The World Ends With You is a one-of-a-kind flawed masterpiece, and its incredible qualities are more than enough to explain the passionate cult that surrounds it
For companies like Square Enix – which are sitting on top of a considerable number of franchises that, if used, will most likely bring in huge amounts of profit and attention regardless of the level of quality achieved by the fresh entries – recycling and retreading, with a few added twists, is always the easy way out. All the developing team needs to do is to use most features and characteristics that make those critically acclaimed series amazing and transport them to a game that will present a new world, a different group of enemies, a handful of new characters, and a nice storyline. The result, more often than not, will be a great package that unfortunately will contribute neither to the growth of the industry nor to the development of a genre.
The true challenge behind the developing process is taking the risk to create something so new and authentic that even people who are supporting the project will occasionally have doubts regarding its success. And when Square Enix, a company that is often criticized for overly exhausting its key properties, is willing to take such a leap, chances are, given their track record in creating signature franchises, fans all over the world will hold high hopes and expect to be amazed. The World Ends With You is one of those treasures: a game overflowing with original daring ideas, backed by a team of respected developers, and that, instead of stumbling on its boldness, uses it match the level of quality one would expect from such a combination.
The game takes place in Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s wards and a place filled with many young people, where big brands and fashion centers are the most popular subjects among the local dwellers. The hip and youthful vibe exhaled by Shibuya is not limited to its concept as a setting; it actually permeates the whole game, from its character and scenario design to numerous gameplay mechanics, making all of the parts that form The World Ends With You come together under an urban, street-smart, fashionable, young, and highly stylized umbrella.
It is in this vivid and vibrating place where we first encounter the main character of the story. Neku Sakuraba is a teenager that initially carries the mopey and moody attitude that often serve as a caricature for people around his age, something that will unquestionably turn some people away from the character, as he rejects both the world around him and the people who live in it with a nonchalant attitude. Thankfully, though, it is worthy to point out that – as a game underlined by great writing and character development – The World Ends With You makes Neku evolve considerably past his initial stubborn indifference.
Neku wakes up in the main area of the district unable to remember anything about his life besides his own name and a couple of minor details. He has no idea how he got there; however, a few minutes later, his whole world changes dramatically, and is given purpose, when he discovers that he is part of a game controlled by The Reapers – a mysterious organization – where, in order to survive, players have to accomplish each one of the missions that are received via a cell phone on a daily basis during an entire week. Failing on a mission will lead to erasure.
In The Reapers’ game, survival requires that players team up in duos. Neku quickly meets a young girl named Shiki and both of them form a partnership despite the fact that Neku somehow refuses to befriend anyone. The World Ends With You is smart in initially disclosing very little of its plot and universe, for nothing about the nature of the game, the Reapers, and the players is revealed at first; all Neku and his friends know is that they must play the game or face erasure, leaving numerous mysteries to be unveiled as the story progresses.
Therefore, questions like: “Who are the Reapers?”, “What is the game’s goal?”, “Who is Neku?”, and “What is the backstory of the characters that Neku encounters?” will be constantly hovering over players’ heads as they progress through the game. The storyline, then, is extremely compelling, because getting to the bottom of the mysteries the game presents as soon as it kicks off will be one of the main reasons gamers will not be able to put The World Ends With You down.
To avoid erasure, Neku and his partner will have to advance through Shibuya to solve the given missions. Most tasks are pretty straightforward, as players will be battling their way to certain locations until they reach a big bad boss. However, a few of them require some investigation and exploration, which, unfortunately, could have been implemented slightly better, as The World Ends With You is sometimes stuck in JRPG mannerisms, such as giving players the solution to posed puzzles and leading them towards a restricted path. Consequently, in certain occasions, gamers will feel like they are simply moving from one place to another while fighting enemies, making the adventure feel awfully linear.
The implemented battle system is one of the highlights of the game. Players who dislike random enemy encounters will be glad to know that they will only face enemies in Shibuya when they want to. This is accomplished by using the player pin, which is displayed on the screen as an icon. By touching it with the stylus, Neku will use his senses to scan the area where he is located. When he does so, he will be able to read the minds of people who are nearby – except for those of other players – and also locate the so-called noise, which are the game’s enemies. Touch the noise icon, and battle will ensue.
