Inside Pulse 12

Review: The World Ends With You (Nintendo DS)

The World Ends With You
Genre: Action RPG
Developer: Jupiter Corp.
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: 04/21/08

The World Ends With You is a hard game to appropriately describe, partially because of the gameplay elements at play, and partly because of the odd style mechanics. Japanese “Ëœurban style’ games are generally odd in general, largely because you get that feeling of awkwardness whenever you look at them. Like, you know those people who are always saying “-chan” and “desu” and wear cat ears and such? People who generally misappropriate Japanese culture, that sort of thing? Well, Japanese “Ëœurban culture’ games feel like that in reverse; someone overseas took a look at American culture, said, “Oh, it’s all baggy pants and beanie caps and “ËœWhassup Dawg’,” and just made that into a game, or even a cultural movement of some sort.

Now, stylistically, TWEWY essentially bears similarities to Jet Set Radio (the urban motif) and Kingdom Hearts (the art style), but gameplay and story wise, it’s its own animal. Make no mistake: love it or hate it (and there’s plenty to do both ways), there is absolutely NOTHING like TWEWY on any console. This is one of the most interesting and unique games, not just this year, but EVER, due in equal parts to the innovation of the medium (the DS) and the ideas the developer came up with that, simply put, no one else has really ever had.

And the game’s also pretty good, too.

The story is somewhat hard to explain without giving away important pieces, but in short, you take on the role of Neku, a teenage boy who doesn’t remember anything except his general disdain for others. Neku almost immediately meets up with a girl named Shiki (who he instantly hates), who explains the gist of things: they’re all playing a game in what’s called “Underground”; though it mirrors Shibuya (where the game takes place) exactly, it’s… different. The two (and several others) are playing the Reapers game; essentially, solve the supplied riddles over the course of the day, and survive to the end… or else be erased. Everyone involved has their own reasons for playing… but Neko, as he can’t remember anything, doesn’t know why he’s playing, and doesn’t like the situation one bit. It’s up to you to figure out why things are the way they are, why Neku is playing, what he’s fighting for, and what in the hell is even going on in the first place.

Once you do that, that’s when the REAL story begins.

The concepts of the story are all really interesting on their own (the game, why it’s being played, what’s going on throughout Shibuya, et cetera), and this helps to carry the plot along by itself well enough. However, the actual writing of the story is surprisingly engaging as well; the characters all represent various stereotypes of some sort or another, and more than a few of the elements of the plot are Idiot Plot issues (on purpose, mind you, but still), but the characters are quite well-written and interesting on the whole, so much so that when they begin to develop from their original selves into real people with real motivations and desires, you actually feel it. The characters are LIKABLE, even if not at first, and you begin to actually appreciate their plights and like them for who they are. The characterization is surprisingly well done, actually; none of the characters are two-dimensional ciphers, and the characters follow the basic rule of strong development: they’re defined by what they do, not by what is done to them. Again, yeah, some of the plot points are stereotypical, and the various plot twists are foreshadowed so much so that only a few are truly “surprising” (most of which occur in the second chapter), but overall TWEWY takes the basic elements it has to work with and makes them into something really interesting and, dare I say, [i]special[/i].

Visually, TWEWY is outstanding. The artistic style is top-notch, thanks in large part to the urban theme of the product and also to the style of the art team (the same folks responsible for the Kingdom Hearts art direction). The character and enemy sprites are bright, colorful, well-animated, and stylish as hell, and the various game environments really feel like a moving, living, breathing city. It’s absolutely astonishing to see just how much depth and detail has been crammed into the visuals of one small DS cartridge (even if the sprites are occasionally blocky). Aurally the game is a masterpiece as well; the music is shades of Persona 3 and Jet Set Radio, with all sorts of funky tracks that are amusing and keep the feel of the game going very well. There are a few voices here and there, and though they are few, they also add a bunch of personality to the experience and make things come to life, and the sound effects also compliment the game well and further make things feel, well, [i]right[/i].

Of course, a game can only go so far on its style, so it’s a pleasure to note that the gameplay is both functionally solid and conceptually interesting. The basic gist of the experience amounts to moving through the game world, accomplishing tasks across a seven-day span, with the point being that you and your partner are trying to survive until the end of the week, whereupon you will win the Reapers game. This generally involves moving about the various districts in Shibuya, accomplishing whatever tasks the game has set out for you along the way.

And most of the time, this involves fighting things.

Now, there are generally two ways you can enter into combat: the first, of course, is when the story dictates that you do so (in which case you’ll be ambushed by whatever and attacked as past of the story), but the second is, essentially, when you attack something through scanning. Whenever you’re in a district, you can press the black button that rests in the bottom right corner of the screen, which initiates “Scanning”; basically, you open your mind and start looking around the environment, which allows you to see people’s thoughts (most of which are just silly little bits of nothing, though occasionally these impart important information), and “Noise”, AKA enemies. By tapping on the enemies, you draw them to you, which then engages combat with them. In both cases, combat works like this: Neku appears on the bottom screen, and whoever he’s partnered up with at the time appears on the top. The enemies you are facing appear on both screens (except in certain cases, usually during boss battles), and you and your partner can beat the crap out of them. The top screen is controlled by either the D-pad or the buttons, depending on your handedness, while the bottom screen is controlled by using the Stylus. Top-screen characters have paths their combos can take, each of which has the potential to fill in spots on the top of their screen which allow you to enable a super special attack, which does massive damage to enemies on both screens and refills your life bar (both characters share one life meter, so any damage done to one character is done to both, and any healing heals both), which is handy. If you don’t feel like playing as the top character, you can leave it to the computer, though I find that managing what your partner is doing generally means combos pop up more frequently than if you’re working on it on your own.

Playing on the bottom screen, on the other hand, is a whole different animal. Basically, Neku acquires pins as you play through the game; each of the pins has different abilities and powers, and can be used to do different things; some can make slash and stab attacks, some fire bullets, some make lightning balls fly around you, whatever. To enable the pins, you have to make the appropriate stylus motion on the screen to get the pin working, again, be it tapping on Neku, holding the stylus on a foe, drawing a circle, whatever. The stylus is also used to move Neku around for dodging attacks or moving into optimal attack positions, as Neku’s play field is larger than the top-screen battlefield. Even if one opts to allow the computer to control the top-screen action, working with the bottom screen is pretty interesting; at first, it’s literally just a case of obliterating everything you come across, but as time progresses and more pins are unlocked, you’ll find yourself developing interesting combinations and strategies to implement, which will in turn conform to a specific play style or, alternatively, force you to adjust your playstyle each time. Further, combat is also influenced, aside from the above noted pins and the special attack paths of the partner characters, by the light puck that passes between Neku and partner. Think of it like tennis: when one character completes a combo, the light puck passes to the other character, who is then also tasked to complete a combo to keep the puck going. This provides bonuses after battles for keeping the puck going back and forth, but also has certain other benefits (some enemies can only be damaged to any significant degree by the player with the puck, for example). Further combine this with various enemies of special types, each of which further changes the dynamic of battle (enemies who hide under the street, enemies who only take damage from behind, and so on), and the combat in TWEWY can get pretty intense… though it’s interesting to note that it never becomes unmanageable.

While combat is generally the most important aspect of TWEWY, it’s by no means the only unique element. Battle itself allows you to level up both your characters and pins; the former gives your characters more HP, offense, defense and such, while the latter improves the abilities of the pins by reducing their recharge rate or providing them additional uses, and potentially (if the pin can do so) allowing them to evolve into stronger pins. But battle also has another interesting positive: by reducing your characters’ levels before entering into battle, you increase the chances for valuable item drops (pins of various sorts, generally, as this is where you get your money from; in essence, you get pins marked with yen values from battle and events; by throwing them away, you translate them into their cash value, thus making you profits), thus offering you a simple dynamic: do you jack up your health to ensure survival, or drop your level to gain more profits? You’ll need to ask this question more than a few times too; aside from the Noise becoming stronger as you progress through the game, and new types of Noise having odd resistances (as noted above with the light puck, for example), hidden Noise also exist that are WAY POWERFUL in comparison to the normal varieties, you can stack battles of multiple Noise groups to further earn even more bonuses by beating the Noise on one life bar, and you’re also offered the option to shift between difficulties to earn better gear and more EXP at any time (after earning this option), so shifting to Hard might benefit you insofar as earning neat stuff goes. Of course, you can also switch the game to Easy if you’re getting trashed, but on the default difficulty the game isn’t too hard, and so long as you fight groups of Noise every so often to level up you should be able to deal with the game without too many issues (and after a while you’re afforded the option to retry losing battles, so you can just jump back into a battle if you kick it).

