Observer's Notes

The ideas of a thoughtful college student (Updated Whenever)

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    I'm Brian. This is my blog. I write about things that I think about, since verbalizing it helps me put things in more concrete terms. So here you'll find my occasional thoughts.
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Archive for June, 2008

Review of "The World Ends With You"

Posted by Brian on June 28, 2008

Role-playing games are stuck in a rut. That’s a hard truth for an RPG-lover such as myself to accept, but unfortunately it’s true. For some reason, game developers are fixated on the conception that RPGs have to be set in a fantastic medieval world and focus around a silent sword-wielding hero who uses his magical powers to fulfill an ancient prophecy. For some games, this works; the two Golden Sun games did it beautifully and still remain two of my favorite games, and of course The Legend of Zelda still remains fun. But for many, many others it’s a tired formula that developers stick to because people keep buying it.

That’s why it’s so nice to see Square Enix, one of the worst offenders, put out a game as fresh and innovative as The World Ends With You. This game truly shakes off a vast majority of the old RPG stereotypes, and uses those it does retain in new ways that just plain work. I can guarantee that you’ve never seen anything quite like this game, and probably won’t again for quite a long time.

The World Ends With You throws you into the role of Neku, an antisocial and asshole-ish teenager who wakes up mysteriously in the middle of the Shibuya district of Tokyo. Not that unusual…until he realizes that even though he can see and hear everyone in Shibuya, no one in Shibuya can see or hear him. Neku soon learns that he’s been thrown into the Reapers’ Game, a sadistic challenge with very high stakes: “fail, and face erasure.”

I start with this category because it’s the most basic. The World Ends With You uses a simple graphical scheme: 2D character sprites, art-based story sequences with very little animation, and an isometric camera angle.

That’s not to say, though, that the game isn’t absolutely gorgeous. The backgrounds have unique scrolling effect as your character moves about the screen, that really has to be seen to be understood. The character art is well-done as well. Now, normally I’m not a fan of the dramatic and zipper-laden character designs of Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts, and The World Ends With You does feature similar character art. But part of what annoyed me about those character designs was that they made no sense in context of a medieval setting. They make more sense set in the fashion-obsessed Shibuya district, and even come off as believable.

Neku and Joshua
Neku and Joshua

In terms of audio, the game boasts one of the strongest soundtracks on a handheld game. Where most RPGs pack in dramatic, violin-led instrumental pieces specific to locations, The World Ends With You features a full soundtrack of catchy J-rock tunes. And rather than have one song or theme specific to each location, the game changes songs randomly every so often as you’re changing areas. Though normally not a fan of J-Rock, I found myself hitting YouTube more than a couple times looking for certain songs that were stuck  in my head. Square Enix also added in significant voice work, mostly during combat. Neku and his partner will talk to each other during fights, be it in the form of voicing frustration when things turn ugly or a satisfied bit of bragging at the end of a successful battle. Spoken dialogue in story sequences is reserved for only the most dramatic moments, with the rest being text and animation-based with the occasional voice effect. Overall, it works very well.

A strong storyline is an important part of the RPG genre. Never let anyone tell you differently. An RPG without a compelling story leaves its players with no motivation to advance through the game. Thankfully, this is not a problem you will experience while playing The World Ends With You. At several points, I found myself having to put down the game for a while because the story was compelling me to move TOO quickly through the main game (I like my games to last).

I won’t give away much more than I said above about the story, so let’s just suffice it to say that there are several “Oh, SNAP!” (which then progress to “OH SHIT!” and finally “…no way…”) moments that always leave you wanting to know what happens next. The writing very rarely feels forced, probably because the modern setting left the writers free to use modern language and slang, and the result is fluid and believable dialogue. At times, it can even be quite witty. It’s a nice change from the forced medieval dialogue in other RPGs.

But the bottom line is that good storytelling is something a game either has or doesn’t, and The World Ends With You has it. James played for 20 minutes and lost interest. His loss. =)

I saved this category for last because it’s where The World Ends With You truly shines. In some RPGs, a very compelling story can make up for lackluster gameplay; players will keep going through the monotonous game to see the end of the amazing story.

