Review by zeshin_reloaded

Reviewed: 07/01/08

An addictively fun and fresh start for Square-Enix

Square-Enix is in trouble, creatively speaking. It would seem, based on their recent releases, they’ve resigned themselves mostly to limping on as far as the Final Fantasy brand will take them. More specifically, they’ve realized that the fanbase of the series’ seventh installment is so rabidly fanatic that they will go out in droves to purchase whatever half-assed attempt they try to pass off as a real game (see Dirge of Cereberus and Crisis Core). Considering this is the same company that brought us industry landmarks such as Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy IX, it breaks a gamer’s heart to see what was once a powerhouse innovative design and narrative crafting be reduced to a shell of its former self. One must ask if any hope remains.

Thankfully, Square may not have lost its touch after all. Tetsuya Nomura, the man behind the wildly popular Kingdom Hearts series, worked recently with Criware (Their last project being the GBA entry of the Kingdom Hearts series) to create a completely original, new IP called The World Ends With You. Known as It’s a Wonderful Life in Japan, the game sells itself as an action-RPG with a hip aesthetic in line with the colorful denizens of real life Shibuya.

The World Ends With You stars young anti-socialite Neku Sakurabu, a 15 year-old fashion victim who finds the rest of society utterly detestable and wishes to abstain himself from it in all ways, as evidenced by his large, effective headphones and the opening monologue. Neku wakes up one day in the middle of the street, void of any recent memories and invisible to the world. He shortly receives a text message from a mysterious group known as The Reapers, who tasks him with a mission and threaten his erasure of existence should he fail or refuse. He is then immediately attacked by unusual creatures called the Noise, which are social distortion incarnate. Meeting up and reluctantly partnering up with a scantily clad girl, Shiki Misaki, Neku plays The Game in an attempt to survive and discover how he came to be in the situation in the first place.

The story, for a JRPG, is actually pretty engaging. Not only do you have the initial mystery of who the Reapers are and why Neku is in this Game, but it eventually introduces new elements and characters to the plot and some genuine drama. There are also themes of inter-connectivity with humanity and trust that are executed rather well. The title itself fits into the theme of relations in a somewhat brilliant way. Almost all the characters a pretty fleshed out and lots of them experience good development as well.

Speaking of the characters, this is where the game shines in its narrative. While I cannot discuss them at length due to plot spoilers, there comes a character about a third into the game that makes math cool in an awesome kind of way. His character will probably leave the most distinct impression on you if you decide to give this game a go.

The overall design in TWEWY has its shares of ups and downs. More so the ups, thankfully. The game divides each section into a day, most of them having you complete a Reaper-issued objective in order to finish up business. While the mission messages sometimes tell you that you have a time limit, you never actually are on a schedule, as the time limit only exists in the story’s context. This is a rather pointless bit of exposition because all it does is fluster players who don’t catch on quickly. The missions are sometimes as straightforward as “Go to point B” or they can be as vague as “Exorcise the demons out of the guardian dog” or some equally confusing objective. The game is completely linear though, so you don’t have to do much thinking usually. Unfortunately, it removes gaming’s biggest promise of interactivity and removes the role-playing element from the game. I am aware that countless other games have done this, but I consider a fair bit of criticism regardless.

The actual combat does a great many things right. For starters, none of the battles are randomly generated, a detestable cancer of a “feature” that most JRPG designers think should be used for God knows what reason. You always choose when you want to fight by tapping your Player Pin to sense the world around you. Once you can see this other version of the world, you can choose to engage the Noise as you see fit. The only instance where you don’t get to choose when to fight during scripted events, but it’s excusable as they’re always for plot purposes.

Of course, you can’t go into a battle without being properly prepared. First and foremost you need your weapons, which are in the form of pins that allow you to access certain powers activated by various stylus movements. Pins are usually won from battles, but can also be purchased at stores sometimes. Once you’ve acquired them, you can pick and choose which pins to take into battle to erase Noise with. The only problem is that sometimes some pin movements are similar and can overlap, causing the game to misinterpret you. This is easily solved, however, by simply placement of the pins. Certain pins can be placed in front of others, so if the game is confused on what you want to do, it will place a priority on the pin you have placed first.