The game is also very fashion conscious (much like the real Shibuya district); most articles of clothing and pins you acquire are “branded” in some form or fashion with a designer label, and by wearing those labels in districts where those labels are popular or unpopular, you acquire combat bonuses or are afflicted with negative effects, depending on the popularity of the brand. This is pretty neat until you find that you’re using a setup that consists of unpopular items in a particular zone, but no worries; by fighting some battles in that zone, you influence the popularity of the brand in the zone and can thus change the fashion trends as needed, so if you feel the need to have D+B or Jupiter of the Monkey popular in a zone (yes, those are brand names in the game, and they have some mighty useful pins to boot), just beat the mess out of some Noise to raise the popularity of the brand. Your fashion pieces also have various special influences attached to them (aside from the expected basics like bonuses/negatives to HP, Attack and Defense), which can do all sorts of neat stuff (additional bonuses, Combo Meter length increases/decreases, EXP bonuses, etc), which further means you will want to influence popular brands around town… though you may not know what those abilities are until you buy items from shopkeepers around town; as you impress the store clerks, they give you tips about their clothes (and sometimes about clothing from other companies), which might make pieces of equipment indispensable or worthless, depending on the effect.

TWEWY also has a ton of little novelties packed into it that come together to make the game that much more interesting all in all. Characters can eat various food products through the game, each of which has two direct effects; immediately, they improve your Synchronization between your characters, and in the long-term they influence the stats of the character by increasing, say, their Health, Attack, Defense, Bravery (in essence, a limiter dictating what clothes you can wear; the higher the Bravery, the better the clothes… male characters by default have lower Bravery than female characters, which can be simply explained by noting “any dude who would wear a camisole top in public is a pretty brave dude”, so there you go), and so on. The thing is, they can only eat so much per real-time twenty-four hour period; thus, by waiting until the next day, you can then feed them more food. Turning the game off also has another benefit: any pins Neku has equipped gain PP during the time you’re not playing the game, thus allowing you to level up pins in your down time (so if you can’t play for a day or two, hey, you’re still making progress, so bonus). There’s also “Tin Pin Slammer”, which essentially is like some sort of strange amalgamation of Beyblade and Pogs; you use equipped pins to fight in an arena grid of sorts, bumping them into each other and summoning hammers and such to fight other pins (no, I don’t get it either, just roll with it), which in turn allows you to earn more pins. You can also find all sorts of item components to trade in at shops for statistic improvements, specialty items (larger wallets, combat moves, etc), better clothes/food, and so on. The game also has various wireless connection options; for those who have friends playing the game, you can “mingle”, which allows you to level up pins, peruse other player created shops and sell your own items, and even when passing players who AREN’T playing TWEWY you’ll still earn PP for pins, so long as they’re playing something wirelessly. You can also play Tin Pin Slammer against friends, if you want. As noted above, you can also change difficulty levels at any time; aside from earning better loot in Hard difficulty, you can also earn additional EXP for leveling your characters faster. Oh, and for those of you who love replay value in your RPG’s, TWEWY is also certainly for you; upon completing the game proper, you’re given the option to switch from chapter to chapter as you see fit, with whatever partner you choose, to complete various goals assigned to each chapter; by accomplishing these goals you’re given journal entries that further flesh out the backstory and answer most of the unanswered questions the game leaves open, if you desire to do so. You’re also given a whole new story mission to goof around with that not only has a big plot point hidden in its journal and offers an additional cinematic to the ending sequence… but also offers a hugely powerful boss monster at the top of the Pork City building for you to obliterate.

