Review by DDJ
Your annoying little brother that rushes you past the lions at the zoo to spend an hour with the dung beetles. Except, a game.
Review in Brief
The Good: An intriguing, unique plot; innovative and truly integrated usage of the touchscreen; artistically groundbreaking, including the graphical style, soundtrack and overall cohesiveness.
The Bad: That intriguing, unique plot is expressed in such a hurry that it barely feels like more than a facilitator for battle sequences; about four times more systems than the average player can learn and apply at once; the most chaotic, confusing battle system I've ever witnessed.
The Verdict: A game with two problems: not only does it rush through its own best parts, but the goal of that hurrying seems to be to get to the worst parts faster and stay there longer.
My Recommendation: An incredibly unique, if chaotic and discouraging, gaming experience. Highly recommended to big fans of the Action RPG genre and hardcore gamers in general; not recommended for any casual gamers, non-fans of the Action RPG genre, or anyone prone to sensory overload.
"Your annoying little brother that rushes you past the lions at the zoo to spend an hour with the dung beetles. Except, a game."
I have to start this review with a disclaimer. I haven't finished The World Ends With You. I was roughly a fourth of the way through it when I decided to put it down, with no intention on picking it up again unless I found myself on another long plane flight with no in-seat TVs.
If you believe that a person's opinion of a game is invalid unless they completed the game, that's fine: stop reading here. Judging from the fact that I'm giving The World Ends With You the lowest score it has received on GameFAQs, it is entirely possible that the game gets so much better later on that my opinion is completely worthless.
However, in my opinion, it is the responsibility of the game to make the player keep wanting to play. It does not matter how great the later part of the game is if the player has no motivation to play that far through it. This is the reason I feel justified in reviewing The World Ends With You, despite having not completed the game. Generally speaking, the game throws you too far in too fast, provides too little scaffolding, too little feedback, too much to learn, and all with comparatively small motivation supplied otherwise. The game, to me, does not make the player want to keep playing enough to overcome the discouragement supplied by various other game elements.
You can say that maybe I just suck at the game; that's entirely possible, as Action RPGs are most certainly not my forte. You can say that I just didn't give the game a chance, having quit so early in it; that's certainly a valid complaint. And you can urge me to go back and keep playing the game; to which I'd say if you can find the DSi that I left on my flight to Portland, then maybe I will -- next time I'm traveling without time to buy something else first.
But overall, I think my point is a point worth stating. The World Ends With You, for me, simply did not give enough reason or motivation to keep playing. The goal of a game is to be entertaining, and any game that goes too long without fulfilling that main objective runs the risk of being considered a failure. And in my eyes, while The World Ends With You is a wonderfully unique game, it fails at this main objective.
Now, that's not to say that there isn't anything to like about The World Ends With You -- far from it. Its current GameFAQs average review score is 8.9, with only 10 reviews (out of almost 60) giving it an 8 or lower. It's a widely acclaimed game, and with a lot of good reason. As of the time of this review's posting, there's only one moron dumb enough to give it a 4 or below.
I'm not saying that those reviews are wrong; I just believe that they're examining the game far differently than I am. There's a definite tendency to review games in hindsight and as an expert, and while doing so allows you to give your opinion of the game as a whole, it neglects the experience of the beginner or novice player, or the steps that went into getting to the plot's completion. Those are crucial elements to keeping the player interested, and it is why I rate The World Ends With You so low.
Chances are, you're still wondering what the hell this review's title means. Well, you're just going to have to keep reading to find out.
There's definitely a lot to like about The World Ends With You. After all, it had to earn those positive reviews somehow. It's not just a matter of normal features that the game does pretty well; it actually borders on absolutely groundbreaking in some areas.
Here's another reason I feel justified in reviewing the game despite not finishing it. In my opinion, the number one element that you have to finish a game in order to give an opinion on is the plot -- the battle and equipment systems, graphics and sound typically stay fairly consistent throughout a game, but you really need a picture of the plot as a whole in order to give an honest opinion of it.
