Digimon World: Next Order

I despaired of ever getting to play this because it was a PS4 exclusive, but this year it got ported to Switch!

Digimon World: Next Order is the third true Digimon World game, conceived as a throwback to the original PSX game and a followup to Re:Digitize, which I reviewed here. It is a much better game than either of them and does a better job of recapturing the essence of the original Digimon World, but still falls woefully short. Admittedly, at least part of this is definitely that the original Digimon World‘s formula wasn’t very good to begin with, but a big part is definitely the design decisions of this game, particularly a lot of things that are most definitely problems with the current generation of gaming.

I figure I should start with the first thing to assault your eyeballs when you start up the game:

The first human from the left, the one sitting normally and wearing normal clothes, is the male protagonist. The girl on the right with the knocked knees and legs for days who is conveniently bending over to give us an upskirt is the female protagonist.

I want to emphasize this is the first thing you see when you start up the game. It’s the loading page before the title screen. The first Digimon World game to offer a female protagonist, and they couldn’t resist sexualizing her before the title screen even loads. (Oh, and Rina is in this game, again, because of course teenage stripper girl has to cameo in every single Digimon game now.)

It’s a shame because the rest of the piece is actually really nice and the digimon are adorable. If you just cropped Shiki out it would be perfectly lovely. (Fun fact: The first image I found on Google, from a game review site, does exactly that.) Why must you ruin nice things to pander to the pervs, Bandai?

After Bandai has reminded us women are objects….. the game still doesn’t start until you sign a bunch of massive EULAs. “I think this is going to be a bad game,” Farla warns me. Fortunately it isn’t a pay 2 win scam and the online component is completely optional, but just, ugh. Please stop tacking online multiplayer onto everything, industry.

Then the game finally begins.

Probably the biggest problem is that the game actually explains its mechanics now. Why is this a bad thing, you ask? For two intertwined reasons: Once you actually figure it out, the gameplay isn’t that engaging (it’s just a big grind, really), and so piecing things together on your own was the main appeal of the original game. In the first Digimon World, I felt the same way I felt in Toki Tori 2: Like I was thrust into an alien world full of countless complex rules I had to figure out through experimentation and my own wits… which actually parallels the emotional state of the protagonists in both the game and the anime! I inevitably made mistakes raising my digimon because I didn’t understand how anything worked, but that’s where all the interesting stuff happens. If you just raise your digimon into a perfectly obedient well-oiled killing machine, there are no unexpected complications to make you actually turn on your brain. The game even did an excellent job of making mistakes feel catastrophic without actually being so, due to the fact your partner is endlessly reborn and there’s no global time limit. You’re given leeway to screw up as many times as you need before you get it right.

That’s all completely bypassed here. Right from the start, the game dumps a metric ton of tutorial text on you explaining each and every mechanic in excruciating detail. Which is really another problem, because there’s so many mechanics that laying them all out at once like that is just overwhelming. It is absolutely a good and needed thing that the mechanics are explained somewhere in-game, but that somewhere should not have been in the first five minutes. It could have been integrated into the main city-building mechanic where certain digimon reward you with information, split across multiple areas so as to be parceled out at a reasonable pace. Which would make sense, right? Why would babies know all the intricacies of biology and battle tactics?

And they get it almost right with Botamon. It tells you where recruitable digimon can be found in the world, serving the same role as Angemon in the first game but part of the initial population instead of one of the last digimon found… except it doesn’t actually tell you anything about those digimon, so you still can’t prioritize based on your needs. One of the helper mechanics I think the original game did need was telling you where to go if you wanted to upgrade a specific thing (the farm, the shop, the clinic, etc.), especially because so many of those upgrades are critical in the early game. This does not do that; all it does is take out the joy of finding recruitable digimon on your own.

The second-biggest problem: The environment design is a complete mess, and this is absolutely the fault of next-gen console design. Everything is ridiculously overdesigned, which only serves to distract and confuse you as to what you’re supposed to interact with. Their fix for this is to make interactive objects spit out particle effects, which just adds to the visual clutter and doesn’t even work because everything else spits out particles too, including the player avatar when they move. Someone at some point desperately needed to tell the graphic designers they could stop now, but they never did.

