The World Ends With You (NDS) – Review

cover The World Ends With You is a non-traditional RPG from Square Enix and Jupiter for the Nintendo DS that uses a battle system that involves a lot of use of the touchscreen.  There are a lot of gameplay aspects within the game, but the game itself is wisely crafted around those elements to allow you to use as many or as little of the elements as needed, effectively letting you drink as much of the game as you want but tempting you with better rewards if you take on the added challenges.  This approach, as well as the overall combination of tight gameplay, interesting story, and outstanding design, make this one of the most impressive RPGs that I’ve seen in a long time.

Story: A-

The game is focused on a introspective teenager named Neku that lives in the Shibuya district of Tokyo, who keeps to himself and otherwise wants to be left alone.  He suddenly blacks out and finds himself at a different part of town, but no one can see or her him except for a girl named Shiki who quickly makes a pact with him so that they can stay alive in the “Game”.  Neku comes to learn that somehow, he has died in the real world and has been forced to play the Reaper’s Game, a week-long event that promises the winner a second chance at life should they win, but total “erasure” should they fail.  As Shiki tries to get Neku to work with her, he learns that they have to work at defeating Noise, strange creatures only they can see that emanate from the negative emotions of the living.  The game starts off as normal as one could expect, but things start getting very strange, and Neku and other friends he makes are quick to learn that the Reaper’s Game is pretty much stacked against their favor, and he must learn to bond with these friends if he hopes to survive and return to the real world.

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The story is actually pretty good; the lead characters are all interesting and I definitely had an attachment to them by the end.  The only problem I found (though you can play beyond the end of the game to learn more) is that the full conclusion is a bit weird and piles on a lot of stuff that is hinted enough through the game but really isn’t explained well there.

Gameplay: A+

The World Ends With You is very much not your normal RPG, despite it being a Square Enix title.  As Neku with his partner for the week, you need to explore Shibuya’s various areas for hints and clues to missions that you get each day of the Game.  Most of these are straight forward: go to a location and do something, but more often than not, the way is blocked by Reapers that have erected force field walls between the areas, refusing to let you through unless you complete a task for them.  All these tasks focus on the unique features of the game but more often than not, require you to defeat the Noise in the area, which you see only when you “scan” the area with a special pin; this allows you (most of the time) to select which Noise you want to fight, setting up a chain up to 4 for larger rewards for a tougher battle.

The combat system is highly unusual.  As Neku, you gain the ability to use special pins that can be bought or gained as spoils of battle.  These pins are mostly offensive, though some help with healing, and are activated by some type of action on the touchscreen: slashing across an enemy, tapping the screen to fire bullets, circling an enemy to inflict damage, shouting (or blowing) in the mic to hurt all the Noise on screen, and more.  You only can take a limited number of pins into battle (up to 6), and pins generally have a limited number of actions before they have to “reboot” , a short period where the pin is inactive.  Basically, as you gain pins, you can start to build a set of pins that are timed well and work in multiple situations to get you through the game.  Of course, this is just what Neku is doing.  His current partner is on the top screen and is also fighting the Noise at the same time (as Noise cannot be defeated alone).  For the partner to attack, they must complete a series of arrows on paths in order to select a virtual card that does damage, but at the same time, by selecting specific cards in order, you can create the opportunity to launch a dual special attack on the foes.  For example, Shiki, if you can match her face down cards correctly, the special attack option becomes open.  In addition, pressing the d-pad can help to dodge attacks.

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Of course, this means that you have to split your sights between the top and bottom screen to be effective.  Except what makes The World Ends With You an inspired game is that you can utilize the top screen combat mode as much or as little as possible: you can have the computer take over immediately or after a few seconds of your inactivity, or not at all.  Though the computer AI is not perfect at matching cards, at least it is helping you out in battle, allowing you to focus on Neku’s side of the screen better.  However, you do have to watch your health -you and your partner share the same health bar so even if you go damage free, ignoring you partner’s performance may cost you the battle.  There is also a special “light puck” that travels back and forth between you and your partner based on a sync ratio; whoever has the puck has more powerful attacks, so figuring out what equipment and food items help to improve the ratio and speed of the puck can also affect how to arrange your pins.

This points to another aspect of the game that really helps it tailor to exactly what type of game you want to play by allowing you to alter the game’s difficulty level and your current effective hit points any time outside of battle.  Of course, lowering your difficulty or keeping your hit points going into battle near your maximum amount will produce the lowest reward, but there are times, such as for boss battles, that you’ll want to have your levels set right so that you don’t die.  Another nice feature is that if you do fall in battle, you gain the option early in the game to retry at the current level or back on easy as to prevent forcing you from reloading from the last save (which can be easy to forget to do once in a while, though the game does ask for you to save between each “day” of the game).

Pins themselves gain experience from battle, and can gain levels to make them more powerful.  However, pins can also evolve into better pins but this rarely comes just from battle experience, but instead experience gained by two other means.  First, by saving and the actually shutting down the game, you can gain pin experience for the time that it has been shutdown.  Secondly, by playing with friends in the “Tin Pin Slammer” mini game (a concept similar to marbles that is also played as part of the main story), or even connecting to another DS that is in wireless mode but playing another game can earn experience. The varied experience types are the general catalyst for evolution of pins, so it actually pays to play this game slowly over the course of several days.