If I didn't like the plot, I wouldn't mention it, assuming that it got better later in the game. But I did. The plot is actually quite engrossing. Like many games, it opts for an expression that starts by absolutely throwing the player into the middle of a story, with no background, no direction, no nothing: but it does provide clues as you go along. You progressively learn more and more about the world you're in, the back stories of the characters, and your future goals.
The plot is extremely unique as well: this is no standard 'on a journey to save the world' RPG. Like others have mentioned, I can't mention many plot details without spoiling anything, but suffice to say the plot is extremely unique, though the characters are a bit recycled and predictably archetypal.
The plot is in many ways the game's best feature; the main event; the center ring; the lion at the zoo.
I have a major pet peeve with many Nintendo DS games. For many games, touchscreen usage is not a natural part of the game, but is more of a "hey, there's a touchscreen! Let's use it for something!" type of addition. Many games use the touchscreen solely because it's there, not because it actually enhances the gameplay. In many cases, the touchscreen functionality could be completely lifted out of the game without impacting gameplay, content or quality.
The World Ends With You, though, is firmly grounded within the touchscreen support. The design of the game makes it very clear that one of the earliest goals of the game was to actually make use of the touchscreen, rather than to tack it on to an existing framework. The result is tangible (no pun intended); the touchscreen functionalities are inseparable from the game as a greater whole.
The touchscreen comes up in three major places with three different impacts. First of all, the battle system is touch-driven. I'll bring up plenty of criticisms for the battle system later, but I will say this: the touch elements of the system themselves, separated from all the other aspects, are very intuitive. Attacks are performed by dragging, slashing or tapping on enemies, and these actions actually don't feel like gimmicks: they're the only natural way to engage in the battle system. They're not a simple replacement for a button-based or turn-based system; a non-touchscreen system would represent a fundamental change in the game. Here, the impact is a system that could not be created otherwise.
The second instance of touchscreen usage is in navigating the main world. Rather than using the D-pad to move around, you actually tap where you want to go and your character runs there. The impact here isn't quite as important: the system is just as intuitive as the D-pad system if not a tiny bit more so, but the navigation method could just as easily be done by the D-pad. Still, the new system is certainly not less intuitive, representing another good usage of the touchscreen.
While the first use was a complete new innovation and the second was a lateral move, the third represents a definite improvement. The menu and equipment system is also touchscreen-driven. Rather than navigate the major menu categories with the D-pad, you actually tap on the category you want to open. Sure, the D-pad could accomplish this, but the touchscreen usage is far easier and more natural. The most important element is the equipment screen though: rather than selecting your equipment, you actually drag it onto the character's set up. This draws a much closer connection with the impact of your action, helps ensure that you're doing what you intend to be doing, and overall grants a much stronger impression of control over the system.
Overall, The World Ends With You uses the touchscreen better than any other DS game I've ever played. It's a fundamental part of the game, rather than a tacked-on gimmicky afterthought.
Here's where the game strikes gold. The World Ends With You strikes an artistic style that's wildly different from anything else I've ever played. The closest thing I can compare it to is Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, using a type of animated comic book view in many places; but it's much, much more than that.
Before I continue, I feel it's important to distinguish what I mean by artistic style. Style isn't straight-up the quality of the graphics or audio; rather, it's the conscious decisions the designers made within the framework of the graphical abilities. It's not just about graphics either: this is about graphics, music, sound effects and how they all fit together.
Graphically, it's tough to pinpoint the style of The World Ends With You. There's a definitely anime influence to it, and many of the still screens could be lifted right out of a manga. It's unquestionably Japanese, with the same over-the-top expressions and icons that characterize much of their media. But the game is far more than that. It incorporates dramatic usage of text, a dark, grim environment, and too many other subtle choices to name, and really creates a unique environment. What's especially interesting from a graphical element is that unlike many Japanese RPGs that aim for a location-neutral environment, The World Ends With You firmly entrenches itself in modern-day Japan. This partially comes from the plot, but it is largely augmented by the suitably realistic caricatures of Japanese locales and cultural.
