It is rare that it’s worth taking about a JRPG from the point of view of its story. No one would talk about Final Fantasy X? by kicking off with a discussion of the spoiled sports superstar Tidus being drawn into a sacred pilgrimage across the world. Who cares! He laughs like a freak, anyway.
But the best games tend to reward such an approach, because the best games take their scenario and make it an intrinsic part of its experience. No discussion of Super Metroid is complete without a mention of the baby Metroid and what happens in the depths of Tourian. Dragon Quest V gives you a family, and your concern over how your level 1 children are going to handle the world’s monsters makes you feel like their father in a way no amount of dialogue boxes could manage. The World Ends With You has a message, itself: It’s less challenging to be on your own, but it’s more rewarding to listen, to watch, to work with others and be a part of the world. This is somewhat on the nose in its original Japanese context, where hikikomori flourish like weeds, but with the benefit of cultural distance and an excellent translation, the point comes through loud and clear.
I’m talking not just about the plot, but about the battle system, as well. We’ll get to the story later; the infamous battle system is the big reason why The World Ends With You is so underrated. You’re in control of two party members, at once, in a real-time battle system. The game takes pains to make it as manageable as possible, but doing two things at once is intrinsically difficult. If you only had to handle Neku, the main protagonist and a powerful and complex fighter, it’d be engaging enough, but dealing with Neku’s battle partner, on the top screen and with their own controls, was too much for many players, who gave up on the game.
But that’s the thing: Tetsuya Nomura and Jupiter refused to compromise, because it was thematically important that players had to get a team working together. The two characters share enemies and hit points, and when the partner completes enough combos, Neku can activate a supermove unique to each partner. Jupiter added features to make it more manageable -- for one, the partner is on auto-pilot by default, and you can choose to take control at your leisure as you get more comfortable with handling the bottom. There’s also a glowing green puck that bounces between the two battlers, boosting their damage, which directs players to concentrate on one screen at a time to capitalise on the puck’s damage boost and to pass it on quickly to make that boost even more devastating for the other. To keep Neku manageable, there’s also plenty of visual and audio clues to warn players of what’s going on screen. It’s harrowing, at first, but once players get comfortable, it’s a unique and challenging experience. Listen, watch, work with the other screen and you’ll be a part of the game.
It’s not surprising that the game did better in the west than in Japan -- in the west, Shibuya and Tokyo are more exotic, and the localization added lots of endearing touches and sanded off some of the more trite aspects of the original script. The additional development time also gave the team an opportunity to make balance changes -- partner combos are easier to activate; post-game items have better stats; Neku’s weapons, his pins, have in some cases more sensible evolved forms; and the rewards for trying the game’s tag mode (including the randomly awarded “alien” bonus) were significantly increased to compensate for the less dense cities in the west.
The remarkable thing about The World Ends With You is that it nails everything it tries. The JRPG genre of this generation is awash with games that are either afraid to try anything new (Lost Odyssey) or games that are ambitious, but are littered with systems that really don’t work but couldn’t be cut (Final Fantasy XIII). TWEWY tries a completely unique battle system, an equipment-based experience system ala FFVII’s Materia, a level system that tied not into stats but drop rates, a Monster-Hunter-esque drop-based alchemy system, a fashion trend system, and a story set in the Tokyo ward of Shibuya -- and pulls off every single one of them. Needless to say, no one was really expecting Tetsuya Nomura and the team behind Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories to turn around and deliver a game that was fresh, vibrant and inventive -- and certainly no one was expecting them to come up with the best RPG of the generation.
TWEWY rethinks nearly every mechanic of the JRPG while still recognisably being a JRPG. Its combat system, in truth, isn’t really that far removed from a Tales game, but it’s frantic and hard while still being predictable and masterable. There are levels, but the only thing they provide is a bit of health and one bravery point. There are rare random drops, but you can temporarily trade in your levels -- and the health boosts—to increase drop rates, even up to 100%. Random battles are replaced with floating icons representing enemies, but you’re invited to build your own ambushes by stringing together fights. Skills upgrade using a rework of FFVII’s Materia system, but here it actually works better—the experience that Neku’s pins earn is determined by battle performance, and the wide variety of pins share attack flavors but differ greatly in the details, so every pin is unique and has a place. Some pins can evolve into stronger versions, and each family of pins has its own unique, distinctive design. Clothing (TWEWY’s equivalent of equipment) has stats, but each piece of clothing also grants an additional benefit, like an extra combo point or a faster power puck, so there’s an interesting tension between the big numbers and the useful abilities. As in real life, the only thing stopping you from wearing clothes is whether or not you’ll feel like a damn fool for doing so, and so most of the main characters start with low bravery to prevent them from considering a dress as part of their ensemble for a while—inverting RPG stereotypes by giving the female characters a decided equipment bonus in the process. Each brand of clothing has its own flavour: for instance, Lapin Angelique, the gothic lolita brand (again, this game is set in Shibuya) has special benefits that come with an edge—one stops you earning XP in return for HP regeneration, while another boosts your attack but locks your health to “almost dead” levels. And those brands? Each area of the ward has its own fashion trends, and wearing the appropriate brands nets you a style attack bonus -- or penalty -- that changes as you make the brands you’re wearing cool with your battle prowess.