A key aspect of the game is the focus on the youth culture of Shibuya, and this is represented by the fashion trends that each area of the town has.  Pins that are in districts where that fashion is popular will be more effective in battle, while the weakest brands have reductions in abilities.  However, it is possible to alter the fashion trends in a district by using pins and wearing clothes of a given maker, such that after a few battles, that fashion type will be tops.  Various stores about town (which the Game’s players can enter and interact with) sell garments and other accessories for those brands, and while the basic benefits such as improvements to attack and defense can be gained, each also has a special ability that can only be learned through being a good customer of that store by buying more goods.   There are also special items that can only be bought by trading specific quest items for the new good, typically requiring items dropped as a result of a boss battle.  There are also food and medicine stores that allow your characters to build stats by digesting the food over a series of battles, though the amount of food they can consume in each day of the game is limited.

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Basically what this all comes down to is the fact that this is one of the few games where you can select how much of the game you want to take in, and finish knowing that there’s more you can go back to and try again and take in more (unless, of course, you take in everything the first go around).  There are points where you have to do a few points involving fashion trends or some of the other details, but outside of that, it’s an ignorable factor should you not be worried about gaining big rewards; most of the required parts of the game are simply “Beat the Noise as best as you can”.  You don’t even have to worry about anything on the top screen beyond where your health bar sits, but its there if you want to use it  This is a point that many open world games tend to miss that’s captured great here: you can jam pack a game full of interesting gameplay features, but as you get more complex, it is not important to force people to use them, but there should be enough of a draw to make them want to do that.  With the large variety of pins as well, you have a lot of flexibility in what combat style you want, and if you come across a set of pins that just works, there’s no reason to change from that (except for a couple of points), though later boss fights might become prolonged.  Fortunately, nearly every pin typically has one or more “bigger brothers” that has the same action but with more powerful attacks, more uses, or faster reboot time, thus allowing you to keep your style.

There are two annoyances with the game that are just minor detractors and fortunately do not affect the core gameplay elements.  The first is that while you can go to the menu to see a map of Shibuya, you cannot browse this map to identify the section names, nor are the sections as presented on the map directionally consistent with the exits from each screen: going “north” out of screen may actually take you “south” on the map.  Only until the late game is this really a problem since you aren’t attacked just running around, but in the late game as you start getting attacked switching between sections, it would be nice to know what the most direct route is from A to B.  The other annoyance is the pin management.  If you drop your health and raise your difficulty, you can increase the number of pin drops from foes.  Most of these are money pins, and thus accumulate on a “Mastered” pin tab, but other pins will be the ones you can wear into battle, and these do not stack (since each pin grows on its own).  If you don’t take time frequently to clear out duplicate pins for cash, you’ll find that you’ll have to drag and drop for a long time to clear this out.  A way to select multiple pins for this would have been nice.  However, I found neither of these problems enough to mar my experience with the game.

As noted, there is a mini-game called “Tin Pin Slammer” that is based on marbles, using your current pins to knock up to 3 other player’s pins off the table. This is an optional part of the game (save one mission), but this also is playable over local wireless with four players, and as noted, can be used to improve and possibly evolve those pins.  It’s a nice simple stupid addition but that works well in the overall scheme of the game.

Value/Replayability: A+

The game took me, with as much as I drank of it, about 20 hours to complete, with both gameplay and story feeling just about right, ending right at the point where it seemed like more would have been too much.  Finishing the game opens up the ability to go back to any of the previous days (plus one additional day), with all your stats and pins where they ended at, and try to complete special missions assigned for that day in order to unlock “secret reports” that fill in the backstory for the game.  As the game tracks how many pins you’ve found and mastered, what Noise you’ve discovered and defeated, and how many items you’ve bought, there’s a lot to go back and get 100% from the game.  And as noted, once playing through once, there’s the urge to go back and try everything just a bit harder to see what better goodies you can get.

Graphics: A

The game is based on 2D sprites and works find.  The art style is rather interesting, and though I’m not one for the necessary 2″ waistline characters ala Kingdom Hearts, the rest of the character designs were well done, as well as the variations in Noise.  Backgrounds are rather interesting, using a hard-to-describe parallax approach to make it feel like it was walking through parts in 3D, though nevertheless worked nicely.  Cut-scenes, done using relatively simple sprite-manipulation graphics, are also nicely done.  Additional dialog scenes avoid the usual single box of dialog at the bottom by having the characters’ speech appear as word balloons that scroll up the screen, making it feel like a comic book at times.

Audio: A

The game’s music is very eccentric, and reminds me of Persona 3; while that game used a lot of rap-type songs, the music here is very club/dance, not so much the noise factory of Jet Set Radio Future, but fits the spirit of the game well.  In addition, there’s enough variance with the music that it never gets old throughout the game.  When they are voiced, the characters are well done – though most of this voice work occurs at the very end and sort of breaks the illusion of how you believe these characters have sounded.

Overall: A

The World Ends With You is a tremendous piece of work; there are some faults with it, but a game that is put this well together and wisely letting you pick exactly how much of the game you really want to take in can have such faults overlooked easily.  Nearly everything about the game feels unique yet intuitive, making it very easy to pick up and go with it, and the presentation of the game is top notch.  As it breaks the mold of most common JRPG elements, those that normal avoid these types of games may find this to be just enough off the JRPG path to be of interest to them, particularly if you like more action in your RPGs to start with.

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