Musically the game is extremely interesting as well. The game opts for a punk rock-style soundtrack, and unlike most video game scores, the game incorporates lyrics throughout. The music itself is enjoyable and every bit as unique as the graphical style, but the more important element is the way it matches with the visual elements to form a very cohesive world.
The most important stylistic element a game can have is cohesiveness. Individual areas and portions can look brilliant, but if they don't match with the rest of that game, the contributions of those elements are lost by the contrast. In The World Ends With You, music and graphics unite to form an extremely cohesive environment. As mentioned, the soundtrack favors a bit of a punk rock feel, and that atmosphere is definitely supported by the visual aesthetics. The game just feels extremely urban, from the music and sound effects to the appearance, and really creates an actual game world. An underappreciated element of this is the incredible number of NPCs: on any given screen, you'll encounter anywhere from a half-dozen to a hundred NPCs. It's a minor feature, but it really reinforces the urban nature of the game.
Stylistically, you've never seen anything quite like The World Ends With You. It's a brilliantly displayed game world with an interesting plot attached. Unfortunately, the efforts of other portions of the game completely sabotage the potential provided.
Of the above three elements, two fall into the category of facilitators: the artistic style and the touchscreen usage both facilitate a good game. They themselves, in the context of an Action RPG like The World Ends With You, do not make a good game, but they certainly allow a good game to emerge. However, they themselves are not reasons to keep playing.
The plot, on the other hand, is a characteristic of a good game. In most RPGs, it's largely the plot that keeps the player playing, carrying over an appeal similar to literature. And while the plot of The World Ends With You is good, it is sabotaged by one of the bad elements, largely removing appeal it provides. In the end, The World Ends With You discourages the player with various elements, and simply does not provide enough plot appeal to overcome this discouragement due to an annoyingly rushed presentation.
I mentioned in the first section that the plot itself is good. That's absolutely true. However, the way it's presented is not. In case the difference isn't clear, let me try to explain.
In any story, there is the story itself and there is that story's expression. The story exists separate and apart from whatever medium is used to express it; in many ways, it exists only in the author's mind, and their expression of it communicates the story to the reader, player or viewer. It's likely not possible to express the entire story to the reader, as there are so many subtleties and details in the author's model of the story that to express it all would take ages and would distract from the relevant aspects.
To make this make sense, let's use a more concrete example. Take Harry Potter. The Harry Potter books are one depiction of the Harry Potter story. The movies are another. The video games are likely another. Heck, me saying "Harry Potter's about a wizard that defeats an evil wizard" is another. They're all expressions of the same underlying story; and the quality of the expression is largely separate and apart from the story itself. It's oftentimes hard to find the story's quality is the expression's quality is lacking, but nonetheless they truly are separate.
That's where The World Ends With You hits its problem. As I mentioned before, the story is solid. It starts the player off fast, answers questions and provides new details at an adequate pace, and the underlying story itself is very unique.
The problem is in the expression. The plot, while strong, is largely expressed in the form of semi-animated comic books. The players appear on the screen with short, quick little conversation bites that move very quickly through the plot. These plot-relevant scenes occur at predictable intervals, and are generally very brief; for the most part, they can be boiled down to "oh, here's some new information! Now let's get going!" Overall, the types of plot developments that occur cannot be adequately expressed in scenes that are as fast-paced as the game provides.
To provide an early and spoiler-free example, there is a complicated dynamic between the two main characters, who meet for the first time in the game's opening scene. The dynamic of their relationship changes over time, and is really one of the most fascinating elements of the underlying plot. The problem is that because the scenes are so quick (both in duration and in pace), it appears less like a dynamic is emerging and more like the game is informing you of the dynamic that's there. Rather than the player becoming aware that one character is secretly offended, confused, angry, etc., the game essentially says "hey, this character's angry now! Now let's get going!".
