Review: NEO: The World Ends With You

So here it is, the sequel.

It’s not exactly a mystery that The World Ends With You became a cult hit on its release, and with good cause. It wasn’t just that it had a very different setting than normal, setting itself in the beating heart of a stylized version of Shibuya with a cast of characters that basically exemplified the youth culture scene at the time; it was also just seen as an energetic and different sort of RPG at a time when that was particularly welcome. It seemed like the sort of game that could only ever exist in its moment, not before or later.

And yet here we are 14 years later with a sequel to the original in our hands. It’s a newly-stylized Shibuya, it’s a new cast of characters, it’s a new Reaper’s Game. How well does it stack up to the original when all is said and done?

The bad news is, well… I never played the original, so I can’t tell you that. But I can tell you how it stacks up as a game on its own when it releases on the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4, with a PC release on the Epic Games Store planned for later this year. (For the record, the PlayStation 4 version was played for this review.)

Game On

The initial premise of NTWEWY will be familiar to anyone who has at least passing familiarity with the original game. Rindo, the protagonist, and his best friend Fret are both inside of Shibuya when they get sucked inside of the mysterious Reaper’s Game. While both of them are initially fairly blasé about the whole matter, they quickly realize that the Reaper’s Game is being played by the spirits of the dead who have yet to pass on… and their only hope for a path out of the game is to compete with the other more established teams as part of the overall game.

Some of this will be more familiar to people who have played the original games; for example, a rather notable character from the first game shows up as an ally right from the first day, and it soon becomes clear that there’s a very direct link from the first game’s events to everything currently happening in Shibuya. However, even if you haven’t played the original, you’ll probably be… well, quicker to pick up the details on what’s going on than RIndo and company. At first, the plot was kind of frustrating in that the characters seemed somehow oblivious to obvious facts like what “erasure” means in context or what the stakes of the game actually are.

However… this starts to fade with a little time. While at first I found myself a little bit annoyed at the way the game seemed content to make the crew out to be hopelessly stupid, I increasingly found myself growing into the dynamics of the unfolding mystery. Even if you figure out the basic premise very quickly, there’s a steady increase of the stakes and a sense that the game you’re playing is rigged in countless small ways. The confusion steadily gives way to a genuine understanding that even if you, the player are aware there’s more going on than is immediate obvious, it’s still not immediately clear what is actually going on.

And there is definitely more going on here, and you can tell that pretty early on. There are agendas at work that give everyone different incentives within the actual game, and you quickly get the sense that while Rindo and his team, the Wicked Twisters, are playing to get out of the game… almost everyone else (even some of your allies) are chasing something different. Not to mention the whispers about someone who changed the game entirely that might well tie back into the first game…

It’s a solid foundation for a story, in other words, and it’s easy to start getting swept up in it. The going is slow at first and it takes a while before the cast gets their hooks in you, but by the time the seven-day duration of the game is set to conclude… well, no spoilers here, but there’s clearly a lot more to learn even then.

Flash Fashion

NTWEWY has one of the most weird and non-intuitive battle systems that I’ve ever seen in a JRPG. I kind of love it.

The game’s fights do not take place in any sort of turn-based format; instead, they’re semi-free-roaming affairs in a sectioned-off bit of the Shibuya streets. Once you transition to a battle, you have a number of commands, with each of your party members equipped with a pin that has a single command mapped to a face button or a shoulder button. You control the character whose attack you last pressed, dodging enemy attacks in real-time, stringing together attacks from multiple characters in sequence.

Does that sound like a jumbled mess? It sure felt like one at first, and after the first couple of battles I was starting to wonder if it was even supposed to make sense. But then, much like the plot, a strange thing started to happen. I started getting a feel for the combat system and started actually liking it.

There’s a lot going on with any given attack. For example, shoulder buttons need to be held down to charge, but you can do that while unleashing attacks from your other characters. You want to time some of your attacks right to increase your Groove gauge, which allows you to unleash a particularly potent attack when fully stacked up. What looks at first like a riot of button mashing and unclear mechanics is actually a really interesting active battle system once you get a feel for how you’re supposed to be playing it.