The World Ends With You suffers no such problem.

The most innovative part of this game is the combat system. Here’s a twist: you control two separate characters on two separate screens with two separate control schemes in real time. While trying to balance several other factors. Sound fun yet? Don’t worry, it’s not as complicated as it sounds.

The battle system consists of Neku on the bottom screen and his partner du jour on the top screen. The two of them share a life bar which spans both screens. When this life bar is depleted, both characters die and it’s game over for you. The enemies in The World Ends With You are called Noise, and come in many different shapes and sizes. Each Noise in battle exists on both the top and bottom screens. Erase a Noise on one screen, it’s erased on the other as well (which makes combat significantly easier).

Cross Stride Battle System
The Cross-Stride Battle System

Neku attacks via “pins,” which grant Neku touch-controlled combat powers (a select few are also activated by microphone input). There are over 300 pins in the game, with many different control mechanisms. One pin may require you to slash across an enemy with your stylus to make Neku move in and attack, while another may be activated by tapping an empty space on the screen to fire an energy bullet. Each pin has a gauge of how much it can be used in battle, and when that gauge is emptied the pin will take a few seconds to “reboot,” then it’s good to go all over again. Neku starts the game being able to wear three pins, but by the end can equip up to six. The only drawback I’ve found to this is that many of pins have the same touch command, so trying to equip two pins with the same command will result in you not being able to control which pin Neku uses. Square Enix was aware of this problem, so if you want to equip two such pins, you can set one to be a “subslot” pin. Holding L or R during battle will toggle between your “subslot” and regular pins, giving you more control over your pins. The game still sometimes confuses which command you want to use, but it doesn’t happen enough to be bothersome.

Neku’s partner on the top screen attacks via the D-pad (or ABXY for lefties). By performing certain tasks on the top screen with your partner, you can earn “Fusion Stars.” Earn enough Fusion Stars and Neku and his partner will perform a joint attack for major damage to all enemies. There are three partners in the game, which are switched by storyline events. Each partner has a unique method of earning Fusion Stars, ranging from matching card suits to playing a simple guessing/memory game while attacking. Your partners’ differences in style keep the combat system from getting stale halfway through the game; you’ll have to learn to use each partner to his or her fullest potential in order to be successful.

It’s very intimidating at first, but the game eases you into all the mechanics pretty gently. Plus you’re not expected to focus on both screens at once. The first time one of your characters lands a combo finisher, a green “light puck” will appear and pass to the other character. When that character finishes a combo, the puck passes back, and so on. The more you volley the puck, the stronger your finishers become. The game advises you early on to focus on the screen with the puck, and that’s a pretty winning strategy. Some late-story enemies can only be hurt by the character with the puck. Of course, against many bosses this goes right out the window, but that’s another story.

And if it just gets to be too much, there are several options to tailor the difficulty to suit. You can set the battles to Easy, Normal or Hard settings at any point during the game, and also set whether your partner should be controlled by AI after a certain amount of time. The game also lets you adjust your characters’ level; setting yourself to a level below your maximum increases the frequency and quality of prizes in battle. So if you’re looking to just get the through the story you can set the difficulty to easy and let the AI control your partner. But if you’re looking for a challenge, set it to Hard, turn off the AI and keep your characters at Level 1. But be warned: you’ll be in for a real hard game.

The World Ends With You also has a pretty serious case of featureitis. The clothing system borders somewhere between OCD and anal retentive, with each article falling into one of 13 brand names. As you travel Shibuya, certain brands will fall in and out of fashion, which can at best double your attack power but at worst half it. Additionally, as you buy more and more from certain shops, the shopkeepers will grow to like you and reveal new items for sale and add abilities to the items you own. There’s a marbles-like minigame; a Mingle Mode which picks up any DS in wireless mode and gives you experience while they’re in range; the ability to change the menu music; and a whole host of others. I could go on for pages, but just know that there are more customizable options in this game than in just about any other, and all of them make for a more fulfilling experience.