Also, naturally, we have fully 3D environments with a free movement camera. I presume this is meant to be more immersive, so it’s quite ironic that this only served to make me feel completely lost. The environments are so samey and there are so few unique landmarks that it was really hard for me to construct a mental map, whereas even now I could sketch you about half the entire world map from Digimon World just from memory. (Oddly, I didn’t have this problem so much in Re:Digitize and I’m not sure why. Probably because it had more distinct landmarks, and/or the camera movement was better.) It doesn’t help that for some reason, on the Switch at least, there doesn’t appear to be a dynamic camera, forcing you to constantly manually reorient yourself to see where you’re going. Map designers have forgotten how useful a fixed camera angle can be. Not everything needs to show off the latest tech!

Relatedly, the game world feels much more restricted. In the first Digimon World, there was only one hard barrier (well, two technically, but they were in either direction) keeping you in the starting area, and after that you could, in theory, go all the way to the final area and recruit endgame digimon. It was a true open world where you could always try going somewhere new. Not so here. Recruitable digimon will inexplicably refuse to interact with you until you do enough of the plot, so even if you manage to maneuver your way past stronger digimon, you get jack squat for it. You are punished for exploring instead of rewarded.

Even the soft barriers are incredibly restrictive and railroaded. I think this is related to the general problem that open worlds don’t mesh well with RPG gameplay: With skill-based gameplay, it is difficult but still very much possible for players to go anywhere if they’re good enough; but with strategic gameplay, it is mathematically impossible for you to go beyond a certain point. It doesn’t matter how good or knowledgeable you are, you just simply do not have the numbers to beat enemies stronger than you. And this is a big problem, because the game is very heavy-handed with beef gates. Even within the same map there can be enemy digimon of wildly varying power levels, making it extremely clear which route you are “supposed” to take and may God have mercy on your soul if you stray from it. There is a certain area you have to visit to complete an early-game quest, which is confusing, because an NPC tells you outright the area is full of extremely tough digimon… except, inexplicably, the one path you need to take for this plot quest, which is full of enemies your newbie digimon can take easily. It’s such blatant railroading that I have to ask why even let us step off the beaten path at all?

…So how about the city-building, huh?

You may recall I complained in Re:Digitize that they threw out the lovely hand-drawn slowly-growing city of the original Digimon World for a completely nondynamic city that’s already 100% modeled from the start. Next Order, I think, tries to have its cake and eat it too by combining these two methodologies, and it… doesn’t work great, I don’t think. At the beginning of the game, I was excited to see that the city looked like it did in Digimon World, likely as an intentional reference: The only buildings are Jijimon’s house and the gym placed in an otherwise bare grass field, and new recruits set up crude handmade stalls rather than proper buildings.

Then once you finish the prologue it suddenly looks like this:

Literally overnight, the little town consisting of two buildings in a field is remodeled into a giant city, and yes, those are the same lazy “under construction” dividers from Re:Digitize plonked in front of those entryways, because clearly it was a better idea to make doors to nowhere instead of just using the regular wall texture. (What is the in-universe explanation for this? The digimon are psychic and know they need to make doorways for future non-existent districts?) There is zero physical consistency between the two layouts: Jijimon’s house and the gym were right next to each other before, but have somehow been moved to separate districts; Jijimon’s house itself is in a different location; and even the toilet has somehow moved to the opposite side of Jijimon’s house.

Where did any of this come from??? How did they build all of this literally overnight??? (Yet of course when I ask the builder to improve a single building for me he’s suddenly all “Sorry it’ll take me 24 hours and you have to source the materials yourself.”) The beauty of the city-building in the first game was how it turned from a barren patch of land into a bustling city by inches, so slowly you don’t realize it until it suddenly hits you halfway though the game that, wow, it really is a city now! These designers instead elected to cut out all of the middle stages, because our fancy modern technology just can’t handle something we could accomplish 20 years ago. That’s not even sarcastic; I am certain the reason they did this is because it would take too much time and money to draw the first DW’s modular growth to current graphical standards. These new hyper-realistic graphics units have, ironically, made graphic design worse.

