Modern settings, such as the sleepy suburban town of Onett in EarthBound or the vibrant cities in the Persona games, are easily the least often used settings in Japanese RPGs. Another title to add to this short list of “modern” RPGs is Square Enix and Jupiter’s The World Ends With You. The setting here is an alternate reality version of Shibuya, the hip and happening district of Tokyo, Japan known for its shopping and street culture. The modern trappings of the game extend beyond the setting into the graphics, music, gameplay, and plot, offering a unique take on the Japanese RPG formula.
The World Ends With You presents two versions of Shibuya, RG (Real Ground) and UG (Underground). RG is the real, physical, tangible version of Shibuya that you and I would traverse. The UG is like a metaphysical plane, run by the Reapers. The Reapers collect unwilling people from the RG, strip them of that which they hold most dear as an entry fee, and subject them to their deadly game where players must partner up and successfully survive seven challenge-filled days or face permanent erasure from existence. In the UG, players cannot interact with anyone in Shibuya save for each other, Reapers, and shopkeepers. However, players in the Reapers Game can read the minds of Shibuya’s denizens and occasionally influence their thoughts and actions, almost like ghosts or spirits. Players can also perceive “Noise” around people, Noise being people’s negativity manifested in the form of monsters.
The young man you’ll explore UG Shibuya with is Neku Sakuraba, a spiky-haired, angsty, misanthropic cold fish of a teenage loner who thinks he’s better off on his own and doesn’t understand why people need friends to depend on. Neku is obviously not very happy about being in Shibuya and is even unhappier when a mysterious pin he discovers allows him to read minds. While Neku is freaking out, a perky teenage girl named Shiki appears and drags him off to safety. Since the Reapers Game requires that one have a partner to survive, a reluctant Neku forms an awkward and uneasy alliance with Shiki. As the two traverse the seven day period, they learn more about their unreal circumstances and each other. After Neku completes the seven day stint with Shiki, he becomes unwittingly drawn back into the game where he completes a seven day sequence with another partner. In total, Neku spends a week each with three different partners, the final day culminating in a series of boss battles. I spent about 20 hours on a single playthrough, but I would gather that many would complete one playthrough in less time. The ending is fairly lengthy and though it is slightly cryptic in spots, it’s ultimately satisfying and gives a good sense of completion.
Neku’s “participation” in multiple Reapers Game cycles allows him to develop a decent amount during the course of the game. Each partner character brings out different sides of him, and vice versa, leading to some of the more interesting moments in the story. Dialogue is laconic, but never skimpy. All characters say what they have to say without wasting words and speak fairly naturally. My only caveat with the story is that it feels a tad rushed towards the end and Neku’s development sometimes seems sudden. After completing the game, a New Game Plus feature is opened where you can replay any chapter you want in any order and search for secret reports within those chapters help flesh out the story a bit more. Another New Game Plus feature is “Another Story” based around the mini-game Tin Pin Slammer, which I will talk about later on. And in true New Game Plus style, Neku retains his level, items, and equipment.
The graphics take a cue from Jet Grind Radio, a Dreamcast game that also celebrated street culture. Character sprites are decently sized and clad in exaggerated versions of Shibuya street fashions. Environments are nicely detailed and full of people with unique sprites milling about, lending the feel of a crowded city. It’s not uncommon during exploration to have Neku and his partner get lost in the crowd. Monsters are very colorful and resemble cartoonish versions of graffiti and tattoo artwork. Colors are bright and quite easy on the eyes. Battle animations look terrific in still screenshots, but because of the frantic pace everything occurs, the cool animations seem to end before they start. Cutscenes on the top screen have 2D character portraits spouting conversation bubbles at each other and some major cutscenes use both screens and have rudimentary animations.
The music is very similar to Persona 3’s soundtrack in that is utilizes hip-hop and electronica style beats often peppered with pop and hip-hop vocal samples. The music definitely fits the vibe of the game and I cannot imagine it having any other kind of soundtrack, but gamers who disliked Persona 3’s soundtrack will not like this one either. I personally liked the soundtrack, especially since it had multiple battle themes. I always appreciate when RPGs do this because given how much time is spent in RPG combat, a single battle theme can get stale. Some pieces are fun and funky, some have driving beats, some are emotional, and some are just plain weird (which some people may read as “annoying” or “grating”). My personal favorite track in the game was “Calling.” I never got tired of hearing it. There is even an English vocal song during the end credits, and it’s actually decent. The sound quality of the game’s music is very good, even without headphones. The good sound quality also extends to the explosive sound effects, which really add punch to battles. The game has some voice acting, but it’s mostly just battle cries and a few lines in the intro and ending. The acting itself is pretty average; nothing great but nothing awful either.
