Sum Of The Parts
I really shouldn’t like visual novels. I have no idea why I do, looking back at many that I consider my favorites. For as much weight as I put on quality storytelling, the VNs I remember fondly don’t seem like they would hold up.
Little Busters, the first full “real” visual novel I ever read, is one that I look back on fondly. It’s still one of my favorite stories in the genre, and I’ve rewatched the anime adaption multiple times. However, I clearly remember having to force myself to play through the first half of the game before it really opened up and revealed its true core plot. It’s a rough story when looked at in pieces, but as a whole, it remains one of my favorites.
Ever17 is another classic in the genre and much beloved by fans. Again, the overall story feels masterful in its storytelling and use of medium. Picking out the pieces, though, reveals 10-minute-long diatribes on chicken sandwiches and a game of kick the can.
There’s something about the genre where the overall story presented winds up being much more than the sum of its parts…and it’s something I’m a sucker for. Having to work for an often stunning payoff seems to be a drug for my brain.
Developed by Toybox and published by Arc System Works, World End Syndrome was released on May 2nd, 2019, for PS4 and Switch. The Switch version was played for this review.
World End Syndrome follows a young man whose name you get to choose (Marth, of course, in my case), mindlessly traveling to a new city. He’s had some problems in his past that he wants to escape from, and his running has led him to Mihate Town, a small coastal city.
Mihate Town has a local legend: every 100 years, a dead person will come back to life and murder their way through the town. The legend calls this resurrected person a “Yomibito,” and as luck would have it, the summer the main character moves to town is also the 100 year mark since the last Yomibito supposedly ravaged the city.
What seems like a local superstition, though, seems to become more credible once people start turning up dead.
World End Syndrome positions itself as a mystery story, but, like any good visual novel, also includes a healthy dose of slice-of-life. Much of the game revolves around the main character’s days as a member of Mihate High School’s “Mystery Club,” learning about the town’s history and the legend of the Yomibito. There’s also (of course) some romance as well, with five beautiful girls that have the chance to become your girlfriend!
Unfortunately, Toybox doesn’t seem to balance all of these elements well throughout most of the story. The three initial character routes available to you all lean very heavily on romance/slice-of-life before suddenly whiplashing into mystery in their conclusions, often for no good reason at all.
Really, it’s the three initial routes where I find most of the faults in the game. The relationship-building is rushed, each route uses the same set-pieces repeatedly, just swapping out the girl you’re romancing (by the time I was on the third route, I was able to predict where exactly the story would take me at each moment), and none of them have any real bearing on the overall story.
That last bit is where most of my contention lies. Despite a few one-off moments hinting “ooh, somethings weird about this town,” there’s nothing that happened during these routes that really foreshadowed the places the plot would eventually go. Hell, the characters featured in these routes barely play a role in the game’s back half at all. The routes feel like they could be excised and the core story would be none the worse for wear.
Alright, I’ve been complaining up until this point, but I can say: despite all of these issues, World End Syndrome still packs a story worth experiencing. Once you get past the initial three routes, that’s when the game finally feels like it’s getting serious about its plot.
The final two routes are handled much better. The pacing is much more even, relationships are better developed (especially in the final route), and the mystery aspects of the story are finally highlighted. While I struggled to find motivation to play the game during the first few routes, once I hit this moment in the game, I had to fight to put the controller down.
The back half of the game ranges from predictable to mind-shattering, with many moments that left my jaw on the floor. It’s also over much too quickly. All of the best writing is found in the back half, with great prose and decent foreshadowing.
Honestly, if the game itself was just a quick read only featuring these final two routes, I would’ve walked away incredibly satisfied. The first three routes in turn feel more like they’re padding, and that they wasted my time.
While you will be spending most of your time reading, World End Syndrome does include some vague gameplay elements. While the opening prologue plays out like a straight visual novel, once you enter the core of the game (where you can begin accessing character routes), things change up a little bit.
The game is set throughout the month of August, during the main character’s summer break from school. Each day is split up into three main timeframes: morning, afternoon, and evening. During each of these, you can choose where you want to go in the city. Certain characters will be in certain places at certain times, and being in the right place at the correct moment can trigger special events.
With this setup, your initial run of the game is a lot of guesswork. The game encourages you to replay and reload your saves repeatedly to deduce who and what is going to be where at specific times. Helping you along the way is a map that marks what character is in which location after you’ve met them in previous playthroughs.
Following a specific character’s route requires you to try and spend as much time with them as you can, which is typical for a visual novel. With the setup World End Syndrome has, though, you’ll be using multiple playthroughs wildly guessing at where they may be until you figure out where they are every day. Due to this, I would highly recommend finding a guide to play this game with.
This would probably be a good time to note that I used a publisher-provided walkthrough to play most of this game. While I did run a couple playthroughs blind, I wound up resorting to the guide in the interest of time.
If you like poking around and trying to piece together information from context clues and guesswork, then World End Syndrome is probably right up your alley. If you’re like me, though – only here for the story – this system quickly becomes frustrating.
If there’s one thing that I absolutely loved about World End Syndrome front-to-back (for the most part), it would be the game’s visual presentation. The character designs are relatively detailed and attractive, with the designs easily capturing each character’s personality. The art stills throughout the game are even better, often making great use of atmospheric lighting. There are a few here and there where the characters seems slightly off-model though.
Most notable for me, surprisingly, is the background art. Specifically, the fact that it’s not static. There’s a decent variety of environments, and many of them feature some subtle movement and animation, helping the game feel a bit more “alive” than most other visual novels that feature standard background art.
When it comes to sound, things are mostly decent. The voice actors turn in good performances, but none of them in particular really stand out. The same can be applied to the soundtrack, as there weren’t any tracks that left much of an impression on me.
A Bit of Turbulence
Overall, World End Syndrome is a mash-up of great style but unusual choices. An excellent core story with a mostly pointless first half. An intriguing attempt at interactivity that winds up turning much of the game into guesswork. Very attractive presentation, but mostly average soundwork.
Despite this, after coming out the other end of the game, my final opinion leans more toward the positive. The destination was worth the bumpy journey, and having a map (read: walkthrough) to guide me made navigating the rougher moments easier to handle.
Is this a great game for visual novel newcomers? Probably not. Having an entire half of the game focused on mostly boring slice-of-life isn’t doing the game any favors in hooking in genre newbies. Those that are fans of this format, those who go in knowing what to expect, will likely have a good time here.
Review copy provided by Arc System Works for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer.