2008 is shaping up to be an incredible year for the DS, and not because of old franchises. Zelda, we love you. Final Fantasy, we think you're great, and you'll probably dominate a good portion of our summers. But the first half of the year belongs to the new guys. After playing Professor Layton and the Curious Village, we thought we'd seen one of the most wonderful DS games to date, and that's true. But when it comes to sheer innovation, The World Ends With You blows it right out of the water. Anyone looking to create an ARPG or anything with stylus-based action controls should study The World Ends With You, because -- no exaggeration -- nearly everything here is done right.
Of course, almost nothing's perfect, and that includes this game. Most of the few flaws here are visible right from the beginning; that, combined with the unusual look and the fact that it's a new IP, may turn some gamers off. Don't be one of them, because this one is worth playing.
The World Ends With You opens with the mysterious awakening of rebellious Neku in a beautiful, manga-style recreation of Tokyo's Shibuya ward. Neku is fifteen years old and acts like it, which means (advance apologies to fifteen-year-old readers; we were there once) he's a cranky little toerag who thinks he doesn't need anyone. The discovery that he's caught up in a potentially deadly game hosted by the shadowy Reapers doesn't really change his perception of superiority (though it should), but against his will, Neku teams up with the perky and persistent Shiki in order to defeat Noise and succeed in the game.
Reapers? Noise? Game? Okay, that last one you probably understand, considering you're a fan of games. Here, it refers to a massive real-life ARG (of sorts) that has trapped the players in Underground Shibuya, which is slightly to the left, as it were, from the regular Shibuya. Players are limited in their interaction, but Neku and others have the ability to scan any area and pick up on thoughts, as well as that aforementioned Noise. Noise is the catch-all term for the basic enemies in the game, which range from the weird to the weirder. The Reapers are the game's masters, and they vary as much as the freaky frogs and wacky wolves you'll fight. Some are almost helpful; they give you mini-missions within the mission-based game, while others try to impede your progress as much as possible, or threaten erasure. And erasure is exactly what you're faced with if you fail in the game, which consists of one mission per day for seven days. Succeed and everyone succeeds. Fail and be erased.
At this point, it sounds like the most typical of RPGs: an angsty teen hero and his sunny sidekick forced to save the world/city/town/your mom through unusual circumstances, but take heart -- here, the cliché provides only the base foundation. After that, it's a whole new world. It's a very Japanese world, and a little judgmental under the surface, but give the story a little time, and even its bratty hero will draw you in.
The World Ends With You is such a fresh, innovative title that it's difficult to distill every great aspect in the space of a few paragraphs. The combat system is unashamedly complicated, but it works so well that once everything comes together, navigating all the different aspects is a breeze ... and if not, you can automate some things to make the burden easier to bear. After Neku is thrust into the game's bizarro world, he learns he can use psychs, which are accessed through various pins. The first you get, for example, gives Neku pyrokinesis, and is activated by a) being worn in battle as part of your "deck," and b) dragging the stylus across empty space to create a path of fire. Here are the pages from the manual that explain the various psych controls (click for higher res versions if you're so inclined):
It's important to take these commands to heart and exercise them with care. The wild, slashing touchscreen equivalent of button-mashing won't work here; you'll need to perform deliberate actions, and take your time to pick up the stylus after each move, or Neku is going to stand there like a knob while wolves take a bite out of his skinny backside. As if all of that wasn't enough to be going on with, you'll be controlling your partner as well -- at the same time -- with the Stride Cross battle system. Or, as we like to call it around here, the keeping-you-busy system. It's a lot to take on, and as you progress and pick up more abilities, it gets even bigger, but here's the basic rundown: Neku fights on the bottom screen, and you control him with the stylus, while his partner fights on the top, controlled with the d-pad (or the opposite buttons for lefties). Top screen combat is a DDR-influenced up-up-down-down exercise in finding your rhythm that is a little simpler (but still not easy) than Neku's control scheme. To complicate things further -- because they were so easy before -- you've got a hot potato to pass back and forth between characters. While this serves as a helpful indicator as to which character should be your focus, it's also a bit more; the longer you keep the "puck," as it's called, going, the stronger your pins.
But wait! There's more! When the combo map is open on the top screen with its follow-the-arrows interface, you can navigate toward certain special symbols. If these correspond to facedown cards at the top of your partner's screen, you earn stars. Earning stars opens the fusion ability, which is this game's version of a team-based limit break.
It takes two
The dual screen combat system is difficult at first, and punishing at times even when you're used to it, but with adjustable settings, a lengthy tutorial, and the ability to automate the top screen when you need to do so, you can find your way given a little time. And once you do, you begin the process of collecting pins and money, and hitting all the shops to buy food and clothing, which opens up another aspect of the game.