The gameplay involves frantic and frenetic battles that require some serious hand-eye coordination and dexterity. Battles occur in realtime and players use stylus movements and occasionally screaming into the DS’ mic to control Neku’s movements and attacks on the bottom screen while simultaneously using D-Pad (or A, B, X, Y for lefties) button presses to coordinate the Neku’s partner’s attacks on the top screen. If you leave the top screen combatant alone, AI will take over his or her moves, and in the main menu players can select how much time passes before Auto-Play takes over. Battles are definitely akin to patting one’s head while simultaneously rubbing the tummy. They are overwhelming at first, but with a little practice, players should get it. Control during battles can be quite slippery, especially with regard to stylus movements. There were times I would do the stylus patterns the game would tell me to activate certain pins’ powers, but they did not always work/respond immediately and I often found myself just stylus mashing my way through battles.
Pins and other pertinent items can be dropped by enemies during battles. Battles are not random and can only be initiated by running a scan on an area to detect Noise to click on for battles and peoples’ thoughts to read. Pins are the secret to Neku’s abilities. He can equip a variety pins that perform various actions via stylus moves. Some pins allow Neku to shoot energy blasts, some allow him to do sword slashes, others have elemental attacks, my personal favorites allowed telekinesis where one could toss cars and street signs around the battle screen with the stylus to bash enemies. There is an array of pins to collect with a wide variety of attacks as well as healing and defensive pins. During battles, each pin has a limited number of attacks/uses and has to charge for a second or few before it can be used again. Since Shibuya is a fashion trend hotbed, it is important to know what brands of clothing are hot in what parts of Shibuya. The various brands of clothing represent the distinct fashion styles of Shibuya such as punk, gothic lolita, and others. Many pins are attached to particular brands and if you sport a pin with a popular brand in the area, Neku will get an attack boost. If a pin is of an unpopular brand, it will be less effective. Pins can not only earn PP (pin points) and level up through use, but also earn PP while the game is turned off. Clothing can offer unique abilities, but unlocking them requires befriending the shopkeepers by buying their wares. Befriending shopkeepers also unlocks hidden items to snag. Just remember though, that in a style-conscious city like Shibuya, trends can change quickly and later on in the game, you even get to influence the trends in various areas of Shibuya based on the clothing and pins Neku wears.
There are multiple difficulty levels which can be switched on the fly in the menu screen. There is also an option to reduce Neku’s level in increments. The more players handicap themselves, the more frequently enemies drop good pins and items. So, really, you can scale the challenge of the game up and down as you please any time you want to so you get the optimal playing experience for you. I wish more games had this kind of depth in challenge customization. Another awesome option is that when you lose a battle you have a choice as to whether to retry it as-is or retry it on easy difficulty, thus not penalizing you for losing. Because of all this, there is almost no need to level grind. In addition, the game allows anywhere saving, except for the final stage featuring three final boss battles and a few cutscenes. The only snag other than the slippery controls during battles is that the menus, though attractive to look at, can sometimes be a tad cumbersome to navigate.
A strong component in many RPGs from the Square side of Square Enix has been well-designed mini-games, and The World Ends With You’s Tin Pin Slammer follows suit. Tin Pin Slammer is a simple game to learn but a difficult one to master. Basically, you launch your pin into your opponent’s pin using the stylus and try to knock their pin off the board. The pins you collect in the game have their own special Tin Pin Slammer stats and special moves. It is a good idea to keep an eye on those since some pins you may really like in combat may be pathetic in Tin Pin Slammer. The DS’ wi-fi and local LAN capabilities allow you to play Tin Pin Slammer with friends.
My final thought on The World Ends With You is that it’s a grower. I was not initially sold on the game, but as I sunk more time into it, the more it grew on me. The game does an excellent job of spacing out when new plot and gameplay elements are introduced, thus rewarding players who invest time into it. It also beautifully allows you to tweak the level of challenge you want out of the game. The game is obviously a quirky RPG whose quirks may either grow on you or turn you off. Still, for those who want to tread off the beaten path of the classic JRPG formula, The World Ends With You is worth at least a trial rental. It may not be EarthBound or Shin Megami Tensei, but The World Ends With You is one of the more unique titles Square Enix has released in a while and that has to count for something, right?