Game: The World Ends With You
Platform: Nintendo DS
Square Enix is a legendary and prolific publisher of some of the most renowned role-playing games in the history of video games. However, one thing they’re not especially famous for is straying too far from the classic JRPG formula that has been a trademark of their games since the first Final Fantasy hit NES consoles in 1987. It’s not a company that necessarily needs to take risks, as releasing (or re-releasing) any game with the words Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest on it will automatically make them boatloads of cash.
However, Squenix did decide to take a chance with The World Ends With You, a new IP for the Nintendo DS. The game steps away from the classic and safe JRPG norm, and the result is a game unlike any I’ve ever played before. Square Enix took a lot of risks with this game, and luckily, they paid off. As a result, I spent a good 15-20 hours totally captivated by The World Ends With You.
Instead of the usual generic fantasy world, The World Ends With You is set in modern-day Tokyo, and is directly influenced by the music, fashion, and art of that region. Personally, I’m glad that Squenix decided to keep the game’s setting the same for the American version, unlike some localizations (Phoenix Wright, for example) that don’t do a great job pretending to be set in the U.S. The modern setting and catchy J-Pop soundtrack just add to the unique experience that this game brings to the table.
The game is translated very well, which is even more impressive given the amount of American slang and pop culture references used in the game. I was actually pretty impressed with the game’s written dialogue. The main characters are all teenagers, and speak like normal American teens would, for the most part. Unlike some games that use embarrassing, outdated jargon, The World Ends With You manages to nail it. Sure, sometimes Beat sounds like an idiot when he’s talking, but in a way that actual teenagers often do when trying to sound cool.
The World Ends With You features Neku, a fifteen-year-old loner who wakes up one day in Shibuya, a section of Tokyo known for its nightlife, fashion, and popularity among young people. However, no one else can see or hear him. He soon finds out that he has died, and that he is in UG (underground) Shibuya, a place where the dead sometimes end up playing a seven-day-long Game. Win the Game, and life is restored. Lose, and face permanent erasure. Along his quest (which will actually last longer than 7 days), Neku partners up with several other recently-deceased teens to fight the evil forces of the UG and try to make it back to the RG (real ground), or back to life.
If you don’t think this sounds too different from other RPGs yet, this is where things get strange. First of all, battles on the DS take place on both screens. Your partner fights on the top screen, while you fight on the bottom. All of your attacks are mapped to different collectable pins and are activated in different ways, usually by stylus but occasionally by use of the DS’s microphone. As the player, you have the choice of setting your partner to auto-play, or controlling both top and bottom screens, which is, quite frankly, nuts. The top screen attacks are controlled by the D-pad (or right-side buttons, if you’re a lefty like me), so if you choose not to use auto-play, you’ll be simultaneously scrawling all over the bottom screen with the stylus while mashing buttons like crazy.
In addition to taking out the Noise (what the foes are referred to in the UG), fashion plays a big part in The World Ends With You. The attack pins Neku equips will often have brand names, and different brands are popular in different sections of Shibuya. Wear a pin with a fashionable brand, and its attack power will rise. Wear one that’s not in style, and its power will be reduced. However, Neku and his partner can influence fashion trends with the clothes they wear in the UG, so buying clothes and being aware of what’s in vogue is an important part of the game.
Story is an important part of any role-playing game, and The World Ends With You doesn’t slack on the narrative. At its core, Neku’s tale probably sounds typical: after his memories have been removed (yes, an amnesiac protagonist in an RPG, what a surprise), he is forced to team up with people he’d rather not know to survive. However, along the way he forges some very important friendships and discovers what living life to the fullest is really all about. Despite the seemingly-cliché plot, the game is actually quite substantial and has many touching moments. I really liked the parallels between the UG and the RG, as well as the rules of the Game created in The World Ends With You.
Not everything works as well as it should, though. In particular, fighting on both DS screens is not the ideal way to progress in the game. By attempting to fight using two different combat systems, you can’t really give either your full attention. I attempted to use both Neku and his partner at the same time, but found that I wasn’t really getting anywhere. I put the top screen on auto early on and instead focused on using Neku and his pins in the most productive way possible. I did love Neku’s combat system, but there was a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I was not fully playing the game by not using both screens.
The last few hours of the game also get a little repetitive. For reasons I won’t go into so as to not spoil anything, you’ll be forced to do the same battles over and over again just to get around Shibuya, along with the same accompanying dialogue. The actual fights aren’t so bad, as they help you level up and net you tons of items, but when you’re trying to progress the story and have to read the same conversation every time to go to a new location, it gets a little tedious.
The World Ends With You is definitely not a game for everyone. It takes chances, it’s bizarre, it’s different, and it’s difficult to even explain. However, it’s also one of the best new RPG experiences I’ve had in the last few years. Even though I love traditional JPRGs, it was really refreshing to play something as new and unique as this game. Its few flaws are easy to overlook, because The World Ends With You does so much right. This is definitely a game that most DS owners will want to have in their collections.