I didn’t expect much from the story in a Digimon game. To be fair, I hadn’t even played one prior to Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth - Hacker’s Memory, so I was mostly working off of some unfounded prejudice because Digimons are so much like Pokémon. But even without those, I doubt I ever would have called the amount of utter shenanigans on display. It’s amazing. And also just bad. But amazing.
Hacker’s Memory unfolds across the backdrop of a slightly more technology-enabled and dependent Tokyo. The residents are able to access a digital space called Eden, which acts as a sort of virtual world to hangout in. Eden itself is run by one of those omnipresent massive future corporations, and also serves as the virtual battlespace for numerous hacker teams with names like Demons, Zaxon, and Hudie.
The player takes the role of a young man called Keisuke. He's pulled into this world of hacking and digital monsters when his account (read: identity) is stolen. Seeking to get it back and reclaim his place in the world, Keisuke joins Hudie, a small hacking team. It's made up of two members of a now legendary but defunct hacker squad, Ryuji and Chitose, as well as Ryuji’s sister Erika, a hacking prodigy who uses a stuffed whale as a virtual keyboard. Ryuji operates a net cafe as a base of operations. Ryuji and Erika are very well developed, and I was able to see a lot of my own relationships with my brothers back and forth between the two. Chitose, on the other hand, is sadly relegated to the bargain bin of stereotypical ladies men. The majority of his dialogue, short a few actually decent scenes that deal directly with his character and past, is just him spinning yarns about wanting to find “the one”, while casting as many horrible pick-up lines as possible. Thankfully, most of the other characters prove better.
Hackers in this tech-future version of Tokyo serve as problem solvers and handymen, and are often called upon to investigate cases in both the real world and Eden. To help them along the way, hackers use the titular digimon. They are explained as helpful programs that make hacking far easier and more accessible than it was in the old days. Large portion of Hacker’s Memory is spent dealing with the ethical side of digimon capture and use. Split nearly down the middle, hackers fall either into the “digimon are real digital creatures that have feelings” or “digimon are programs and I can do what I want with them.”
As a nearly silent protagonist, Keisuke rarely delivers an opinion outside of his emoji, like expressions of happiness, sadness, or exasperation. There are a few times in the story where the treatment of digimon sparks an intense sense of justice within him. Of course, these situations are resolved by having Keisuke’s team of digimon fight another team, so whatever point was tried to be made regarding digimon treatment is quickly thrown out in favor of some intense digital monster dueling.
In fact, Hacker’s Memory tends to take this middle of the road stance on just about every issue it comes across. Want to kidnap people and pull them into Eden to torture them because they turned you away for a medical care? NO! How could you even consider such a thing?!? Kidnapping people and pulling them into Eden because they drank some rare coffee and you want to steal their memories to sell them to old people who have never been able to drink said rare coffee? Yeah, that’s fine.
And those scenarios are not even the weirdest ones. Hacker’s Memory loves to throw out supernatural situations, like ghost encounters and haunted places, and tries to ground them through the main story and its slow integration of the digital world into our own. Some themes, like whether or not we exist in our bodies and can memories stored in cyberspace considered being alive, are handled better than other elements, but they still end just short of taking an actual stance on the subject. This is disappointing because this portion of the storyline carries most of the arcs of Team Hudie, and it concludes in a way that left me wondering why I spent 45 hours playing through it.
What did not disappoint, though, were the digital monsters themselves. If you have never seen them before, digimon cover a wide swath of creature types and monster looks, ranging from simple rock monsters to incredible dragon knights armed with flaming swords. Each monster has a max level it can reach, and a minimum level required before you can engage in Digivolution. It changes the monster completely, allowing access to different skills and powers. Digimon can move both up and down the evolution tree, with de-digivolution being almost as important in raising their stats. In fact, many of the Mega forms can only be unlocked through multiple evolutions.
When I first started the game, the system of constantly switching and leveling up digimon was a bit obtuse and hard to grasp. It was only when I started to reach the end of evolution trees that I started paying attention to stat gains and growth. I was thankful that, even coming into understanding the system late in the game, I didn’t feel penalized, or that I had missed out on something. The only obstacle in the way of creating your perfect digimon team is time, and whether or not you're willing to grind out some levels on the way there.
Along with monster leveling, digimon combat is simple to grasp but tremendously deep. Like in most RPGs of this ilk, digimon are separated into types, with each having both a type they are weak against and a type they are super effective versus. At the beginning of the game, a lot of the systems can simply be brute-forced, with not much thought going into team composition or weakness stacking. But in the later half of Hacker’s Memory’s 18 chapters, paying attention to the digimon you have on the field is essential to any kind of success.
It helps that Keisuke can bring up to eleven different digimon to battle. Three of them take an active roll while the remaining eight hang out in reserve, serving either to shore up any losses sustained during the fight, or to swap in as needed. Against the normal team of random digimon that can attack you while out and about in Eden, a balanced team made up of the three main types (virus, vaccine, and data) is more than a match for just about any group. Going up against any of the game’s bosses, especially in the late chapters, can stress any team, and often requires some smart digimon switching to take advantage of bosses' key weaknesses.
Sadly, with only a few exceptions, the boss variety is severely lacking. Most cases end with a battle against a normal digimon, specific to the particular story being told, or a team battle against a group of hackers. WIth the normal digimon, their stats are often blown way out of proportions, with many times the amount of hit points they would normally have present, along with strengthened attacks combined with possible status effects. The desired effect is to offer more of a challenge. The achieved effect is that of a slog; a slow fight that feels more like a penalty then an accomplishment.
Hacker’s Memory spends much of its time jumping between Tokyo and its cyber counterpart Eden. The city looks great, populated with a wide variety of people to talk to and little areas to explore, though outside of specific cases, you aren’t given any real incentive to leave the confines of Hudie’s net cafe. Eden, with rare exceptions, isn’t quite as stunning, with much of the landscape lost to neon colors and see-through futurescape. Areas created specifically for special cases often show off in comparison, with one in particular that tied directly to Erika and her situation, easily taking the prize for its stunning looks. The game also throws out an occasional animated cutscene, which are all set to strut their anime inspired look, but never do more than punctuate an important battle.
For those seeking more than the 40+ hours it takes to get through the main story, Hacker’s Memory also offers a new game plus, allowing you to further evolve your team and continue to enjoy the well-developed world. Despite some of the shortcomings I found in the narrative and its inability to simply impress when it came to the conclusion of most cases, Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth - Hacker’s Memory manages to hold its weight. It's saying something when compared to other RPGs in the fighting monster team genre. The true stars of the show are the digimon, as they indeed should be, and there’s enough zaniness in the rest of the game to keep you entertained throughout its long running time. There’s room for improvement, though, and should the developers choose to keep this side of Digimon series going, we could see something truly amazing in the future. As it stands now, Hacker’s Memory is not a bad way to hang out with some of my new favorite digital friends.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!