The game is absolutely about style -- it’s born of Shibuya, capturing the trends and the idiosyncracies of the hippest areas of Tokyo. Its soundtrack is mostly licensed (and quite good) J-hip-hop and J-rock, and the original music fits right in. The designs for the branded clothing and pins takes after genuine fashion movements from the Shibuya area; subplots concern viral marketing, bloggers and suspiciously blurred mobile phone photos; and the localization handles four teenagers speaking like modern teenagers with surprising deftness. It even says “Bling!” when a pin drops from a defeated enemy and makes it endearing. The setting is brilliantly realized, with the potentially boring city streets rendered in a twisty graffiti-like style that’s interesting and distinctive while still being clearly based on the real world. The game design feels contemporary, too—no random battles, saving is allowed everywhere, there’s an experience reward for taking a break from the game, and there’s even a tacked-on multiplayer mode no-one plays.
The story extends and reinforces the themes in the game design. Neku starts the game off as an antisocial brat—certainly not the strongest impression, but the game wastes little time in reassuring us that we’re not supposed to find this endearing. He wakes up in the middle of Shibuya’s famous Scramble Crossing, with a timer tattooed on his hand and a message on his phone he can’t delete. Soon enough, he’s saddled with a partner, a fashion-obsessed girl named Shiki, who he’s forced to work with to survive the strange hazards in Shibuya for a week. Normally, the antisocial brat in a JRPG annoys everyone (including the player) for three-quarters of the game, has an epiphany, and is cheerful and cloying for the rest. Neku, meanwhile, alienates potential allies and nearly kills Shiki within thirty minutes of the start, which leads to to an epiphany but a muttered apology. Neku’s character arc is gradual, and natural; although there’s a turn towards the saccharine in the end, it’s brief. He eventually gets comfortable with Shiki, only for her to be replaced with a new partner, an insufferable boy named Joshua who questions Neku’s motivations and newfound sociability. Just as Neku’s thrown out of his comfort zone, so too is the player -- Joshua feels confusing and limited, at first, compared to Shiki. As Neku forces himself to work with Joshua, so too does the player, as a new monster type is introduced that is only vulnerable to the character who’s holding the power puck. Neku grows by running up against others who make him question his direction, only for him to change and run up against someone new. Neku’s idol, the polymath artist CAT, eventually explains to him that the only way to really grow as a person is to clash against others, and come away seeing the world differently. Neku’s world (and, the game is clearly saying, everyone else’s) is defined by his comfort zone, and the only way to make it bigger is to go outside of your lines. The world’s end, essentially, is with you. (In case you were wondering what that word salad title actually meant.) Eventually, Neku’s growth is tested. NPCs towards the end of the game act oddly and say strange things, gradually at first, and eventually these come to dominate the plot as the main villain’s plot to unify Shibuya and deal with the ward’s anti-social aspects is revealed: a shared consciousness.
Certainly, aspects of the plot are on the nose, but the game isn’t content to just let the NPCs do the talking: The speech about comfort zones comes halfway through the game, as the player’s had to get a grasp on the battle system, deal with losing Shiki and being saddled with a new, unpleasant partner. The shared consciousness plot is introduced long before it comes to the fore -- Shiki and Neku run into it during their time together, and the effects start appearing in the game world long before the characters mention it. The game only monologues when it thinks it’s important: Most of the typically overblown cosmology and backstory is relegated to unlockable “secret reports” in the post-game, because the designers thankfully decided that most players don’t really need to know.
The post-game is interesting in itself -- the game cleverly sets drop tables by difficulty, so it’s beneficial in some cases to drop down to Easy even if you can handle Hard. In the post-game, the game allows you to jump to the start of any chapter, adds additional goals and enemies (including the post-game bosses), and unlocks a new chapter with a very silly story set in an alternate universe where the Tin Pin Slammer mini-game is Serious Business. Players can pick up new equipment with highly inflated stats by cashing in specific pins, and you’ll likely need it for the Ultimate difficulty as well and for the post-game bosses. It turns the game into somthing not unlike Monster Hunter—fighting specific enemies in specific ways in order to get their loot, then using that loot to get better equipment.
Neku won’t change and will never be rewarded if he doesn’t get out of his comfort zone. The World Ends With You asks its players to do the same, and despite the difficulty, it’s well worth the effort.
The World Ends With You
Based on: Fashion, introversion, and the harrowing true reality of life as a skinny Japanese teenager trapped between life and death by the power of math.