In the world of monster-training games, two franchises feud for the title of grand champion.
The top spot was (until this sentence sowed doubt in your minds) undeniably filled by Pokémon. Two initial video games expanded into a universe of more than 50 titles, with 280 million copies sold, where Pikachu ties with Stephen Hawking and Eric Idle for appearances on the Simpsons.
Second on the list (at least until this sentence fertilises the seeds of doubt sown by wiser men in less obtrusive parentheses) was Digimon. The Pepsi to Pokémon’s Coke. Based on two digital pets (read: Tamagotchi) Digimon has long been the alternative to Pokémon rather than a competitor for the top role of mainstream monster-trainer.
For years Pokémon games have easily run rings around their Digimon counterparts – Tamagotchis are Tamagotchis and the various entries in the Digimon World series have been uniformly imperfect. So it is not without some degree of surprise and delight that I type the following words:
I like Digimon World: Next Order better than Pokémon Sun and Moon.
As a long time fan of both Digimon and Pokémon gaming franchises, I need to qualify such a powerful statement. I still have more nostalgia for Pokémon and feel the franchise is more complete and engaging, tells stronger stories and has more of a social conscience.
The Digimon World franchise is based on the original Digimon World released on PlayStation in 1999 - difficult, long, complex and frustrating. A game for children to be crushed by, not feel love for.
Digimon World: Next Order is all about those glimmers. The game begins when your main character is sucked into the Digital World and tasked with solving a chain of mysterious attacks from out of control Digimon. To solve the mystery and restore the abandoned city of Floatia, Digimon must be found around the world and convinced to return to town. This is all identical to the 1999 title. None of the other Digimon World games have used this model. Next Order remains faithful to the original.
In one significant departure you’re now aided by two Digimon as opposed to one, both of whom you must keep alive and happy through training, feeding, toileting and fighting. It’s Tamagotchi-inspired gameplay, in-keeping with the franchise’s roots.
So we have two primary activities – training, in order to get stronger and Digivolve, and exploring, to find items and the scattered residents of Floatia.
A major element of Next Order is training. In order to be any use whatsoever to you, Digimon need to put in serious gym hours training strength, speed, hit points, magic points and so on. There is no specialised training gameplay, rather a roulette wheel of bonuses to increase its effects. As a result training can get dull, but keeping your Digimon happy while they work is at once a monotony-killing diversion and also a “do you seriously need to use the bathroom again already,” frustration.
While tending to the ablutionary needs of your monsters, you are also studying them closely (not at exactly the same time). As they grow they will bond with you and slowly reveal their Digivolution information. This is a massive step for the franchise; one of the soul crushing elements of the original was the lack of this information. Nine-year-olds were expected to work out exactly which combination of stats would give them the desired Digimon, and certain points of the game made it extremely difficult to progress without very strong monsters.
Digivolution is the most exciting element of the game, and previously it was nigh impossible to achieve. With a field guide of collected Digivolution information (read: Pokedex), the longer you play, the easier it is to achieve all of the Digivolutions (there are 217 playable Digimon in the game) and aim for ones you actually want.
Unlike most monster-trainers, progression in Next Order relies on the strength of the trainer, not the monster. Digimon will eventually ‘die’ and be reborn as an egg, to start the entire process again. As monster strength is variable, trainer ability is not. Each trainer level comes with points to be spent on perks ranging from permanent stat boosts, Digivolution bonuses, increased lifespans and improving training effects. More Digimon returning to the city also improves the quality and number of buildings until you have restored a bustling metropolis of item shops, restaurants and useful facilities. In turn you can improve your training school to make Digivolving easier and thus the death of a beloved Ultimate Digimon is not as harsh a blow as it initially seems.
This system means that progression really feels like progression. Even though your monsters are dying off, each generation is stronger and easier to train than the last, and your city is better equipped to care for them. Collected materials can be given to a builder to upgrade facilities, adding to the game’s RPG elements, and helping stave off the repetition of the Tamagotchi-care system. Developing and building the city is a very engaging element of the game, but one crucial flaw can make it tricky to even reach that point.
An extra Digimon makes this game much harder and easier simultaneously. On the one hand, you have two monsters - double the moves, double the attacks, health, food, toilet stops, unhappiness, revenge, torture, and so on. Some parts of the game involve bosses that are utterly impossible for, say, a Rookie level Digimon, but which would be a doddle for a Champion monster. And not all of monsters are created equal. So, while you are attempting to raise both Digimon to Ultimate level or higher, one could easily die and be reborn as a baby - which is a problem. Milestones have a tendency to be boss-based and being unable to reach a crucial objective is very frustrating.
For example reaching Chapter 2 took me several generations of Digimon because I was walking into each boss fight alongside the digital equivalent of John Rambo while also insisting on bringing my 2-year-old nephew Calvin. Resynchronising the life cycles of my Digimon has yet to occur. It might seem minor but it affected my game and the need to grind and retrain will put off some players.
Do we need to compare Pokemon and Digimon? Probably not. One is exclusively for handhelds, while the other has been ported to PS4 based on the PS Vita version (also handheld). Was the comparison purely a device to create controversy and generate antagonism in people’s typing hands? Partly. But I stand by the likeness.
Every couple of years I buy a new Pokémon title. I would describe it as religious if I placed anything like as much importance on religion as I do on Pokémon. I got Pokémon Sun for Christmas, finished it in a week and have not touched it since - not even since they released a patch to actually finish the game and let you ‘catch ‘em all’ – you know, like advertised. It was the first time I’ve played a Pokemon title and been underwhelmed.
Since I was a kid, Pokemon vs. Digimon has been the norm. I can’t help it, it’s blood in the streets. And Digimon World: Next Order is deep, smart, and expands upon a great original game while remaining true to its genesis. Like how Pokemon used to.