The pin system also has an addictive Pokemon like quality to it. After battles, you’ll earn pin points that level up and eventually evolve your pins. PP can also be earned in other ways such as shutdown PP (PP gained while the game is turned off) and Mingle PP (PP earned by communicating wirelessly with ANY other DS, regardless of the game they are using). Shutdown PP is especially intriguing as it literally rewards players for not playing. For people who don’t have eternities to sink into games, it certainly is a welcome addition.

Aside from weapons, you’ll need armor as well except that the armor here is not so traditional. There are a variety of shops around Shibuya that sell all the latest fashions. These clothes of modern culture are what you equip for stat boosts, odd as it may sound. These shops will also sell stat boosts for your partners as well. The only problem with these shops is that the salesperson running the shop you’re in will get impatient and annoy you with phrases such as “Who likes wasting my time?” “Are these people… customers?” and my personal favorite “Are you going to buy anything or not?” I play games to escape people like this!

The interesting thing about the clothing is the brand label feature. Wearing specific brand labels of clothing that are popular in a certain area will help influence the trends of the area you’re currently in after several battles. These trends are important as they affect the effectiveness of your pins in battle, which also have brand labels. The idea may sound silly at first, but the actual mechanics of it are quite interesting. The stat bonuses are also somewhat minimal for the most part, so you can go through battles almost as easily as a micro-manager if you’re not up to jumping through all the hoops.

The gameplay itself is quite fun and engaging. It is also the first RPG, I think, that makes grinding fun. The battles take place on both screens, with your partner occupying the top screen, while Neku takes care of business on the bottom screen. Neku’s form of play takes place mostly as a series of stylus movements. Each pin has a certain action and effect, such as slashing across an enemy to slash them in game. Another example is an attack that taps on an enemy to drop boulders on them. All the actions feel contextually appropriate. Pins will eventually wear out mid-battle after so many uses and need a few seconds to recharge. It adds strategy to the game so that you can’t just slash around constantly to win.

Your partner also has action going on in the meantime. All of the partners are different in terms of effects, but the same in execution. The partner can be controlled by the D-pad. You then build up a combo by pushing the pad in tune with a small action tree prompt, which leads to a symbol. The symbol and its mechanics differ from partner to partner, but they’re all relatively simple, such as guessing which sign is under a card, selecting a criteria-pleasing number, or lining up suites of card signs. Doing these symbol finishers correctly builds up a fusion meter, which eventually allows for a fusion attack that not only does tons of damage to the enemy but also heals you.

All this action occurs simultaneously on both screens, which can be a tad disorienting at first. Fortunately, there is a method to help you concentrate. Every time one character finishes a combo, a puck moves over to the next character. This puck enables that person to do double damage before the puck moves again. Maintaining the puck’s movement not only aids in your prioritization of which screen to command, but also helps out in the damage-dealing department. If you don’t feel like managing all this, it’s simple. The partner can be set so that a computer automatically takes over for you, so all you need to do is play Neku’s part.

One defining characteristic of the game is its soundtrack. The majority of it is comprised of high-energy techno, J-Pop, Hip-hop, and Pop songs. These work well for the fast-paced combat and for mood setting in the various situations it requires to aid the atmosphere. Admittedly, not everyone will care for the music. Simply put, if you don’t like the genres listed here, you are not going to like the music. However, it is the opposite if you do have even a slight affinity for music of that nature.

The graphics are also rather impressive. It’s all in 2D, but the style of the game is so trendy and fresh, you don’t care. The framerate is smooth with plenty of detail to be seen, all adding to the sum of the game’s total visual aesthetic. Featured also are some neat cutscenes that are nice eye candy for your efforts and progress.

All in all, The World Ends With You is a fresh start for an as of late, creatively stagnant developer. It has an edgy, cool art style with an engaging plot and addictive gameplay. The 40 dollar price tag might seem a tad high, but this game earns this price thanks to the sheer amount of content it provides. If the main game doesn’t get you, the addictive Tin Pin Slammer mini-game, an extreme version of marbles with weapons, will certainly hook you. No DS gamer should go without at least trying The World Ends With You.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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

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