Of course, even with all of the unique gameplay elements and awesome original content crammed into TWEWY, no game is truly perfect, and it too has a few flaws here and there that mar the experience slightly. The biggest flaw in the game comes down, essentially, to the pins; in essence, all of the pins use different motions for their actions, but in practice, many of the actions actually overlap one another, meaning that trying to use your pin that presses on the enemy and attacks them with a beam of light might instead use your pin that draws a circle on-screen, or your pin that picks up enemies and obstacles to smack them around, or whatever. Now, this is, unfortunately, partially the cost of using stylus motions when limited options exist in the first place, and usually pins that have exactly identical motions cannot be used simultaneously (for obvious reasons), but again, there will be occasions where the game misinterprets one motion for another, with usually annoying results. Also, for as many pins as there are, most of them fall into one or more types; as such, you’ll end up with, say, ten pins that all make slash attacks against foes, only each one has a different amount of charges and attack damage; I mean, I’m all for upgrading, but this basically comes down to picking a brand/attack power/charge volume that’s desirable for you out of ten pins that are, quite literally, the exact same thing… which is a shame, because so many REALLY GOOD PINS aren’t actually duplicated nearly as often (some of the D+B pins, for instance, have awesome effects but few if any upgrades, which stinks).

There are also the odd smaller issues here and there beyond the pin usage. You’re given three different partners across the course of the game, and each plays differently from one another as far as earning stars to unleash your super attack goes; this becomes a problem when you find yourself with a partner that works in a way you’re not entirely comfortable with (the third partner, in my case); the CPU is OKAY at keeping the light puck going and earning stars, but not as good at it as you are, which is a problem when you’re stuck trying to work with a partner that you’re not entirely comfortable with. It’s also kind of annoying that you have to unlock so many of the things in the game; while I understand the value of offering the player so many neat things to unlock, difficulty levels (specifically “Easy” and “Hard” difficulty levels; the even harder “Ultimate” difficulty is perfectly reasonable to keep locked up, all things considered), larger wallets and the ability to continue after a lost battle shouldn’t have been amongst those things, especially considering the annoyance of, say, being unable to cash in ten rows of pins until you earn a larger wallet or sitting through a cinematic you didn’t know was coming and facing a boss you weren’t aware of only to bite it because you were reduced ten levels and the boss wrecked you in short order. Also, the last few battles weren’t particularly challenging in any sense of the word, considering the difficulty of the battles leading up to them, and while it’s nice having a couple of multiplayer modes, a multiplayer mode where each player plays as one of the two characters on different DS systems would have been really neat (though it’s essentially possible for two people to play the game on one DS, assuming you’re both really chummy).

Honestly, though, those are small complaints that really don’t do anything to detract from the experience, so for the record: The World Ends With You is, in no particular order, a fantastic action RPG, a fantastic DS game, a FUN game, and one of the most unique and original games in years, if not ever. The story is strong, the presentation is exceptional, the game is a hoot to play, there’s tons of stuff crammed into the game to keep you coming back until you beat the game and beyond, and so on. Everyone should play this at least once just to see what can be done to expand the originality of the medium, and a lot of you out there really should buy it, if only because it’s a fantastic game and, as such, Square Enix probably won’t make a sequel to it.

The Scores:
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: CLASSIC
Balance: GREAT
Addictiveness: CLASSIC
Appeal: GOOD
Miscellaneous: CLASSIC

Final Score: CLASSIC.

Short Attention Span Summary:
The World Ends With You is one of the best games released this year, regardless of genre, console, or concept. It’s as simple as that. It looks great, it sounds great, it’s well written, it’s fun to play, it’s addictive and engaging, it’s essentially everything a classic game should be. This is either going to end up as one of those games that everyone buys and loves to pieces or one of those underappreciated classics that everyone adds to “games that were awesome and deserved love/a sequel” lists. Either way, everyone really should at least PLAY this, if not to like or love it, at least to see what a developer can do to shock everyone who thinks that the medium has reached its limits. Bravo to Jupiter, and by proxy Square Enix, for making something that, bad or good, is truly unique.