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
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).
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.