This is one of the best RPGs to come out in a long time. My only regret is that it wasn’t longer (though there is a significant post-game quest). That’s the only reason I don’t give this game a perfect score. But otherwise: great story, great battle mechanics, great options and features. Square Enix broke a lot of boundaries with The World Ends With You, and made a smash hit out of it. I highly recommend this game to any fan of RPGs. This is the kind of game that doesn’t come along very often, and one that’s probably going to get passed up by a lot of people for not having a franchise label. It’s a shame, really. Few games are as progressive as this one, and should be celebrated more.



Posted in Nintendo, Technology, Video Games | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

My Cheat Sheet

Posted by Brian on June 10, 2008

I am officially done with high school. It’s been four years, and they’ve all been incredible. Obviously with the passing of such an important part of my life, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my experiences. I had a lot of trouble deciding what to write for this blog, because I just couldn’t find a good way to summarize my high school experience. The person I am today is significantly different than the person I was four years ago. I don’t think you can explain something like that in one entry on a web site, no matter how good a writer you are.

But there is one very tangible thing I’ve taken away from Gresham High School: knowledge. I’m not talking about history or math or science. I firmly believe that the most lesson of high school is how to function in real life. There are so many things that I learned in high school that weren’t taught in a classroom. So I decided that the beset way to reflect on my high school experience would be to make a written record of those lessons. They’re the most important ones I’ll ever learn.

1. People are always more important
This is definitely the most important lesson I learned. I know that because it’s the one I mostly frequently violated, so I saw all the consequences. Honestly, I owe 100% of this lesson to IB. There were times I was so busy that I felt like I didn’t have time to maintain healthy friendships. Because like a lot of important things in life, personal relationships take a lot of work to maintain. And as I explained in previous entries, when I felt that stressed out I pushed away everyone around me.

But the core of what I learned is that life is almost impossible without at least a few close friends. Those same times when I felt so busy were also the times when I most desperately needed my friends. When you’re stressed out, irritable, worried and tired, a solid support network is the most helpful thing in the world. Life is just too hard to handle alone.

Because at the end of the day, having scads of money won’t make you happy. A fast sports car might be exciting for the couple months a year you can drive it, but it won’t lend any lasting meaning to your life. I know it sounds corny, but it’s true. Useful though it may be, my full IB diploma is not going to be the key to my future happiness. It’s going to be people. So to everyone who made me more important than studying or sports, thank you.

2. Never surrender
Again, IB taught me this one. You’d think with all these things, IB is a great program. But it really taught me a lot of things in a tough way; similar to how you learn not to walk under pianos when a piano falls on your head. IB was just so damn hard that it forces you to be better. When things get that hard, it’s very easy to throw in the towel and say, “It cannot be done.”

I was very tempted to do that, more than a few times. My CAS hours come to mind. When I hit March and realized that I had done 0 of the required 50 volunteer hours, I was tempted to call it impossible and just give up. Thankfully, a few key people discouraged me from taking that route. Part of what I learned throughout high school is that impossible situations are rarely impossible; they just require you to go above and beyond what you think you’re capable of. As it turns out, we almost always underestimate just how amazing we can be. George Eliot once wrote that “necessity does the work of courage.”

You never know what you’re capable of until you’re asked to give everything you’ve got. I could have given up on my IB diploma, but I didn’t, and I’m better off for it. It’s always easier to give up than to try harder. Giving up, you have a 0% chance of success. At least when you try, you have a shot. So to everyone who pushed me when I didn’t push myself, thank you.

3. Forgive
Everybody likes to quote the phrase “To err is human.” It seems like not a lot of people remember that there’s actually a second part to that particularly axiom: “to err is human, but to forgive is divine.” That’s one of my favorite expressions. I can’t say I learned this particular lesson first-hand. Rather, it was more like second-hand. I learned just how amazing a gift forgiveness can be when it was given to me, especially when I thought I didn’t deserve it.