The problem is compounded by the general stupidity and simplicity of the characters' dialog. The game developers did a great job of creating a cohesive environment outside the speech patterns of the city's populace, but it's here that they fail, opting for an odd mixture of slang that takes the player out of the game's world entirely and makes them pause and think "wait, did emo boy really just say 'full of fail'?" The dialog also fails to differentiate the characters; with some exceptions, it would be difficult to identify a quote's speaker without substantial context, as all the characters seem to talk the same way. The exceptions are those over-the-top sudden expressions of emotion mentioned in the last paragraph.
The expression of the plot -- namely, the quick and fleeting nature of the plot-relevant scenes and the poorly-written dialog -- has a deeper impact. The impression left is that the plot simply facilitates the gameplay, rather than driving it. Like many older games, it feels like the game simply needs to have a plot to give the player an excuse to keep going to different places and fighting new battles. That's a shame for two reasons: first of all, the plot is too interesting to be tossed aside that way. Secondly, with the problems that exist in the game's gameplay (that I'll get to in a moment), it's the plot that has to drive the game; the plot has to provide a reason for the player to keep playing through the discouragement they encounter. And the plot itself has the potential to do that -- the failure is in the manner in which it's expressed.
Maybe it's becoming clear what this review's title means. But now that we've identified what the lion in the game is, we need to figure out what the dung beetles are.
Too Many Systems
Every game has systems to it. For some games, they're extremely simple: take Mario Kart. The systems are driving, drifting and item usage. For others, they're more complex: take Final Fantasy Tactics. The systems include the job system, the battle system, the equipment system, the clan system, the mission system, and several others. In general (in my eyes, at least), a system is anything of a moderate level of cognitive complexity (more than just reflex) that the player can understand and apply in their game.
Systems are great in RPGs; elements like the battle system and the equipment system (two standard systems for most RPGs) are what make the games so strategic and thought-driven rather than driven by pure reflex. But each additional system puts an added cognitive load on the player, and when the systems are largely unrelated and have to be understood separately from one another, it can be too much for the player to handle.
The World Ends With You has numerous systems. The main system is the battle equipment system, where you equip essentially your skills and spells. Based on your performance in battle, the skills you have equipped gain experience and level up -- another system to understand. Mastered skills (skills that have reached their maximum amount of experience) can have alternate uses afterwards, another system to remember. And different skills operate in different ways, itself another system to remember. These four are somewhat interrelated, but each functions so separately from the other elements that they all must be learned and understood individually.
Those four systems encompass only battle equipment. There's also a system of clothing to outfit your characters with stat-enhancing or skill-granting items -- itself another system. These items are bought from shops around the game, most of whom have different selections; another system. The shops have an interesting element to them as well: the more you buy from a shop, the more inside information the shop keeper will tell you; another system.
There's also a food system that helps permanently raise your characters' stats. The game also centered around the notion of trends; all your equipment and skills have a 'brand name', and different areas will randomly like one brand over another, somehow empowering those items. Yet another system to remember.
That's only a glimpse at the number of systems there are to remember and understand; I can think of at least five or six others that I don't need to describe here. Frankly, it's simply too much. The player cannot handle needing to understand and apply that many systems at the same time; and as a result, the average player will choose to ignore certain systems rather than try to find their way through all of them. And unlike in games like Final Fantasy X, where the only repercussion of ignoring some systems is missing out on added gameplay, in The World Ends With You, ignoring a system can have severely detrimental effects on your gameplay.
Put simply, The World Ends With You has way too steep a learning curve. The individual systems aren't hard to learn, but there are just so many of them that need to be understood and consistently considered that the player quickly finds themselves overwhelmed. It also makes it difficult to localize a problem; if you can't fight your way past the boss, is it because you aren't leveled enough? You need better equipment? You need a better skill set-up? You need to raise your stats? Trends are sabotaging your efforts? Or you just aren't playing well enough?
