Review by discoinferno84

Reviewed: 03/07/08

Under Pressure...

It’s hot out today. The sun is baking the pavement, turning the downtown asphalt into a stove. That doesn’t deter the people, however. The Shibuya shopping district is never slowed down by weather. Hundreds of sightseers are lounging in their chairs, wolfing down their fast food as they plan their next stop. Children and parents wander up and down the streets, gazing longingly into the store windows they pass. Others are meandering through the crowd, lost in whatever thoughts or problems they might have. Flocks of gothic lolita girls strut down the road as if it were their own private runway, jabbering into cell phones and clutching stuffed animals. Neon lights and flashy billboards are strewn everywhere, offering their audiences the products of the current trends. Shibuya is not just a shopping center, but a bustling mass of bodies, technology, and business as well.

The thing is, nobody really sees each other. They’re too distracted by the lights, the sounds, and their personal lives. As such, no one notices when Neku suddenly appears in the middle of the street. If his spiky hair didn’t indicate him as a generic RPG hero, his short-term memory loss certainly does. Don’t let those ridiculously large headphones and skater outfit fool you; he’s one sharp little punk. Neku doesn’t trust anyone. In fact, he seems to have an aversion to people in general. That’s a problem, considering how he’s been dumped in the middle of the busiest marketplace in Japan. He’s not just surrounded by people, he’s being suffocated by them. The crowd around him isn’t just ignoring him, either; they can’t see him at all. He can’t leave, though. Oh, he wants to, but it’s like there’s an invisible wall preventing him from ditching the scene.

He’s not being allowed to leave.

It wouldn’t be quite so scary if there weren’t a death threat text message on his cell phone. According to it, he’ll die if he doesn’t reach a certain location within the next hour. What’s worse, there’s a guy in a hoodie watching him from the shadowed alley across the street. He looks human, but there’s something wrong: maybe it’s just a trick of the light, but Mr. Hoodie doesn’t have a face. He’s just standing there, patiently waiting for Neku to go about his mission. Bu what is the mission, exactly? The only hint comes in the form of a black badge nestled in Neku’s hand. It’s not just for fashion; tapping it with the stylus sends off a wave of energy that blankets the entire screen. The bustling 2D realm of Shibuya comes to a dead halt. In this warped vision of reality, Neku can read the minds of everyone around him; he can see the kids pining for a toy, businessmen pondering over lunch, and countless others wracked in worry over bills, choices, and everything else that plagues our lives. It’s a sad, poignant snapshot of modern society.

Things have gotten so bad, in fact, that these people have let their problems rule their lives. Their inner demons have become strong enough to take the form of monster swarms. There are so many of these ‘Noise’ creatures that it’s nearly impossible to see the humans that created them. Though part of Neku’s mission is to destroy the major Noise in Shibuya, he doesn’t necessarily have to wipe them all out. Since a battle is only initiated by tapping the Noise with a stylus, he can avoid hundreds of random battles along the way. Skipping the fights, however, doesn’t bode well for the development of Neku’s abilities. Sometimes he won’t have to bother with battling; he could just have to read someone’s mind, implant a key phrase or idea, and proceed to the next plot point. As such, finishing the missions can be difficult if you can’t read Japanese.

Regardless of the choices made, fighting is inevitable. A mere stylus tap sends reality spiraling into a dual screen-wide struggle for survival. In these moments, Shibuya isn’t a shopping center, but a deathtrap. Packs of hellhounds will race down the sidewalk, snapping jaws and drooling for Neku’s blood. Mutant bears can rip the parked cars open like tin cans. Poisonous frogs and needle-spewing porcupine monstrosities will appear with overwhelming numbers. As such the real-time battles here are both fast-paced and challenging. Neku will have to keep moving and pray that he has enough grit to keep him alive. What he really needs, however, are more badges; though Neku’s default badge grants him mind reading abilities, he’ll come across dozens of other badges with abilities that work with the Touch Screen. Some allow him to use the stylus to draw walls of flame, while others can create lightning strikes, pick up and throw vehicles with telekinesis, and summon several other spells. It can be unwieldy, since the Touch Screen can get confused if you’re trying to move Neku or execute badge attacks. Since the key to developing the badges’ powers comes from using them in battles, Neku will need to fight as much as possible.

He won’t be doing it alone, however. Neku will team up with an ever-changing partner throughout the adventure. He’ll get to know a fashion-savvy DDR enthusiast, a cell phone addict, and a couple of other funky-looking characters. While these supporting heroes have their own personalities and backgrounds, they all play similarly. While Neku is stuck tracing lines of the Touch Screen, the second character will leap up to the top screen and dish out a wide variety of combo attacks. Since the attacks are mapped to the Directional Pad, serving up the punishment isn’t difficult at all. The real trick is learning how to use both characters at the same time; it can be difficult to handle both the buttons and the stylus while focusing on both screens. The fact that the characters share their health makes things even trickier; if Neku or his partner are ripped asunder, it’s all over. But with a fairly overpowered dual-character supermove at their disposal, surviving the downtown deathtraps shouldn’t be difficult.

It’s not like Neku and his pals are totally defenseless, either. Shibuya is a premier shopping district, so it’s little surprise that it would cater to RPG heroes as well. There are no SUV-sized swords or mythical suits of armor here; just a lot of style. Gothic lolita, skater, and preppy outfits come in all shapes and sizes, complete with their own stat-altering features. That French Maid dress not only looks great, but it can be a totally broken ensemble if you purchase all the little accessories that go with it. The same goes for all the shorts, shoes, shirts, jewelry, hats and everything else you can purchase. Feeling weary from getting thrashed by a pack of demonic bears? Retreat into the sushi bar or cafe and pig out. Since the monsters drop tons of cash after most battles, snagging all the right duds and items won’t be an issue. With so many stores and restaurants lining the crowded streets, there will be plenty of opportunities to get your shopping on.

It’s strange, isn’t it? In a genre where medieval themes reign supreme, setting a game in contemporary Tokyo is a fairly fresh concept. The game captures the city scene so well: the sun-blasted streets, the pulsing J-Pop, and the bustling crowds of people who care absolutely nothing about you. Neku and his little gang of urban heroes are a far cry from the super-heroic swordsmen of most RPGs; the ultra-stylish outfits and technology they use are taken directly from what you’d see in Shibuya today. Despite this, the mysticism of the plot and the magic being wielded are definitely welcome. The combination of using both screens and the stylus make for one of the most demanding gameplay formulas yet; there hasn’t been a game this Touch Screen-centric since Kirby Canvas Curse. So do yourself a favor and pick up The World Ends With You. As far as handheld RPGs go, it doesn’t get much more original than this.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Product Release: Subarashiki Kono Sekai: It's A Wonderful World (JP, 07/27/07)

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