Review by AK_the_Twilight

Reviewed: 06/02/08

Let the game begin.

We’ve long since been driven to our consoles by the crafty and fantasy-obsessed hand of SquareEnix. We’ve played tens of Final Fantasy games, combated evil in space with Star Ocean, and beaten the crap out of Heartless in Kingdom Hearts. It’s about time that SquareEnix brought something new for a change. Don’t get me wrong; these games are great, but it’s time. And while console gamers await the next installments of SquareEnix’s treasured series, the folks at the treasured Japanese company have had a knack for making addictive handheld RPGs. Next up is easily one of Square’s most daring creations, a mix of urban Japanese culture and fast-paced, real-time battles. It’s a Wonderful World, now named The World Ends With You, has arrived on North American shores. Is it SquareEnix’s next big hit?

The World Ends With You picks up with your typical Shibuya kid named Neku, an introverted teen with a knack for Japanese style, who also tends to hate interacting with people. Neku enters a world known as the UG or “Underground,” a “game” of sorts where your typical heroes’ valuables are put up for grabs. After an offering of sorts, Neku, along with a select group of other characters, literally put their lives on the line to escape this alternate representation of modern-day Shibuya. Neku himself is also (wait for it) an amnesiac, so his memory of the real world and how he even entered the alternate version is erased. Neku also teams up with different partners, who are told to be the only way to survive in the UG. But from who? Of course, the UG is run by a secret organization (Kingdom Hearts II, anyone?) called Reapers who run the whole deal, along with darker enemies called Noise that must be eliminated. Neku’s journey surrounds him learning more about himself while simultaneously discovering more about his past, along with a bunch of other themes that SquareEnix has long since made prerequisites in nearly every other RPG they’ve produced.

But what’s so interesting about The World Ends With You is its rich adaptation of modern Japanese culture. SquareEnix has long tread the world of transcendent kingdoms in peril, giant space colony battles, and any other fantasy cliché seen in modern video games to date, but surprisingly, The World Ends With You is based off of real culture in real places from real people. All the RPG trappings survive: your characters still use equipment, gain experience, and partake in the long-used RPG themes and storyline essentials. However, the equipment is simple clothing that any modern teen in Tokyo these days would no doubt be seen wearing. Health-recovery is your average energy drink. It’s this integration of newer Japanese culture with the long-used concepts of SquareEnix that makes The World Ends With You worth playing, but fortunately the combat will keep you coming back for more.

While the story borderlines on Matrix-style gibberish and richly adapted real-life culture and style, the combat is anything but poor. Firstly, battles are not random. Neku uses a special collectable pin to scan for enemies. After selecting one or more sets of enemies on screen, Neku and his partner can battle. This does offer better pacing and control; there are chances that you will die in-game, but mostly the game lets you enter battles at your own code. Even more important are pins, the key to battling the Noise. Using different pins, Neku can pull off over-the-top attacks and spells to destroy the noise, a la every other RPG seen before. Pins can also be used to perform out-of-battle abilities, solve puzzles, to detect enemies or even read minds. There’s a good amount of versatility in each of the pins’ unique aspects and it turns out to be another interesting merge of modern-day Japanese culture and classic SquareEnix fantasy-battle simulation.

Once battles begin, Neku and his partner are thrown into a two-screen battle where you control two different characters simultaneously. Neku appears on the bottom screen and his attacks are driven by stylus motion. Using different pins’ abilities, the player is told to tap, scratch, or draw using the stylus or even yell into the microphone to execute specific attacks. On the top screen is Neku’s partner Yes, it sounds like a serious hassle and totally confusing…and it is at first. Enemies appear on both screens, but upon being eliminated disappear from both. The key is alternating between the screens using an object called the light puck. By alternating attacks between the two characters, a green-lit puck rapidly dashes between the characters. The long the alternating attacks, the more powerful the attacks become. This is still blatantly confusing at first, but fortunately the game lets you customize the difficulty and even choose to only control the bottom screen. However, this isn’t recommended as your partner’s attacks can be faster and more effective than the CPU character. Upon reaching a particular limit, your partner can serve up a high-power special attack where Neku and his partner attack all enemies on both screens all at once. On the whole, though, the combination between real-time stylus-driven attacks and stylish modern-day appearances make the game feel refreshing and original, something that the RPG genre has long since needed.