There are many elements that can contribute to player discouragement, and the feeling of being overwhelmed is definitely one of them. Just consider a simple analogy: don't you enjoy studying for a subject that you already generally understand more than studying for a subject you're completely lost on? If you understand physics and don't understand chemistry, isn't physics more pleasant to study for? The same applies here; if you don't understand the game, it's not as enjoyable to play. It's understandable for there to be some learning curve, but the player must consistently feel like they're getting better and understanding more, and that's what The World Ends With You doesn't provide.
As stated, each individual system isn't complicated; it's the aggregate whole of all of them put together. But there's one system in the game that really is far too complicated, and unfortunately, it's pretty important...
Chaotic Battle System
The battle system in The World Ends With You is just plain ridiculous. To summarize, on each DS screen is a character fighting the same enemies. On the bottom screen, you attack by dragging, slashing or tapping on your enemies, thus using your equipped skills. On the top screen, you attack by pressing left and right on the D-pad, paying a bit of attention to direction to unlock team attacks and score the most hits.
Chances are, describing that immediately made you aware of one oddity: you're supposed to focus on both screens at once? Not exactly, but close. You have to very quickly alternate back and forth between the two screens, and always be aware of what's happening on each. You don't have to engage in battle on both screens at once, but to win, you do have to be aware of both screens at once. That's enough to make a person crazy.
Next, there's a problem with the dragging/slashing/tapping attacks on the touchscreen. You also move your character by tapping and dragging to wherever you want him to go. Yes, some of the same motions used to attack are used to move. What the game decides you want to do is decided by context. If you drag starting near your character, it doesn't matter if you want to attack a nearby enemy: you'll probably move across the field of play. If you want to move and are the tiniest bit careless, you'll find yourself attacking rather than moving. Overall, while the touch interface is very interesting and clearly intentional rather than contrived, it also attempts to do far too much.
Along those same lines, different skills in the game have very similar actions associated with them. For example, one category of skills asks you to drag the stylus across the field of play. Another asks you to draw a circle around yourself. How exactly is the game supposed to know if you're trying to draw a circle or drag the stylus? It doesn't. It's very difficult to ensure that the skill you want to use actually gets used, to the point where the player almost has to handicap themselves by intentionally equipping very different skills just so they can guarantee they'll get to use the one they want when they want to. And it's not even as simple as that: different skills have different amounts of time they can be used for, and a recharge time once they've been expelled. So not only do you have to know how to use all the equipped skills, but you have to constantly be aware which skills are currently available, displayed in the corner of the screen.
The top screen consists of a simpler battle system, but it can be quite obnoxious on its own. To engage in battle on the top screen, one has to repeatedly press the left or right D-pad buttons, sometimes intermingled with an up and down, to form small combos. To figure out the best button to press, the player has to look at a simple card layout on the top screen. Not only is this yet another system to understand, but it asks the player to simultaneously focus on the card layout and on the enemies surrounding the character, all while executing a three or four button combo in less than a second lest an attack interrupt the combo. And all that while you probably should be focusing on the battle on the lower screen. It's the gaming equivalent of babysitting triplets that found the Halloween candy stockpile from the previous five years.
Notice anything about this section so far? That's right, all these problems and we've only been talking about the playable characters. We haven't even talked about the enemies yet. If the enemies just stood in one place and lashed out, it'd be fine: but they move quickly and attack unpredictably. They'll definitely attack when you're looking at the other screen, so you won't even know they attacked: and so much is going on in the game that the simple sound effect doesn't register as an attack. Plus, unless you're actively staring at your character when they're attacked (which, odds are you aren't, since if you were staring at them you probably would've moved), you won't know how much damage was done. You'll just suddenly be aware "oh hey, I'm almost out of HP", with no real idea how you got there.
