Are you brave enough to wear women's clothing?
How often does Square Enix release a brand new franchise? With such a staple of hit characters and universes, one could understand their relative aversion to the risk involved in introducing a completely new and different game. The World Ends With You definitely bucks that trend, as it features different characters, a different setting, and an entirely different battle system from any Square Enix RPG to date. Created by several of the people behind the Kingdom Hearts series, the game takes place in modern day Tokyo - Shibuya to be exact. Shibuya is the party and fashion district of Tokyo, a haven for hip young people. The story of The World Ends With You is set firmly in this culture.
Virtually the entire game plays out in comic-like panels and speech bubbles on the top screen. These cut-scenes push the game along; in fact, they play such a huge role that you’ll see cut-scenes more often than you will the game’s overworld. It may be more accurate to call them scenes, and call the overworld cut-walking, for lack of a better term.
The overworld is presented as an angled top-down view that uses sprite-scaling to show depth. Directly scaling sprites often results in an extremely pixelated view of the characters; regardless of whether this effect was achieved on purpose or not, its retro feel adds to the hip vibe of the whole game.
The game starts as the main character (you) is thrown into a battle with a random girl there to help you. After the fight, she explains that a pact has been made and the two of you must play through a seven day long game. Each day of the game will see a new mission emailed to your cell phone; these missions vary wildly, with some being simple "Get to such and such location" tasks, while others are vague and riddle-like. This is the game’s primary mechanic and it can often feel shallow and contrived. While the story itself can be quite thought-provoking, this sub-game concept means most of the tasks you perform have very little to do with the actual plot.
As with many RPGs, the meat of the gameplay is found within the battle system. This is where The World Ends With You attempts to innovate the most. Throughout the vast majority of the game the player controls two characters at once during battles. Each character is controlled in a different way. Neku, the main protagonist, occupies the bottom screen. He is controlled using only the stylus. Neku's partner occupies the top screen, and they are controlled with just the D-Pad. Like many DS games using a similar configuration, this system can curtail long gaming sessions due to cramping and fatigue unless you find the perfect body and hand position.
Neku's controls are the most elaborate and make up most of the battle system. Pins are equipped in place of weapons, enabling certain stylus gestures. These gestures are used during battles to perform attacks. There are many different types. My favorites were slashing up on an enemy, which caused Neku to run in for a close combat slash attack, and slashing across Neku in a certain direction, which caused him to shoot energy bullets in that direction. The vast majority of these gestures were very usable, except for one that the pins describe as "scratching". In order to make a scratch pin work, you have to furiously drag the stylus back and forth in a given location. Remember how spinning the analog stick in the first Mario Party resulted in a whole bunch of broken N64 controllers? I can see this scratch attack doing the same thing to DS units. Luckily, all of the pins that use it can easily be substituted for other attack methods.
Movement is the part of Neku's control scheme that takes some significant getting used to. You press down on Neku himself and then drag in the direction you want him to move; once you initiate this process, Neku follows the stylus, a la Link in Phantom Hourglass. However, this clicking-and-dragging is easier said than done in the middle of a battle. As Neku takes hits there is appropriate knock-back, which can make actually placing the stylus on him a challenging task in heated fights, when quick movement is most important. Obviously, this system of movement also makes it impossible to move and attack simultaneously, which feels a bit strange as well.
Still, the pin system allows for an extremely customizable control system overall. It's a pleasure to choose only the pins of the gestures you are most comfortable performing, combining them for fluid combination attacks. Certain pins also act as healing items, and they are initiated by simply tapping on the pin at the top of the screen.
When early screens of The World Ends With You were released, many people took notice of the DDR-like arrows that appear on the top screen. This is where the D-Pad comes in when controlling Neku's partner. The arrows represent attacks as they are happening. To initiate an attack, you simply push left or right on the d-pad. This causes your partner to start attacking in the indicated direction. At this point, three different goals appear in the attack string; one is reached by simply tapping the initial direction over and over, and two more can then be reached by pressing either up or down at the correct time to branch off the main path.