If you’re ever looking for a way to kill a friendship, holding a grudge would definitely be a good option. There are always two choices: forgive a person, or stay angry. Staying angry doesn’t accomplish anything, and only serves to make everyone feel worse. You only get angrier and angrier the more you think about it, and the person you’re mad at just feels worse and worse the angrier you get; forgiveness, on the other hand, brings positive feelings. I’m not saying you should act as if they did nothing wrong. But I am saying that mistakes serious to warrant completely alienating a person are once in a lifetime (if even that much).

I definitely wouldn’t be close to any of the people I’m close to today if they hadn’t forgiven me something during our relationship. For that, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. So to everyone who forgave me when it would have been easier to stay angry, thank you.

4. Don’t be someone else
This is a very close second for the “most important” award. I’m quite fond of how Dr. Seuss phrased it: “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” Dr. Seuss is honestly one of the most intelligent people ever. He hit the nail on the head with this bit of wisdom: there’s no sense in not being yourself.

The way I see it, being yourself weeds out the people in life that you don’t really want around you. The people who love you for who you are also happen to be the people who will stand by you when things take a turn for the worst. They’re the ones who will forgive you when you make a mistake. They’re the ones who will put you first. In my experience, the ones who don’t appreciate you for who you really are end up being the ones who head for the hills at the first sign of trouble. Then you end up alone, right when you most need the support of others. Also, when you try to be someone that you’re not, it’s very easy to become someone you don’t want to be. There were a few times over the last 4 years when I’ve tried to impress a particular person or group by acting differently than I would have had I just been myself. 100% of the time when that happened, I ended up doing something I later regretted.

There have been so many people throughout the years who have genuinely liked me for me. It’s reassuring. Words cannot describe the effect that’s had on me and my self-confidence. So to everyone who saw through the cynicism and sarcasm, and appreciated me for who I really am, I cannot thank you enough.


And of course, there are so many more I could write about. Now I know what you’re thinking: “Brian, did you actually accomplish anything by writing this? I already knew all this stuff.” Well, so did I. But knowing that these things should be true doesn’t mean that these things will be true. Just as I sometimes forget what year Hitler seized power in Germany, I will almost definitely forget these lessons sometime in the near future. It’s human nature that the moments when these lessons are most relevant are also the moments when they will be the last things on our minds.

It’s easy to sit and write about these ideals in front of a computer, with nothing happening to make me apply these principles. No, the exam for these lessons will be much more unexpected, and much more difficult. I know I haven’t imparted any unique wisdom (everyone learns these things), nor have I created a particularly stunning piece of writing. But what I hope I have created is a gentle reminder. A “cheat sheet,” something I can look back on somewhere down the line and remember that this is how I want to live my life. I know I will screw up. We all will. I just want this to help me screw up a little bit less.

Posted in Education, Friends, Life, Time | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Filler Blog: 18 Rules for Living

Posted by Brian on June 8, 2008

There’s a graduation blog forthcoming, I promise. It’s just taking me much longer than usual to write. It’s turning out to be one of my favorite pieces I’ve written though. In the meantime, I stumbled across the Dalai Lama’s 18 rules for living today. I think they’re absolutely brilliant, so I thought I’d share them with you here:

  1. Take into account that great love and great achievements involve great risk.
  2. When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.
  3. Follow the three Rs:
    1. Respect for self
    2. Respect for others
    3. Responsibility for all your actions.
  4. Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.
  5. Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.
  6. Don’t let a little dispute injure a great friendship.
  7. When you realize you’ve made a mistake, take immediate steps to correct it.
  8. Spend some time alone every day.
  9. Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.
  10. Remember that silence is sometimes the best answer.
  11. Live a good, honourable life. Then when you get older and think back, you’ll be able to enjoy it a second time.
  12. A loving atmosphere in your home is the foundation for your life.
  13. In disagreements with loved ones, deal only with the current situation. Don’t bring up the past.
  14. Share your knowledge. It’s a way to achieve immortality.
  15. Be gentle with the earth.
  16. Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.
  17. Remember that the best relationship is one in which your love for each other exceeds your need for each other.
  18. Judge your success by what you had to give up in order to get it.

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