Japanese RPGs have been in a rut for a while now. Final Fantasy VII came onto the scene in 1997 and defined what was expected from your typical, modern, turn-based RPG in terms of gameplay, storytelling and production values. Since then, aside from a few esoteric and quirky releases from Atlus, the last decade has seen the genre grow stale, while Western RPGs like Mass Effect and Oblivion have been innovating like crazy. Hope is setting in the land of the rising sun.
But wait! 2008's The World Ends With You is wildly different. To be frank, this does not feel like a Square Enix game; it's too... new. The developer's biggest gamble in the past few years was Final Fantasy XII’s more lively battle system, and, let’s be honest, gambling on a game that would sell millions of copies even if it were a blank disc is not much of a gamble. For whatever reason, Square told some guys from its Kingdom Hearts team to go nuts on Nintendo DS, and they just happened to put together one of the system’s best games in the process.
The World Ends With You offers an aesthetically refreshing setting that ultimately drives forward its artistic vision. Shibuya (the Tokyo neighborhood the game is set in) is a very stylized place in real life, and its video game counterpart is no different. The city is brought to life through a pleasing mix of 2D and 3D visuals that are combined to create a single, seamless image. Detailed graffiti, posters and storefronts give the areas extra character and are further brought to life by dozens of pedestrians wandering the streets. No 2D world has ever been crafted with this much attention to detail.
The character designs continue the modern and lively theme that works so well for the level design. The cutscenes consist of little more than hand drawn character art and speech bubbles, but it works. The characters are drawn with a distinct anime style that does a brilliant job of portraying emotion and prevents the animated comic book style presentation from feeling dated or lazy. Most of the scenes take place on the top screen, but occasionally you are treated to dual-screen cinematics that are much more animated, lively and detailed. Overall the story scenes are entertaining and succeed at propelling the plot forward with style to spare.
During gameplay, the characters are realized through detailed sprites that are exquisitely animated. The World Ends With You looks its best during battles. Battles rage across both screens and play out like a randomized ballet of destruction with enemies, allies and effects flying every which way; the speed and detail is outstanding. Castlevania’s dominance in the realm of sprite animation has finally been challenged.
The riskiest aspect of The World Ends With You may very well be its music. Most Japanese RPGs rely on sweeping, epic scores and a J-Pop song thrown in for the opening movie, but this game’s contemporary style carries over into the audio. Shibuya’s urban flare is captured with a number of original songs that cover everything from techno and rock to hip hop and moody instrumentals, many with full vocals. Square was even kind enough to record plenty of new songs with English lyrics for the North American release, though several Japanese songs were kept for authenticity. Regardless of whether or not you particularly enjoy the aforementioned styles, there is no denying that they all fit the setting perfectly and have maintained good fidelity thanks to minimal compression.
Rounding out the outstanding aural package is voice acting -- a rare treat for DS owners that Square Enix has recently been making more common. Though much of the game’s dialogue is left to the player’s ability to read, voice over is thrown in from time to time for an extra punch of humor or drama. The voice work is most prominent during battles as your characters encourage one another and threaten the enemies. One word of warning: sometimes the actors' delivery can feel a little stiff but overall quality is quite high.
The only other audio factor left to discuss are the sound effects, which are definitely passable, but ultimately seem a non-issue, because they are forced into the background by the dominating soundtrack.
In order to understand where a lot of the game mechanics are coming from you need to have some idea of what exactly is going on. You play as Neku, an antisocial teenager from Tokyo who wakes up with amnesia in the middle of Shibuya. The disoriented kid is made even more confused after as he receives threatening text messages, gets attacked by tattooed animals and has to make a pact with Shiki, a fashionable and energetic young woman who is dealing with the same threats. It turns out that Neku and Shiki are involved in a game put on by the Reapers, a group of winged humans who inhabit the Underground (UG), an alternate version of our world’s Shibuya, which is known as the Real Ground (RG).
Neku and Shiki have to play the Reapers' game by completing one mission every day for a week. But they are not the only team playing, and only one team has to achieve the objective for the game to continue. To make things interesting, monsters called Noise are all around the UG and are gunning for the players. Luckily, the Reapers are somewhat fair and have given the players access to pins that grant them psychic powers and make them more than a match for Noise.
Progression through The World Ends With You is quite straightforward; you start on day one, fight some battles, overcome a few obstacles, reach the objective, fulfill the mission, and then start day two and repeat. The missions usually involve helping people in the RG overcome their problems by implanting helpful thoughts in their mind or clearing out the Noise produced by their own negative thoughts. Fulfilling these objectives require you to run all around Shibuya, an easy enough task thanks to the simple touch screen controls; just touch the direction you want to run. Initially the game feels quite linear, but as more of Shibuya is opened up, the scope begins to expand and your objectives require some extra thought to decipher. Progress is also hindered by Reapers who will guard a path until you can fulfill a simple objective like acquiring a particular pin or defeating a certain number of enemies. Finding enemies to fight is as simple as hitting the scan pin in the corner of the touch screen and then tapping the noise floating around the level. That’s right, there are no random battles.
