The Digimon series has always been somewhat in the shadow of its rival Pokémon. Kids were quick to consider it a clone back in the day, but while the animated Pokémon series felt a bit cheap the Digimon version impressed with reasonably high production values and decent story development, even if that intro song suggested something else. But Pokémon won the day, not just because it was there first, but also because of the superior quality of the games. There's a reason why Digimon went away in these parts, while Pokémon continued to do well.
As so it was with great interest that we saw Bandai Namco bring Digimon back with Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth, and it was well received by fans and reviewers. A surprisingly good game. At least it appeared to be a great foundation to build on. This is also the reason why Hacker's Memory disappoints. Not that it's a poor game, far from it, but it continues to work on the foundations, rather than commencing with the construction of the actual house.
The story of Hacker's Memory runs in parallel with the events of the first Cyber Sleuth. It's an approach that can be used to tell untold perspectives on already known events, but it's also a somewhat dangerous approach. While fans of the first game will appreciate familiar faces that briefly appear, new players will likely feel a bit lost. Thankfully, we were in the know, but it's clear that Hacker's Memory has been created primarily with the fans of the first game in mind.
This is obvious from the start as the game struggles to really introduce you to its various elements. Sure there are hints in text boxes, but as the systems are similar to ones we already know it seems the developer felt it wasn't necessary to ease us into them once more. Thankfully this also means that the evolution of your Digimon and the turn-based combat is kept as fans know it, with the addition of 100 new monsters. There's a pure joy to be found in grinding up all of your Digimon into massive monsters, and you quickly get into the groove of playing to evolve your monsters rather than progressing the narrative.
This is a result of the story being a bit bland. You play as Keisuke, an NPC who for some strange reason has been given the leading role. He's not just a completely blank canvas, which serves as a means to introduce players to various elements of the world, but it's also difficult to figure out what he's good for. He is referred to as a hacker, but he doesn't know what Digimon are. He is popular, yet does nothing except ask questions and act surprised. He's that sort of silent and passive protagonist that we've seen in many other games, but unlike other games where dialogue and a great supporting cast (such as in Persona 5) makes up for it, here Keisuke is left to his own devices resulting in a story that fails to engage.
As it turns out this is more of an expansion. If you've missed the gameplay, you can return and find more of the same here, but if you're new to the series we'd recommend you start with Cyber Sleuth. Hacker's Memory does, however, add Dominion Battles, which add a chess-inspired element to the combat. As you face another group of hackers, you will battle over an area where you can move your characters two tiles at a time. When you stand on a tile it belongs to you, until the enemy has stepped on it. If you enter a field where an enemy awaits, you'll do battle. It's simple, but a nice little addition, and hopefully we'll see more of these kinds of advancements in a possible Cyber Sleuth 2.
Until that time we'll have to make do with a generous expansion. Now that Media Vision has spent two games putting the foundations in place, we'd like to see something beyond that for Digimon to truly go up against Pokémon, because Hacker's Memory won't win any new fans.