In battle, Neku will take the bottom screen while his partner will fight on the top one. To succeed, players will have to control both of the characters. In the beginning, fumbling with the controls will be commonplace, since fighting on two screens at the same time can be confusing at first. After a few missions, though, gamers will naturally climb the learning curve and be able to smoothly perform movements with the two characters. For those who are not able to master the dual battles, though, there is an option that allows the CPU to take control of Neku’s partner automatically.
Both of the characters have distinct battle controls. Neku uses different pins for attacks, each one of them having a different function, such as sending bullets towards the noise, generating an earthquake, or dragging objects on the screen to attack the enemies. There is an endless variety of moves and all of them are activated by different actions executed with the stylus, such as tapping the enemies, slashing Neku, or scratching the ground. Sometimes, though, the system will not identify those actions properly, causing the character to perform the incorrect move or no attack at all, which can be frustrating.
Another minor flaw, which is partially inherent to the moves’ implementations, is that when players equip two pins that are activated by the same action, the game will randomly choose one of them to use first, and Neku will only be able to trigger the other attack once the first pin has already been used to its limit and is recharging its power for another go.
Meanwhile, Neku’s partner faces the same enemies on the top screen, attacking them with moves initiated by pressing one of the D-pad’s directions. Once players choose one of them, a combination of arrows will appear on the screen, and by following them correctly the character will land a combo. By successfully performing many combos, players will activate the fusion move, which is a powerful attack performed by the duo that will heavily harm the enemies and recover a little bit of the team’s health.
Another noteworthy detail regarding the battle system is a green puck of light that is passed between the pair. Whenever a combo is landed, one character will send it to their partner. Such an action will temporally increase the attack power of the character that currently holds the puck, and by keeping the cooperative combo going the puck’s energy will grow, increasing the attack boost that is gained.
The battle system is great and it creates some truly memorable action-packed battles that will have players on the edge of their seats. Although it has some minor setbacks that could have been fixed, the overall results are battles that are very original and, most importantly, a lot of fun, a fact that greatly alleviates the game’s somewhat lackluster mission design. As it happens in most RPGs, after the battle, characters will receive EXP points and their level will rise, improving a few stats automatically.
Also following the genre’s tradition is how in The World Ends With You characters should be well-equipped to conquer the challenges they face, but in the modern Shibuya there are neither swords nor iron armor. Instead, players will find various stores that sell clothes from numerous brands.
One of the most interesting aspects of the game is the fact that brand charts rule Shibuya. Most of the pins and all clothes acquired during the adventure belong to a certain brand and if that brand is in the top 3 of the current chart, character stats will gain a very good boost – especially if the brand is on top of the chart; conversely, if the brand is the least popular in the area, stats will be halved. So tracking the state of the chart is a must to achieve success, and the feature forces player into expanding their array of clothes and pins rather than staying in the comfort zone of a chosen equipment set.
The bustling and active nature brought in by the brand charts is complemented by The World Ends With You’s soundtrack and presentation, which are absolutely astonishing. Everything here transpires originality, from the graphics to the stylish menus and the rock, hip hop, and electronic songs. The different locations of Shibuya are close to perfect reproductions of the actual place and when playing the game it is possible to feel how alive that corner of Japan is. The character models are very nice and the storyline is shown via text boxes, with a few impressive cutscenes appearing during some key moments of the plot.
The sole issue plaguing the game’s presentation is the lack of a map. During most missions, Neku has to visit certain locations, but since the overworld is somewhat big, sometimes it is easy to get lost while looking for the characters’ destination. Still, a map is nowhere to be found, and a few players will certainly struggle to remember the path they need to take to get to some places.
The World Ends With You, despite the narrowness of its general gameplay, manages to have decent replay value because during the first playthrough – which should last between ten and fifteen hours – players will discover satisfying and unexpected solutions to the questions posed by the plot. However, curiosity about some details of the script and of obscure characters will motivate many to replay the game, since some pieces of information can only be acquired by playing it once again.
The World Ends With You ends up being a game that is as original as an RPG created by Square Enix can be. It may have its share of problems, coming from both the JRPG traditions it sometimes tends to follow and the bold moves it performs to bring new fantastic elements to the table and take full advantage of the Nintendo DS’ hardware, but none of them will make gamers forget about how big of an accomplishment the game is truly is. Because, as it turns out, adventures with such perfect storytelling and refreshing gameplay do not appear as often as they should. The World Ends With You is a one-of-a-kind flawed masterpiece, and its incredible plot twists, thrilling battles, and unique setting are more than enough to explain the passionate cult that surrounds it.