Possibly related to this, they’ve split town-building into two separate mechanics: In addition to recruited digimon unlocking new buildings, you have to upgrade buildings with the builder, which costs time and special resources harvested from the world. Compared to recruitment, this just feels so dull, impersonal, and grindy. You don’t improve your buildings by engaging with the world and story, you improve them by just grinding at the same material sources every day. It’s just tedious and unnecessary.

They also continue the problem I mentioned in Re:Digitize of digimon stage having little correlation with recruitment difficulty, which continues to irk me. The poop digimon demands a boss battle that is difficult even for Megas, yet Mega-level MarineAngemon just requires a fetch quest. An awful lot of digimon are incredibly easy to recruit, actually, requiring only a simple fetch quest or even just talking to them. Their joining the city is also a complete non-sequitor most of the time; after fighting or running an errand for them, they just suddenly decide, apropos of nothing, that they should go to the city with no input from the player character. I guess this is a consequence of making the protagonist silent, which honestly is an odd decision when the PC of the original game wasn’t. I liked watching my avatar actually convince digimon to join the city.

…So how about the pet sim part?

They have studiously refused to learn anything from Re:Digitize and have added even more digimon to the roster, only a minuscule fraction of which you will ever use. I couldn’t even count how many digi-eggs there are this time. I can only assume the goal is meant to be not for a single player to catch ’em all, but simply to provide a variety of options such that each player’s experience is unique. Which I could respect… except they also make the truly baffling decision to gate all the popular mascot digimon behind absurd stat requirements you will only reach in the endgame, and most of the viable digimon are knockoffs and palette swaps. So screw you if you wanted to raise Agumon, you’re getting BlackAgumon and OrangeGrowlmon instead, because that was such a good use of modeling resources over making the city modular. Possibly the idea is to force people to appreciate all the under-used digimon, which I could accept if they were actually interesting designs instead of just crappy palette swaps. In Digimon World the crappy palette swaps were only used to distinguish generic enemy digimon from recruitable ones; why on Earth did they go back on that?

Also like in Re:Digitize, your partners can talk, which on the one hand is consistent with other digimon characters, but just raises the question of why they can’t do all of this on their own. Yes, I know, something something power of friendship, but there are tons of Megas just wandering around so it clearly can’t be that important. If Ultimates and Megas were exceptionally rare in the wild I could buy that humans contribute something meaningful here, but they’re not, so I don’t.

(And, as always, when your partners are fully sapient it raises the awkward question of why they will crap on the floor in front of you instead of finding a toilet on their own. This is doubly awkward when they are a humon with, like, clothes and stuff. Does Angemon take off his pants to crap in front of you? Why is this a question I have to ask, Digimon?)

I also have to admit that having to raise your partner from a baby every time they die is… a really awful mechanic, actually. It just drags the entire game to a halt for several in-game days until you finish grinding them back up to par. What does that add, really? Yes, it’s nice to try out different digimon, but it’s otherwise so at odds with everything else, like actually progressing the game. It doesn’t help that, due to the stat training mechanic, there is basically nothing distinguishing different digimon other than their types. Choosing your digivolutions would feel more meaningful if they had different stat growth/builds like the monster types in Monster Rancher.

I’m not sure how I would fix it, but here are a few ideas:

  1. You could remove the In-Training forms so newborn digimon can start adventuring right out of the egg. However, that’s only a band-aid on the greater problem.
  2. Lean into a dual gameplay experience, where raising a digimon to an adult form is a meaningfully different minigame that’s more involved than just pressing the training button repeatedly, so that it serves as enjoyable downtime between the more intense adventuring phase.
  3. Something roguelike-like where the game is split across multiple “runs” at the end of which your digimon die whether you succeed or fail, so partner death occurs at a mechanically coherent point instead of at random. You could also easily tweak this to make partners die more often so that the player will use more digimon over the course of the game.