Compounding this problem is an incredible lack of feedback on the part of the game. Feedback essentially means a visible, audible or tangible reaction that confirms the effect of a user action. For example, you press A, you hear a sound -- feedback. Feedback also lets you know of an in-game event: a monster attacks, you hear a sound -- feedback. Unfortunately, the game provides little feedback, and what little feedback it does provide is overshadowed by how incredibly busy both the visual and auditory elements of the game are. It's like trying to hear a pin drop at a Coldplay concert. So you're never really aware how well you're doing, and generally you feel like you're just slashing aimlessly, praying the enemies' invisible HP meters run out before yours does. Not that you'd know when that will be, since between paying attention to enemies on two screens, playable characters on two screens, the empty space to use skills in, the two sets of cards on the top screen, and the skill meters, you won't have time to glance over at the HP bar.
So to recap, you simultaneously need to pay attention to nine different areas of the screen, all while actually engaging in a system that depends on you making split-second decisions on what you're going to do next. Talk about sensory overload. It won't be long until you're just slashing aimlessly at the bottom screen because to try to grasp more than that would have a similar effect as putting an amphetamine in your morning double espresso.
Finally, the battle system at a broader level shies away from the standard random battles and instead allows you to voluntarily choose how many battles to engage in. That's a problem, actually. There are necessary battles along the way, but how many are you supposed to engage in on your own decision? Is choosing to fight a dozen random battles a necessary step for success in the game, or does that border on level grinding? The game doesn't tell you, adding to the "why can't I beat this boss?" mystery -- you have no idea if you've fought enough voluntary battles, or if something else is causing your failure.
The game has a beautiful artistic style and a useful, truly integrated touchscreen system (if over-used in the battle system, though the touchscreen itself isn't the problem) that are well-equipped to facilitate a great game. The plot itself is great as well, with many nuances, complexities, mysteries, compelling characters, relational dynamics and plot twists.
So let's figure out what the heck the review title means. The plot is like a lion at the zoo: it's interesting, it's awe-inspiring, and it (among other animals, of course) is what you really go to the zoo for. Now imagine your annoying little brother who's with you. After looking at the lions for 10 seconds, they rush you along, hurrying you past the elephants, orangutans, giraffes, zebras and other interesting animals to... the dung beetles. And then, they insist on sitting and staring at the dung beetles for an hour until the zoo's closing.
That's what The World Ends With You does. It has a very interesting underlying plot, that somehow gets expressed in quick, fast-paced little scenes with terrible dialog that all have such a blatant plot point to express that they may as well just say "HEY, HERE'S THE PLOT DEVELOPMENT FOR THIS PART OF THE GAME." You're into the scene, you find out its purpose in the plot, and you're out. Characters might as well wear a smiley face on their sleeve indicating their current mood rather than letting you pick up their attitude from subtle hints in their dialog. It's the Reader's Digest version of the plot; the abstract; the three-minute madness. It leaves emotion and involvement out completely, seemingly in some kind of hurry to get to...
Well, to get to what? A convoluted, overcomplicated, chaotic, caffeine-induced battle system that's accompanied by such a mass of out-of-battle systems that the player might as well go take Stellar Astrophysics when considering the breadth and depth of simultaneously thought that must take place to play effectively.
So, like your annoying little brother, the game hurries you past the interesting plot elements, the intriguing relationship dynamics, the surprisingly plot twists, and the underlying mystery, and pushes you into the chaotic, discouraging, intimidating mass of systems that comprises the game's "gameplay". Not only do you miss the good stuff, but you dwell on the bad stuff. Not a great combination.
Despite my numerous complaints about the game, I definitely would recommend it to certain audiences of gamers. If you're a hardcore Action RPG fan, maybe you can grasp the epileptic seizure that is the game's battle system. Additionally, if you're a hardcore gamer in general, you need to play The World Ends With You. You'll likely be more equipped to handle the challenges that completely ruined the game for me, and at a broader level, you need to experience a game with the borderline revolutionary artistic style and screen-based battle system that The World Ends With You supplies.
But if you're a more casual gamer by any definition of the world, or not a fan of fast-paced Action RPGs, or simply prone to sensory overload, I recommend staying far away from The World Ends With You.
No dung beetles were harmed in the writing of this review. They may, however, have been moderately offended.
Rating: 2.0 - Poor
Product Release: The World Ends with You (US, 04/22/08)
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