The World Ends With You Review
RPG heavyweight Square Enix has released their latest loot collecting, stat-boosting, level-grinding game with little hype or pre-release buzz. The Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts creators’ The World Ends with You recently snuck onto retail shelves unbeknownst to most gamers—save for Square Enix’s hardcore fanboy following. Despite its under-the-radar release, TWEWY is positioned to make quite a splash in the overcrowded, fantasy-focused genre. It should, in part, distance itself from the sword-and-potion pack simply because it isn’t set in the fictional medieval worlds of most RPGs. But aside from bucking the usual trend, it also deserves attention for its deep mechanics, inventive gameplay and innovative use of the Nintendo DS’s stylus-based control scheme. But more on all that in a minute; TWEWY ’s bizarre story, crazy characters and overall wackiness demand some explanation.
As we’ve pointed out, you won’t find any magic or mana here; TWEWY is a fairly traditional RPG at its core, but we guarantee you’ve never played anything like it. Set in modern-day Tokyo, specifically the pop-culture-defining Shibuya shopping district, players control Neku. Sporting baggy shorts, spiky hair, oversized sneakers—he could easily pass for a sibling of Sora from Kingdom Hearts—and an angsty attitude, he’s unquestionably a product of Square Enix’s self-important-character creators. Playing as the pissy teen (he does become more likable a few hours in) you’ll embark on a battle-heavy quest that pits you against the Reapers; these creeps control a twisted alternate-world-set game where players must complete tasks in order to avoid erasure. Getting erased means you’re as good as dead, but successfully finishing seven Reaper-assigned challenges in as many days will get you through the quest nearly unscathed.
Sporting colorful anime-inspired visuals, most reminiscent of the Jet Set Radio titles, and hooky Japanese pop tunes, TWEWY oozes with out-of-this-world style that’s right in tune with its wild story. In fact, everything in the game supports this out-there approach with a near crazed conviction—a quest might see you helping a roadie fix the stage lights of a concert venue, bad guys include shady characters in red hoodies, NPC friends include street-savvy punks with names like "Beat" and "Rhyme", and gamers gain stats from eating ramen and wearing trendy clothing. Additionally, most battles are against frogs, wolves, bats, pigs and other demented animals dubbed "noise." Somehow, this bizzaro presentation works, and is superbly complemented by TWEWY’s creative combat system.
Real-time fights unfold on both the DS’s screens; the bottom display hosts Neku, who’s totally controlled by the stylus, while the top screen sports the fighting finesse of your cutie-in-crime Shiki, whose moves are executed by matching directional prompts with the D-pad. Battles take place simultaneously on both screens, as Neku and Shiki face-off against the same enemies—kill something up top and you won’t have to worry about it on the bottom, and vice versa. The thing is—and this where TWEWY falters a bit—controlling two characters at once can be mind-melting, as your fingers and eyes frantically try to keep up with the dual-screen action. There’s an option to put Shiki on auto-control, and we found this generally made for a more rewarding experience. You’ll lose out on some character-growing rewards playing this way, but you’ll also retain your sanity. Plus, focusing on Neku offers the opportunity to really master his skills and build a successful noise-silencing strategy.
Neku gains his powers and abilities through collectible pins—like the type a goth kid might pick up at the Hot Topic and stick to his black hoodie—he wears, upgrades and trades for yen. These battle badges unleash various elemental powers like fire and ice, but can also shoot bullet-like projectiles, move objects through telekinesis and allow Neku to hack and slash. The game boasts 300 types of these powerful pins, and mixing and matching them to build the best strategy is the game’s addictive draw. A crowded battlefield could see you laying down fiery trails to burn through some foes on the ground, while you conjure an erupting iceberg to take out some winged threats. Each pin also has a reboot timer, so once you’ve depleted its energy you’ll need to wait for it to recharge. Between choosing, upgrading and strategically using these badges, you’ll discover endless depth in TWEWY’s combat. And this is without even taking your top-screen little helper into consideration; whether you control her, or let the AI pick up the slack, Shiki slathers even more depth over this incredibly rich system. Through an upper-screen card-matching mini-game, Neku and Shiki can access powerful attacks that deal damage to every on-screen enemy. Additionally, a green puck-like orb gets passed from screen to screen allowing them to chain attack-boosting combos.
As layered as all this is, the controls occasionally short-change the experience. We’ve already touched on the potential frustration of controlling both characters simultaneously, but even just tapping, dragging and slashing the stylus as Neku, you’ll sometimes fall victim to imprecise stylus inputs. There’s a lot going on—selecting pins, using their powers and controlling Neku—so you’re consistently moving the stylus as though your hand’s on fire. Mistakes are expected, and generally don’t sap the fun, but you’ll occasionally be reminded how much better this would all play out with a gamepad. In fact, we’re hoping TWEWYS’s DS debut is just an experimental tease of greater things to come; we smell a franchise, and a next-gen version would make quite a game-changing impact on the stale console RPG market.
For every one of TWEWY’s flaws you’ll discover tons of cool touches to make up for them. On top of the mostly amazing combat, stat-tweaking gamers can go nuts upgrading other aspects of their characters. Purchasing clothing at hip shops and eating noodles and junk food, for example, carry their own rewards that can be endlessly fiddled with. For those who enjoy robust character building there’s just an amazing amount of customization options to toy with, here. At the same time, if you prefer cracking heads to crunching numbers, TWEWY doesn’t force all the stat-heavy stuff on you.
Covering all the coolness in this game is a tall order. Did we mention, on top of everything else, Neku can read thoughts and implant new ones into clueless civilians? How about the fact missions are timed by a clock tattooed on his arm? Or that normal people can’t see him and his friends because they exist in an alternate world? We could go on and on. Simply put, TWEWY is not perfect, but it brims with a style, depth and richness unmatched by any other RPG on the portable platform. It’s also bizarre as all get-out, but in a way that’s more endearing than polarizing. Where Suda 51’s equally weird games (Killer 7, No More Heroes) often divide gamers into love-it-or-hate-it camps, Square Enix has crafted an experience that should engage all game fans on some level. On the surface, it’ll have most recalling The Matrix and The Running Man, while others may delve deeper, digging through layers of subtext commenting on ticked-off teens, trend-obsession, and our addiction to technology. Regardless of what you put into it or get out of it, this one’s absolutely worth checking out.