Fashion is really serious business in UG Shibuya. Keep an eye on the hot trends, because the wrong brand can lower your combat efficacy, just as the right one can make you stronger. This ridiculous-sounding system is such pure fun that, for the first time in years, I found myself exiting and reloading screens just to see if new enemies would appear to replace those I'd cleared. I wanted an endless supply of Noise (and not even for drops, but for the pure pleasure of fighting), and kept getting distracted from things like mission objectives due to my desire to fiercely pound on everything in range. If The World Ends With You had been Pokémon, I'd have caught them all and would still be looking for more.
Beyond all of this -- as though any game needed more -- there are tons of awesome little touches that really make this a standout title. It doesn't pay to sleep your DS here; save your game, turn it off, and come back to find that free PP (pin points, like EXP) have accumulated while you were away. Have a friend with the game? Engage in a little Tin Pin Slammer, a wireless multiplayer mini-game, or trade Friend cards. Or pile everyone you know with a DS in the room, ask them to put in anything that emits a wireless play signal, and rack up more PP. It pays to have friends.
Despite the length of this review, which is reaching truly epic proportions at this point, there's much more to The World Ends With You. While the game is no sixty hour time sink, there's plenty to keep you busy for quite a while. Unfortunately, many of the game's problems -- or perceived problems -- are visible up front. It's difficult to connect to the hero in the beginning, the combat system takes some time to master, and the RPG clichés seem like just that until the story unfolds a little. Until you open up the shops and some other abilities, it doesn't seem like there's much to do. The World Ends With You is an amazing adventure, and will surely be remembered as one of the best available on the DS, but it takes a little time to get going. Do yourself a favor and give it a couple of hours -- your patience will be rewarded.
Controls: A veritable primer for stylus-based action controls. The Stride Cross battle system is crazy and chaotic at first, but the tutorials and various levels of customization really help offer padding until you find your own stride. Movements that at first seem terribly arbitrary are not, and the better you get at combat, the more precisely you'll execute each move. The touchscreen here is very effective at managing everything that is going on, and switching off between characters during battle (or actively managing both at once) gets easier. Navigating Shibuya outside of battle is a cakewalk, and so are the menus.
Some people have complained that the controls seem arbitrary. They're not. Having trouble? You may in fact be doing it wrong. Slow down and undertake each move with precision, then observe the results.
p.s. Everyone, please stop using the mic, unless there's a good reason. If your game is not My (Insert Foreign Language Here) Coach, Brain Age, or any other game with a viable reason for spoken commands, just stop. We're tired of blowing into the mic. Thanks.
Visuals: The exaggerated characters and costumes that seem so weirdly out of place at times in other games fit perfectly here. There are a few small disappointments; too many character portraits and citizen models are reused (the latter just recolored), but that's a very small nitpick, and one that's easily forgotten the further you advance in the story.
Sound: The soundtrack is fabulous and well-suited to the setting and characters, and the effects are great. So great, in fact, that the only improvement that could have been made was adding more. The sparse voice acting is great, but it's largely limited to a few exclamations here and there.
Story: What starts out sounding like any other JRPG is actually much deeper, and effective on several levels. The story itself, of the game and the Reapers, and Neku and his companions, does a lot with the RPG clichés we take for granted, and on a deeper level, a story about kids with a life-or-death dependence on phones and fashions is incredibly savvy and a little sad. On the one hand, the slang and dialogue is fantastic (Neku says someone is "full of fail" and at one point wishes for more zippers, which is ironic, since he was designed by Tetsuya 'Zipperz' Nomura), and the mechanics are sharply drawn from real-life obsessions (memes are used as tools and fashion trends affect battle). On the other, these typically unimportant passions are blown massively out of proportion here as aspects of the meta-game. Playing The World Ends With You is like being a teenager all over again, but in a really awesome way (that might get you killed).
Difficulty: Like so many things in this astonishing title, the difficulty is adjustable. Oh, and it's not just any old meter; you can adjust the level of control you have over top screen combat, your level versus that of enemies (which determines drop rate), you can attack many enemies in chains, or one group at a time ... if it's an aspect of The World Ends With You, you can probably tailor it to your own desired gameplay experience. Adjustable factors aside, this title starts off with a bang after the initial introduction to combat. Your first moments with the Stride Cross system may well leave you lost, but by the time you clear the first major boss fight, everything should be a breeze (albeit a very complicated breeze), even when new aspects are added.
Final verdict: 9.5/10 - truly one of the best experiences on the DS to date, and so densely packed with awesome features that it nearly pulled that elusive "perfect" score from this reviewer. Suddenly, the Square Enix remakes seem less exciting -- give us more of this!