Otherwise, they did make a ton of improvements I genuinely like. You have two partners this time, which is good on every level, and you’re given way more opportunities to interact with them. Your digimon will disobey much more often, and will ask for praise after battles and training. This is tied in with another great improvement: You get to see digivolution requirements ahead of time, hallelujah. However, at the start of the game, this information is all hidden; you are rewarded bits of digivolution info piecemeal every time you have one of these interactions with your digimon. This incentivizes you to go out into the world from time to time instead of cloistering yourself in the gym until you hit Mega, which is a good thing. The food system has also been greatly expanded, with non-meat items actually being commonplace now, and an additional mechanic where digimon can have favorite foods that aren’t meat, once again incentivizing you to go out into the world to collect them. Training vegetables are also much easier to obtain, and can be obtained much earlier.

There is also an actual plot, and it’s much better than Re:Digitize‘s but still a terrible fit for an open world. The game basically uses digimon recruitment — you know, the entire premise of the game — as filler to pad out the plot, which is totally divorced from moment-to-moment gameplay. It lurches in fits and starts, with long cutscenes of characters freaking out about apocalyptic stakes followed by “Now go and recruit some digimon while we think about what to do.” So many plot events are “Oh no! This time-sensitive thing is happening, you better fix it quick!” but of course there is never any actual time pressure. If you retry a plot-related battle after losing, it actually replays the entire cutscene as if this is your first time, even though time continues to progress after loss like normal rather than giving you a game over. What on Earth did the writing process look like for this game? Was there no communication with the gameplay department whatsoever? How did no one at any point look at the fact they had to actively work against the grain of the gameplay at every step and think, hey, maybe this is a bad idea?

It’s a shame because the plot is actually pretty good — though there are lots of human characters (bah), the focus is still mostly on the digimon, and the humans’ character arcs actually involved their digimon! The protagonist from the first game also comes back and is a super cool dude with a legitimate excuse for why he can’t solve everything himself this time. All in all it probably would have been a perfectly good story as, like, an anime. It just shouldn’t have been the plot for an open-world citybuilder.

Other good things: I didn’t notice any glitches (though the pathfinding for your partners could have used a bit more work, I think). The battle system has been completely overhauled so that you have much more direct control: You can select specific moves, MP budgets, and targeting from the beginning instead of those things being locked behind high INT stats, and time pauses when you select items so that’s no longer as frantic. You’re shown the general strength level of wild digimon on the map so you don’t accidentally run into a fight that’s way out of your league. The gym has been compressed into a single interaction point for all training; I am disappointed we lost some of the unique flavor of each training device, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make for the sake of making training go faster. You are also given a bed and toilet right next to the training machines, so you never have to leave the gym until you’re actually done with training.

If they had just rereleased the original Digimon World with these improvements, I think I would have been happy. But they just couldn’t stop there; they had to keep piling on more and more modernizations until they crushed it under its own weight. I do not want a fully rotational over-the-shoulder camera. I do not want my eyeballs to be assaulted by particle effects everywhere I look. I don’t even want all these hyper-smooth 3D models that doubtlessly took up far too much of the game’s time and budget. The first Digimon World proved there’s a solid core here, but all these bells and whistles serve only to distract from it.

Admittedly, I suspect a big part of the problem is that a lot of the things I liked about the original Digimon World were accidents. I doubt anyone on the design team actually said, “We shouldn’t explain any of the mechanics to the player so that it becomes like a puzzle,” if for no other reason than because on paper that sounds like insanely bad design. I doubt anyone on the art team said, “It’s good we’re limited to hand-drawn art for the backgrounds, a fully 3D environment would be terrible.” I doubt any of the writers said, “It’s a good thing we have no room for an overarching plot because that way nothing gets in the way of the player directing their own experience.” I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Next Order is exactly what the developers wanted the original Digimon World to be. It’s just a shame it’s not what I wanted it to be. It was in their mistakes and limitations that they accidentally created something fascinating, and so nothing they do intentionally can replicate it.

One Comment

  1. Seed of Bismuth says:

    ” ugh. Please stop tacking online multiplayer onto everything, industry”
    But how could they sell player data to the highest bidder then, St. Elmo’s Fire.

    “These new hyper-realistic graphics units have, ironically, made graphic design worse.”
    I said the same thing 10 years ago, hence why most games i buy now are ps2 or indies

    “It was in their mistakes and limitations that they accidentally created something fascinating”
    yep, it been my experience that 9 times out of 10, the entertainment i really love was an utter accident by the creator/s.

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