These goals do not affect the actual attack in any way. They are instead used to build up to a limit break-style attack that involves both characters. Throughout the game there are many different forms of these combo attacks. For example, the first one involves a very simple memory game. Three cards are at the top of the screen and you have to select those three in order based on which goal you pick. There is a critical problem with this system, however. Actually making it to the desired goal requires significant concentration, enough that you will begin to totally ignore the bottom screen while implementing a D-Pad combination. This delay causes significant problems, so most players will find themselves ignoring the branches and instead blindly tapping one direction. The system doesn't really penalize you for this either, as you will still build up limit breaks based on sheer probability. Combine this with the fact that you are able to input attacks in a much more rapid fashion, and paying attention to the goals is practically useless.
Rhythm gameplay comes into the battle system in another way as well. There is a green energy "puck" that is passed from one character to the other if they perform a successful string of attacks. As this puck bounces, a damage multiplier builds up. At first glance, this would seem to promote alternating which player is being controlled in order to keep the puck bouncing. Like the limit system, it doesn't take long to realize that ignoring the top screen while blindly tapping a direction is the best way to go. Attacks will be performed so quickly that the puck will return to Neku on the bottom screen almost immediately.
Like most RPGs, The World Ends With You features a large assortment of equipment options for your characters. There are hundreds of different equipment choices that can be purchased at a variety of stores in the game. Collecting and comparing them takes a lot of effort, but for some reason it's quite enjoyable. They did a great job of covering several different clothing styles, from preppy to metal, to goth, to lolita, virtually everything is represented.
Shopping for these items is very rewarding as well. As you buy more things from a particular shopkeeper, your relationship with them will grow. As they begin to like you more and more they may begin offering better items. There will also be times where they tell you about a special ability a particular item has, in effect powering up certain pieces.
Given the modern setting, armor has been replaced with designer clothing. Statistics remain similar in concept, but it's virtually impossible to get any sort of clue as to the stats of an object based off its name. Steel armor is always better than wooden armor in fantasy RPGs, but why is a polo shirt better than a t-shirt? The insanely expensive wrist watch boosts your defense, hit points, and attack stats…how? This disconnect is a little strange.
In another strange twist, clothing is not associated with a particular sex. Dresses are grouped right in with jeans and t-shirts. This isn’t very strange at the beginning of the game. There is a bravery requirement associated with every piece of clothing. Characters must have enough bravery to equip something. It just so happens that most of the women's clothing has a very high bravery rating and the only woman character starts out with an equally high level. All the male characters start out much lower. However, this bravery statistic can be increased on all characters. Therefore, it is completely possible to raise Neku's quite high. Don't be surprised if his best set of clothing involves a nice black dress, press-on fingernails, and a teddy bear.
The writing in the game is surprisingly interesting and insightful. It takes a long hard look at current youth culture and the differing attitude types, all the while questioning what is really important in life. Neku begins the game as incredibly self-serving, and isolated from other individuals. As he meets other people his attitude begins to change. Each of the main characters introduced are developed extremely well, and their personalities and interactions make Neku's transformation more believable. This is what will drive you to keep playing; plot twists are interspersed in such a way that the moment you start to lose interest, something wild occurs.
It's a good thing the story is as good as it is, because in a day and age when we’re spoiled by voice acting and cinematic cut-scenes, The World Ends With You attempts to deliver the same content via comic panels and speech bubbles. While it's easy to appreciate the style, it's hard not to be at least slightly turned off by some of the longer conversations.
Square Enix often seems to rely on a story-first, gameplay-second mentality. It seems as if they tried to break that mold a bit with The World Ends With You, opting for a new and different setting and battle system. It's ironic, then, that the monotony of the new battle system still ends up being redeemed by a great story. And if great stories are your thing, The World Ends With You will warm your heart. If you are all about gameplay, you'll probably get bored fairly quickly.