The World Ends With You | Jupiter/Square Enix | DS | Shibuya fashion death action
I gave it: A- | In retrospect, this was: A bit low!
Square Enix surprised me twice this spring: first with Crisis Core, which I expected to be a mindless abomination but turned out to be a pleasant bit of fluff that secreted away a few genuinely excellent elements amidst the flashy brain-popcorn. But my surprise over not hating Crisis Core was nothing next to my genuinely loving The World Ends With You, which by all appearances was destined to be a stupid, irritating, fatuous, mindless lump of Nomura zipper-fetish whining, wrapped up in a dense and incomprehensible battle mechanic. And god knows the game certainly started off that way: simpering emo-boy Neku, the so-called “hero” of the piece, wore an improbable getup, wallowed in self-pity and hated everyone around him. All I could think was oh god. I was genuinely angry that I’d been assigned to review the game, because its existence pained me. Then something strange happened: the game thoroughly subverted each and every one of my preconceptions.
The ridiculous clothing became a key plot point and game mechanic, the outlandish fashions totally justified by the game’s setting; youth culture in Shibuya, Tokyo really is about treading a thin line between looking stupid and impressing others with your unique style. Characters’ stats were determined not by their wisdom or constitution but rather by their courage — that is, the social bravery required to dress flamboyantly. Reserved Neku begins the game at a severe disadvantage compared to his gregarious companions, and thus can only don a limited array of outfits, limiting his customization options until players start to build up his confidence. At the same time, Neku is forced to come out of his shell and stop being such a jerk, sometimes making tiny progress and sometimes being shocked by tragedy out of his complacence. The net result is a perfect synthesis of story and mechanics in a clever way that absolutely works within the context of the game’s setting — allowing for its more fantastic elements, of course. It’s a level of meta-textual cleverness one doesn’t really expect from a game that looks like it’s about mopey anorexics who escaped from a Kingdom Hearts cosplay convention, but there it is.
Meanwhile, the seemingly baroque combat system…well, honestly it is pretty overblown. Confusing and excessive, it expects players to be able to divide their attention between two very different types of action: the top screen is a sort of DDR-style rhythm game, while the bottom is a dense action-RPG that requires a wide array of touch inputs — dragging, tapping, slashing, scribbling. It’s kind of silly, really. Its saving grace is that the top screen action can be set to play out automatically so you can focus entirely on dragging Neku around. The top screen mainly comes into play as a secondary factor that can be manipulated to enhance the power of Neku’s bottom-screen actions, and only on rare occasions does the welfare of your top-screen companion become a factor.
If the the stuff above is sort of distracting and unimportant, the stuff below is completely sweet. Jupiter seems to have used its previous Square Enix portable project, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, as a launching point for something vastly better. Just as Sora had to use cards to do every stupid little thing, Neku has to use pins to act in battle…but it makes a lot more sense here, because (1) Neku wasn’t in a previous game where he was perfectly capable of beaning a bad guy on the head without some arcane mechanic and (2) the skills the pins enable feel far more varied and natural than they were in Chain of Memories — and lacked arbitrary limitations on usage, too. The sheer diversity of the pins, plus their evolutions and combinations, make for an exceptionally customization-friendly game that can be approached however you like.
I actually scored The World Ends With You fairly conservatively, because as much as I loved it I was concerned that maybe my opinion was being colored by the thrill of playing something so unique and unexpected. But the game seems likely to withstand the test of time; as 2008 wanes, it remains one of the freshest and most daring (yet polished) creations I’ve seen all year. Even more gratifying is the fact that it’s actually found a sizable, receptive audience. The danger of creating something that defies expectations is the possibility of being ignored, but something about the game seems to have resonated with Western fans (despite its unabashedly Japanese setting), and The World Ends With You remains a hit through strong word of mouth. The creative and financial success Square Enix has found with this oddball little adventure — seeing such originality and seeing it so well-received — gives me hope for the medium and its audience. I’m not quantifying which of the games I played this year were the best…but if I were, The World Ends With You would be vying for top honors.