I haven’t played a ton of Japanese games. I mean, I have played a lot of games that were made in Japan, and I have played plenty of JRPGs. But I haven’t played that many Japanese games, if you catch my drift. I think one of the few was Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner, and I guess I’d probably put Catherine and the Phoenix Wright games in that camp too, simply because these are games that are based in Japanese culture, and – even translated into English – carry that vibe with them still. Having never known any viewpoint other than a Western perspective, there’s something decidedly mystifying and different about that Eastern feeling that some games exude. The World Ends With You is precisely one of those types of games.
I’m sure there’s a story behind how The World Ends With You came to be part of my DS collection. Unfortunately, I don’t remember most of it. Is it because I only have nebulous memories remaining of an inebriated purchase? Sadly, no. It’s a lot less youthful than that. I don’t know quite how I ended up with a copy because I can’t really remember where I heard about the game. It was either a friend giving me some suggestions for what games to buy when I first got my 3DS (since I don’t have a normal DS), or, more likely, I saw the game mentioned on a list of DS RPGs/visual novels somewhere on-line. That, and it has one of those hard-to-forget titles. Eventually I logged on to Amazon to buy a game or two. The rest is history.
Thinking about the game now, I’m not entirely convinced I’d classify it as a visual novel, or a pure RPG for that matter (though, for the right price, I could be persuaded to go with an Action RPG classification). Sure, it has a ton of comic-style dialog to wade through, and has stats, items, armor, levels, and abilities, so it incorporates facets of both genres. But – again, being so Japanese – it is, in a lot of ways, its own creature, crafting a modern story with heavy emphasis on youth culture, fashion, trends, graffiti, and – of course – sushi.
I’ma try to summarize it; this’ll be fun! You play as Neku, a quiet, sullen youth who awakens to find himself in a strange yet familiar town called Shibuya. Though he’s in the middle of a busy street, surrounded by people, no one seems to be able to see or hear him. To make matters worse, monsters, called Noise, begin to attack him. In the nick of time, he is joined by a bubbly girl named Shiki, who first helps Neku in battle, then explains to him that he’s in the UG (UnderGround) and is a player in a game that lasts seven days. Each day, Neku and Shiki, who form a team, are given a mission they must accomplish within a given time frame. Should they fail in this, they will be erased – which means they die. That’s the initial gist of it. There’s no mention of why Neku is part of this game, who would organize such a thing, or any number of other pressing questions that immediately spring to mind. Admittedly, all of these things are answered during the course of the game. But it’s a hell of a premise to ask players to swallow, basically sight unseen, and go along with until things are cleared up later.
Did I mention this is a Japanese game yet?
As if the narrative set-up isn’t odd enough, combat is even more unconventional – and I think this may be the “make it or break it” moment of the game for many. Battles are handled in a way I’ve never seen before, and I’m not sure I entirely love it. Neku and his partner occupy opposing screens, with Neku always on the bottom. Enemies, however, appear in both screens simultaneously. So both characters are slashing and pounding away at baddies, with the player being in full control of Neku at all times and contributing about 30% to his partner’s fight. To start with, simply controlling Neku is counter-intuitive: dragging the stylus across the touch screen makes Neku run in the direction and pattern you pull him in. This was very off-putting to me initially, as I would have preferred to use the thumb stick to move Neku, being 1) more traditional and intuitive, and 2) a different method of input than attacking, which (in what seems contrary to good design) also requires you to draw slashes, circles, and other patterns on the touch screen with the stylus! As a result, since using the exact same input method to move my character and make him attack, I sometimes ended up dashing across the screen when what I really wanted to do was activate an offensive horizontal slice, and vice versa.
As confusing as this can get at times, it wasn’t as bad as it would seem; after a little while to get used to the controls, things started smoothing out, and generally stayed that way. However, another element soon enough reared its ugly head to make sections of this game – especially towards the end – a nightmare. I’m talking about having to control Neku’s partner during battles!
As awkward or as second-nature as he whole directing Neku and his attacks may be to some individuals, I found it extremely difficult to have to split my attention three ways and weave controlling his partners’ attacks into the mix as well! Generally, Neku’s teammate – and he has three over the course of his adventure: Shiki, Joshua, and Beat – attacks on his or her own, and does an acceptable job of it. But during boss battles, particularly as the game moves on, it becomes necessary to augment your partner’s auto attacks with additional commands of your own. By using the d-pad, the three teammates jump, fly, block, and attack, overriding their AI behavior and potentially saving the team from disaster, since both teammates share the same health meter.
This whole secondary battle mechanic was so difficult for me to pull off that I entirely ignored at first – and I got through about a third of the game without ever having to use it at all! But near the end of the second act, the bosses simply became too powerful for my partner’s AI to handle, and I had to re-learn how to best play the game – a difficult feat in any game. I must say, however, that it’s precisely because of this that I am extremely proud of myself: despite some late bosses taking me dozens of attempts (it’s quite possible I was severely under-leveled…), I persevered and never succumbed to the tempting offer to lower the game’s difficulty. Eventually, I completed the game on its ‘Normal’ setting, and am quite content with my accomplishment!
The World Ends With You does offer up some nice post-game content, though. Each chapter of the campaign can be replayed, in any order, in a kind of ‘New Game +’ mode, with all the gear and pins you owned still in place, granting the opportunity to continue leveling them and to acquire the most expensive shop items that would simply not have been possible to buy with the currency obtained in a single playthrough (most battles are entirely optional, so it’s very possible to not be able to buy very much gear during the campaign). New challenges for each chapter add additional motivation to replay them, eventually unlocking a new ending if all optional challenges have been met. Finally, an all-new bonus chapter is opened up after the credits have rolled, though I don’t know anything about it since I have yet to play it.
What else is there to say about this game? It’s kind of a unique game, in its own category in a lot ways. It has the gear, stats, and battles most JRPGs feature, though the battle system isn’t turn-based, and not entirely real-time either. You equip pins as a way of selecting which moves and ‘spells’ you take into battle with you, and have to control not only your player character but also his teammate in a dual-screen game of Twister, contorting your hands, fingers, and eyes to try to pay attention to everything at once and pull off moves and strategies with both combatants simultaneously. It has a fairly lengthy story (finished it at about 30 hours) with large amounts of text, reminiscent of a visual novel. And it features an unforgiving difficulty curve somewhere around the halfway mark that does its best to break you. I haven’t mentioned its online component, which is present (if I recall correctly, you can trade stuff with other players you met via StreetPass), but I honestly don’t think the chances are great you’ll run into many fellow players of this particular game, especially at this point – the game was released outside of Japan six years ago. Overall, it was an experience quite different from anything I’ve ever played, and I imagine, if only for that reason, it could appeal to others as well. I certainly can’t find much reason to recommend against playing it. With all enthusiasm I can muster, I say go ahead, knock yourself out.