This extends to a lot of other elements of the game. They’re weird and subtle, but they work. For example, leveling up has absolutely no impact on your stats outside of your HP. In order to increase your other stats, you need to stop by one of the many restaurants in Shibuya, using your money and filling up with a meal that boosts attack, defense, and style. That last one allows you to unlock the passive effects on the gear you’ll equip, and when it’s high enough the hidden powers start activating like increasing the stats based on the brand of clothes you’re wearing, making for what is functionally a second evaluation of the gear you’re otherwise wearing.

It’s all very different from what you’re probably going to expect going in beyond a vague sense of “this is a game about youth culture, being stylish is probably important.” There are lots of weird quirks all over, don’t get me wrong. But once you start getting the feel for it, that’s actually to its credit. You start wanting to chain up big sequences of battles, then hit the local ramen place to boost your style and sell off some excess pins for greater power.

Again, I can’t say how it compares to the battle system of the original, but what I can say is that it makes for a game that’s a lot of fun, and when you start slicing through Noise and fellow players alike in a quick sequence of attacks it feels pretty great. It makes you actually look forward to the next random battle, and that’s not easy to do.

Style Show

First and foremost, a quibble – while you’re exploring Shibuya’s streets, all of your camera angles are locked, which is at once irritating and a clear intentional choice. It makes navigating things just a little harder than it needs to be, and you get used to it, but every so often there’s a place where you desperately want to tilt the right stick and pan the camera around a little. Kind of infuriating, I’m sorry. That was a bad call.

It’s also a bad call because while the stylized graphics are a bit simple, they’re that way by design rather than as a result of limitation. The crowds of people milling about Shibuya, the storefronts, the buildings, and so forth all have a distinct character to them, and you quickly get a sense for what things are located where even when the city could easily have started to dissolve into a uniform slog. Heck, it’s even more impressive when you consider that it’s the only environment in the game; there are no dungeons, just the same districts of the city that you’re moving back and forth across steadily.

Huge credit has to be given to the soundtrack. While I don’t like how there’s a very fixed track that plays whenever you enter the main menu, everything else is appropriately funky and charming, with loads of catchy tracks for both exploration and combat that shifts with an almost tangible flourish. The soundtrack is reminiscent of the best part of the Persona games, which is high praise indeed coming from me; I can’t wait for an album.

The voice acting, on the other hand, is… well, it’s not bad by any stretch, but the relatively small number of voice clips starts to get a bit repetitive after a short period of time, and if I never have to hear Fret say “Galaxy brain, activate” ever again I will die happy. Basically, there’s an outsized sort of anime personality that doesn’t totally translate well in English, and some of the voices wind up a bit annoying as a result. It grows on you, but the repetition is an issue.

World Starting

One of the things I like about Square Enix as a company is that so frequently it would be possible to just rest on one’s laurels and deliver what amounts to more of the same, and yet so many of the projects the company puts out seem resistant to doing that. I have very little doubt that NTWEWY could have functionally just been akin to the first one, given a more direct link to the first game, and so forth. Instead, it feels like the people working on the game wanted to swing something further out.

The thing is that when I started playing the game, I actually didn’t much care for it. But the more I played and understood it, the more I liked it and appreciated the design decisions going on within the title. What at first felt disjointed started to seem reasonable and even logical, and before long I was actually getting more satisfaction out of the game than I expected. It steadily rose in my estimation the more chances I gave it to get its hooks in me.

It’s not an instant classic, but I think fans of the original are going to really find stuff to like here. And if you’re like me and never played the original, you still owe it to yourself to give this one a solid look. The weirdness of its controls and some of its quirks mean that it might not be for everyone… but give it a fair shot, and I have a feeling you’re going to get a lot more out of it than you might initially expect.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by Square Enix for PS4. All screenshots courtesy of Square Enix.