I’m tired of saving the world.
How many princesses have I rescued? How many mystical swords have I acquired? How many airships have I flown? How many times have I halted the presence of an unstoppable evil bent on world destruction by sealing it in a secret realm, from which it will reemerge in a sequel?
Let’s face it, if you’re a gamer, you’ve traversed a lot of the same ground over and over. You’ve gone to the castle and spoken to the king, who gives you a mystical bauble that you can use to get the Holy MacGuffin which will bring peace to the world. Why do we see this plot so much? Because it works. We like this. We’re comfortable with this. Don’t believe me? Look at how many games have this basic plot.
It’s a rare game that takes us outside of this comfort level successfully. The new Square Enix RPG for the Nintendo DS, The World Ends With You, does just that. It raises the bar not only for handheld RPGs, but RPGs in general.
The World Ends With You takes place in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. You play as Neku, a prickly teenager who wishes the rest of the world would just leave him alone. You awaken in an intersection to find that you are part of a sadistic game run by a group called the Reapers. Neku has one week to play, with objectives to meet for each day. He also recieves a strange pin that lets him read minds, but also shows him dangerous creatures called Noise that must be destroyed. Neku must team up with other people in order to survive the game and defeat the Noise. Fail, and he will be erased from existence.The graphics in this game are mostly 2D sprites, with some shifting backgrounds. It doesn’t do anything more than the DS can handle, but there’s still a ton of detail. Shibuya is one of the most fully realized gameworlds I’ve ever seen. Sure, it’s a real place, but I didn’t even know that it was real until someone told me after I finished the game. There’s also a lot of games that take place in real locales that don’t immerse you this much. At any given time, there’s tons of people walking around in each of the areas of town, which adds to the sense that this is a living, breathing city.
A lot of the credit goes to the amazing art direction. The Noise look threatening and unique. The pins that you use in battle all have unique styles. Neku and friends are very well animated. Shibuya has a very distinct feel to it. There’s only one complaint: As characters get closer to the screen, the sprites tend to pixelate. It’s not major, though, and if you can handle that, you’ll have no problems.
Most games have a specific song that they play on the overland map, and a specific song that they play for battles. If you don’t like those tracks then you’re out of luck because you’re going to hearing them a lot. Jupiter has gotten around this problem by having Neku wear a set of headphones, which means he’s always listening to a different song. You’ll hear a lot of different music, and it’s all really high quality. It’s amazing how many tracks they managed to squeeze into a DS cart, and they all sound great. Some of them I’m going to remember for a long time.
The actors they picked for the voices are all spot-on, and there’s a lot of different voice samples that they use. However, in battle, they say the same few queued lines a lot. It works as an audio cue, so you know what’s going on with other characters and can keep track of everything. It does get slightly repetitive, but it doesn’t distract from the overall experience.One of the great things about The World Ends With You that it seems designed from the ground up for the Nintendo DS, as it should. It utilizes both screens handily, and it makes use of every feature that it can, including the microphone.
Still, the controls can take a little getting used to. For instance, during battle scenes, you’re not just handling Neku, but whatever companion he has with him. Neku controls with the stylus, and you control his companions with the arrow keys (or the A-B-X-Y buttons if you’re left-handed). It’s a little hectic, but fortunately the computer can take control of your AI partner. I made it through the entire game with this feature turned on, and I found it to work quite well.
Neku’s touchscreen controls take a little getting used to as well. Some of the motions that the pins use are very similar, which leads to confusion. Sometimes you’ll think you’re using one power when you’re using another instead. The good thing is that if two pins have similar motions, they make similar attacks, so you’re never too far off from the attack you wanted in the first place. It’s a little confusing, but not horribly so.
The World Ends With You can be a little daunting at first, but the game tries to help by slowly easing you into its world. The first couple of missions are training, more or less. This is a game that you have to pay attention to, because just playing it a little bit in passing isn’t going to help you adjust to the rules of the world. Once you start putting it all together, you won’t believe how cohesive it is.
One RPG trope that has been summarily rejected is the idea of random battles. You are able to fight the Noise whenever you want to by scanning the area for Noise and touching the one you want to fight. You can chain battles in a row to gain more XP, or you can turn your level down in order to get better item drops. You feel like you’re progressing through the game, not just grinding until you get to the next boss.
On top of that, every pin and item has its own brand. In some areas of town, certain brands are more fashionable than others. If you use a pin or piece of clothing that’s not as fashionable, there can be steep penalties. Conversely, you gain bonuses if you use fashionable items. You can also influence the brands by using unpopular brands in battle, which makes them more popular.
Another fantastic feature is the ability you gain to restart any battle after you’ve been defeated. You can even restart a battle at a lower difficulty level. You won’t gain as much experience, but you’ll never have to leave an area, grind for an hour, and then come back later to fight a boss. You’ll never get stuck in the game.
It’s not just the battles that feel revolutionary, though. Your character is basically invisible to the world, but you can still influence items and thoughts. Without spoiling too much, you get the ability to implant thoughts into peoples heads in order to solve missions. In one of the more ingenious touches, different NPCs will play a Ouija-type game that you can influence in order to get them to obey your commands.
Stories are usually hit-or-miss in games. There’s a myriad of games that can be played without understanding one cinematic, or paying close attention to one line of dialogue. That is definitely not the case with The World Ends With You. It’s a mature story with twists and turns, and with characters that feel real. Almost every character and sub-character has a distinct motivation, even if that motivation is just to serve a really good bowl of ramen.
Some RPGs will let you start over at the beginning with a “New Game+” option. The World Ends With You takes it a step further, and allows you to pick any chapter of the game to do over. Inside each chapter, you’ll uncover secrets that you didn’t know existed and round out the story even more. Some of the secrets are rather difficult to find, so you might spend a lot of time learning more about Shibuya’s mysterious inhabitants.
It’s rare to find an RPG for a handheld system with this much content. There’s so much video game joy here that you it should satisfy just about any RPG gamer. If you can’t find something to like in The World Ends With You, I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe Parcheesi should be your new hobby instead.