Character progression is somewhat typical, but there are a few decent twists. Battles give you experience that goes toward leveling up your character, which increases your HP (Health Points). The only other stats to worry about are your Bravery, Attack and Defense. Attack and Defense are obvious enough, but Bravery is required to equip clothes and other accessories; the braver you are, the more wardrobe options you have. Clothes augment your HP, Attack and Defense and grant a variety of other bonuses as well. Eating food also raises your stats, though you can only eat so much every day. What makes clothing and pin selection so interesting is brand popularity. Everything you wear has a brand, and particular brands are more popular in some parts of Shibuya than others. Wearing a popular brand will give you attack bonuses, while extremely unpopular brands could cut your attack in half. If you want to maximize your chances for survival you have to keep up with the trends.
The battle system is probably one of the most compelling, entertaining and challenging parts of The World Ends With You. First of all, battles take place on both screens, with Neku on the bottom and his partner on the top. All of Neku’s movements and attacks are stylus controlled, while the partner is controlled with the D-Pad or face buttons. Moving Neku is as simple touching him and dragging him to where you want him to go, while attacking is dependent on the pins equipped. Some pins require you to slash across an enemy, some have you tapping empty space on the screen, drawing circles or lines to activate another, and there are even a few that require you to yell or blow into the DS’s microphone. The only problem with this system is that sometimes you might use a pin different from the one you intended because they share similar touch inputs. However, the best part of the system is how quickly you can shift between attacks and link together long and powerful combos.
Top screen combat is where things start to get complex. Neku’s partners don’t use pins; instead their combo system is based on a series of directional-based attacks that end in powerful finisher move. Certain finisher moves will earn you Fusion Stars that allow you to use a powerful Fusion Attack that hits enemies on both screens for lots of damage and even restores some of you health. This all sounds awesome, but when you realize that both the top screen and bottom screen battles are happening at the same time and there's a single health bar for both characters, you're left with quite a choice. Do you want to focus on Neku and neglect the top screen, or do you focus on getting fusion stars and barely touch poor Neku? Luckily the ideal balance is introduced in the form of the Light Puck, a green aura that is passed back and forth between Neku and his partner whenever one completes a combo. Whoever has the Light Puck receives an attack bonus, so if you focus on whoever has the Puck, rhen you will get the most out of every combo and get a chance to accumulate those precious Fusion Stars as well.
The numerous ways to approach the battle system is only one example of how customizable The World Ends With You feels; the game can be as easy or as hard as you want it to be. First of all, there are three difficulty settings: you start at normal and unlock easy and hard as you progress. Easy mode presents little challenge, but you receive less experience and inferior pins from battle, while hard mode is the exact opposite. The next option you have is the ability to link together battles by tapping up to four enemies at a time while scanning. Linked battles give you Pin Point bonuses which allow you to level up your pins, but you are not healed between linked battles so they can be more difficult. The final bit of customization is the ability to lower your level; this decreases your HP, but drastically increases the number of pins your foes drop. Together all of these options create a nice system of risk and reward. One word of warning: as tempting as it is to make things as hard as possible, some of the later boss battles can get quite difficult.
As fun as The World Ends With You is to play, you will probably be driven to finish it by the story. While most Square Enix games center around epic stories of adventure and world threatening conflicts, The World Ends With You is an intensely personal story about how people interact with one another. Neku is an adamant lone wolf forced to work with others so he can survive, and his interactions with the other players and the Reapers are brilliantly written and balanced, with just the right amount of intrigue, humor and drama. In fact, the Reapers are particularly interesting in themselves. Most of the villains are not what you would expect; during the game you run into a Reaper rock band, a hulking brute who constantly makes references to food, and a math-obsessed lunatic who enjoys building statues out of junk. Enjoyable characters and clever twists make this a plot to remember.
Finally, after beating The World Ends With You, probably a twenty or thirty hour task depending on how much grinding you do, there are plenty of reasons to keep playing. After the credits roll, a new chapter is unlocked and you can replay any of the previous days where you can now find items that reveal the answers to questions not answered during the game’s climax.
The only true multiplayer facet of The World Ends With You is an unlockable mini-game called Tin Pin slammer that requires you to shoot your pins around a platform in an effort to knock your opponent over the edge. The game is simple, controls well and is kind of fun, but it does not have too much staying power.
The World Ends With You also has Mingle Mode which is kind of reminiscent of Bark Mode in Nintendogs. Set your game to Mingle Mode, and it will detect other players who are also in Mingle Mode. The two games will then swap messages players can write and give each Pin Point bonuses. Mingle Mode is a nice after thought, but nothing too revolutionary.
The World Ends With You stands tall as both a compelling piece of interactive art and a brilliantly designed and executed game. The gameplay mechanics are fast, fun and wildly inventive, while the story and presentation is refreshingly original, modern and thoroughly compelling. The World Ends With You easily ranks with Phantom Hourglass and Mario Kart DS as one of DS’s finest and is quite possible Square’s best game since Chrono Trigger. That’s right; I just said this game is almost as good as Chrono Trigger. Nothing more needs to be said; this is the best game so far this year, GTA 4 included. Buy it. Now!