But the RPG aspects of this generally action-filled DS title are surprisingly strong, mostly because The World Ends With You is greater than the sum of its parts. Neku can equip different pins and level them up with experience, making them stronger and in some cases, evolve into brand new pins. He also has the atypical equipment and gains experience through participating in battles (which due to the non-random battles, is completely optional, though severely recommended). An interesting twist is that the pins’ experience occurs even when you’re not playing, swiftly avoiding the pitfall of many major RPG series; the gameplay aspect dubbed “grinding.” In many other RPGs, a major part is slowly leveling up by finding enemies and fighting near hundreds of random battles. This is annoying, and The World Ends With You crushes this officially obsolete gameplay mechanic. The catch is that only pins levels up, so the other attributes that Neku and crew must monitor require battles, but since the real-time aspects of the battle system are so fluid and entertaining, this is a minor complaint.

Along the way, Neku can also visit shops and buy new threads, songs, info, or power-ups, while also learning of existing “trends,” one of The World Ends With You’s other interesting quirks. Clothing and pins that Neku uses can catch on from repeated battles and exploration, as each piece of equipment and arsenal is assigned a specific brand. This is interesting as shop owners will compliment wearing clothes and using pins assigned to big-name brands and may even discount or reveal secrets to their wares. There’s also some weird little minigames like Tin Pin, a modestly-distracting game where you use the stylus to move your pins to knock another person’s pins out of a ring. It’s not particularly fun, but is sometimes required, so make do with what you have equipped. Fortunately, health is restored after every set of battles, difficulty can be set at a player’s own pace (sacrificing spoils for more health), and the ability to save after every battle allows the game to be perfectly tuned to the precise level. The whole package comes with some moderately disjointed ideas, but the different ideas are entertaining, especially the contemplative story and incredibly unique battle system.

The World Ends With You, fortunately, isn’t another simple attempt to render 3-D on the Nintendo DS. I say “fortunately,” because many of these attempts have been pretty lackluster. The game does, however, have some well animated sprites that look great in battle. The world of Shibuya is rendered incredibly well for a handheld. Battles themselves feel alive and the different attacks look great and animate well. To compliment the great graphics is a diverse soundtrack. The upbeat themes are interesting mixes of techno and hip-hop, and despite the limitations of the DS, sound great. The voice acting is mixed in with some short sound clips of the characters, but add enough personality to battle to be worth listening to for a short while. Although The World Ends With You doesn’t push the DS to its limit, it still manages to be good-looking and great-sounding. Presentation-wise, it’s comprehensive, enjoyable, and worth turning the volume up.

+ Battle system is innovative and action-packed
+ Customizable combat, difficulty, and items reshape RPG standards
+ Characters are generally entertaining
+ Richly adapted with Japanese pop culture
+ Story is pretty cool and well-presented

- Two-screen gameplay is confusing at first
- Some of the minigames are boring
- Moderate RPG “grinding”

The World Ends With You is one of the most original RPGs to hit any console, let alone a portable, in years, and if even if you don’t possess even a remote interest in the long-winded genre of the RPG, you’ll no doubt find the creative differences and innovative gameplay elements pretty cool. While the two-screen gameplay isn’t the grandest of innovations in The World Ends With You, the cool use of the touch screen makes battles surprisingly involving, especially considering that the game gives you plenty of control as to the frequency and intensity of the battles. Thankfully, the game also delivers an undeniably unique atmosphere, something the RPG genre in general has been in dire need of. Shibuya and its respective quirks really come alive in The World Ends With You and the cultural concepts like trends and modern equipment really compliment the game’s style. Although the combat is challenging, it can be modified and generally has plenty to offer in terms of how you battle. The World Ends With You conquers a great deal of the RPG genre’s setbacks, making it innovative in its own right, and considering all this comes in a portable game, it makes it easy to enter a quick battle, save, and close up your DS. It has enough aspects to please RPG veterans, but enough new ideas to be worth a newcomer’s attention. Pick it up today.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Product Release: The World Ends with You (US, 04/22/08)

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