attention, of course).
Whether that style of play appeals to you or not will largely dictate whether you’ll enjoy the game as a whole. There is a neat story to be told in this world, despite the world being mostly recycled from the last game, however if you don’t find joy in the grinding and collecting elements you’ll probably find yourself too frustrated with the pace and general gameplay to bother. The game also expects that you’ve played the first Cyber Sleuth – you won’t be completely lost without knowledge of the prior game – but it does throw around references and past characters wildly, so some familiarity helps. There are also some issues worth mentioning with the localisation. One notable concern is that other male characters seem to talk to Erika condescendingly, calling her ‘the little lady’ as though she’s not right there, which seems to cheapen her importance as a character. I was helpfully advised that in the Japanese version of the game the title that characters use to refer to Erika implies respect and endearment, so it seems the way characters originally interacted with Erika has been somewhat lost in translation.
THE PS4 VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS PLAYED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. A DIGITAL CODE WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
The appeal of Hacker’s Memory will hinge greatly on your acceptance of the grind and your appreciation for Digimon as a franchise. It’s fun collecting and fighting with the huge range of Digimon available, and it’s wrapped up in a story that, while a little slow off the mark, does develop into an interesting exploration of themes. Being squarely aimed at players of the original Cyber Sleuth, it’s unfortunate that so much of the world is straight-up re-used from that game.