After numerous ports, cameos in other titles and teases, the 2008 RPG classic The World Ends With You is finally getting a sequel. NEO: The World Ends With You offers a brand new cast but is still set in Shibuya Underground or The UG where recently deceased “players” have to compete in the Reaper’s Game. The rules, just as they were before, are simple: Survive during the seven day period, completing the Reapers’ various tasks, or get erased.
Of course, this isn’t to say that everything is the same. Instead of 2D, the entire game is now fully 3D, from exploration to combat. New mechanics like Beatdrops and the Groove meter have also been added to the mix and the story has much larger stakes than before. A demo is currently available on the Nintendo Switch and so far, NEO: The World Ends With You could be one of the most unexpected RPG successes this year. Considering how well the first game was received, it’s probably not all that surprising. But it also didn’t quite blossom into a huge new franchise.
It’s not completely unexpected. The World Ends With You was fairly avante garde by Square Enix standards. Instead of turn-based gameplay a la Final Fantasy, it offered real-time hack and slash combat in a dual-screen set-up where players controlled two characters at once. Instead of a techno-mage aesthetic or crystal-focused fantasy, the setting was more contemporary (albeit with a purgatory-style twist) and tackled issues like depression and suicide. Its sense of style was wholly unique, whether it was the sleek character designs by Tetsuya Nomura, the incredible soundtrack of Takeharu Ishimoto (who returns for the sequel) or the street art influences.
In that sense, NEO: The World Ends With You is stylistically very much in line with its predecessor. The sights and sounds of Shibuya, from the towering 104 building to the statue of Hachiko and Shibuya Crossing are still very much present, but this time in sumptuous 3D. And though Ishimoto’s tunes in the original were great, the music here feels fuller and more realized – “bird in the hand” seemingly starts out as a catchy vocal track with some rap but quickly builds up to something else. “CHASE” has shades of “Calling” and “Three Minutes Clapping” but backed by an incredible acoustic guitar. Each piece is distinct and yet fits the game’s atmosphere and tone perfectly.
There’s no free camera movement while exploring – the camera remains fixed at certain angles, which can provide a nice dramatic framing in some instances. Walking around and sensing other people’s thoughts, hearing their daily concerns and worries, makes the world feel more alive. Many of the denizens are faceless, which fits with the player both being a ghost that exists outside of the real world and the masses being indistinguishable in the daily bustle. Occasionally, scenes of teenagers talking and discussing whether they should go shopping or grab a bite to eat are inter-cut while exploring. These aren’t revolutionary presentation techniques but they underscore the trends of Shibuya, making the player feel like they’re part of the world even as the protagonists are disconnected from it.
The story starts with Rindo and his pal Tosai Furesawa aka Fret, just chilling in Shibuya – Rindo is busy with texting and seeking out virtual monsters in a Pokemon GO-style title, conversing with a mysterious online friend, while Fret purchases pins. It isn’t long before the duo are caught up in the Reaper’s Game, dodging attacks and trying to survive. They quickly learn the rules, gain their first pins for battle and engage some Noise in combat. In the midst of all this, Rindo discovers a unique ability to rewind time while also having premonitions of the UG’s destruction from some kind of apocalyptic meteor.
If you haven’t played the first game, then the in media res jump into the story is as blisteringly fast-paced, explaining the central premise while still keeping plenty of questions hanging for later. Eventually, Rindo and Fret team up with Sho Minamimoto from the first game, and begin completing challenges in the UG to earn points and escape erasure. It’s then that you begin exploring the different locations.
It’s worth noting that in terms of puzzle solving and exploration, NEO: The World Ends With You isn’t breaking any new ground. Going by the demo thus far, you’re just going from one location to the next, looking for an exclamation point that’s a piece of a puzzle. Some more elements slowly start getting mixed in when Fret gains the ability to “remind” people about certain thoughts, triggering an interesting picture arrangement mini-game with the analog sticks. There’s no doubt that other abilities will come into play later on but early on, the puzzle-solving and exploration is fairly basic.
However, like the original, the strength of NEO: The World Ends With You is in its characters and combat. Rindo is a bit stand-offish but is more approachable than Neku while Fret is the likable dork. The dynamic between the two as they attempt to make sense of the UG is especially endearing, rebuking hostile elements like the Reapers together while also coming up with a group name. Sho is still as arrogant and obsessed with equations as ever but has a more mysterious motive this time as opposed to being straight-up evil. Why is a Reaper suddenly helping players anyway?
While more time is needed to become acquainted with the various side characters, there’s no denying that each has their charm. Whether its Kubo with his condescending attitude and constant “Nyehs”, Kaie who runs a fortune-telling shop and can only communicate via text, or Susukichi, the imposing leader of the Ruinbringers with his disc metaphors, these unique quirks feel like the gateway to some interesting personalities. If nothing else, the new characters have these endearing quirks while still feeling completely in-line with the tone of the original.
As for the combat, it does away with the touch-based controls of the first game in favor of something more straight-forward. Each character is assigned a different pin that coordinates to its own button. Some pins may require button presses, holding down the button to channel, or charging and releasing. As you execute combos, a Beatdrop gauge will appear for a brief time – this is your cue to use a different party member’s attack. Chaining together attacks like this will allow you to keep the beat going, and helps build up Groove meter faster to unleash even more devastating attacks called Mashups. Though pins have to cooldown after being used a certain amount, these aren’t too punitive, allowing you to quickly mop up weaker enemies with one party member while encouraging combos in longer fights.
While this system can definitely feel button mashy, it’s still incredibly addictive. Chaining together different noise battles, which can turn a simple fight into a wave-based endurance test, becomes that much more efficient with Beatdrops and Mashups. If you really want a challenge, try lowering your level and upping the difficulty – this will increase the drop rate of more valuable pins but make enemies that much more deadly. Right now, it feels like the channeling and rapid press pins are more effective than the charge and release. Still, the latter are useful for launching enemies into the air or knocking them back and creating space.
Right off the bat, there’s a lot that NEO: The World Ends With You does great and this is not even close to everything the game has to offer. There’s still the Social Network where fulfilling different criteria unlocks different rewards like items and abilities, besides helping to keep track of the myriad of characters available. Timing Beatdrops in combat will become more important since this leads to leading to building Groove faster (and the Groove meter can eventually go up to 300 percent for much more devastating team attacks). When Nagi is recruited and the Dive ability is unlocked, you’ll have to partake in tougher battles where Noise have different attacks based on emotions. Also, you’ll eventually have to combat rival gangs in team fights, matching your different Psych abilities with theirs.
So while it seems like a no-brainer for fans to partake in the sequel, new players may also find a lot to like. With Square Enix promising around 50 of gameplay, the size and scale of the adventure is enough to rival other modern RPGs. But it’s the charm and style of its presentation along with the sheer heart of its characters that could make it stand out in the crowd. Maybe it’ll be the breakout that the series deserved and elevate its status among other Square Enix properties. If not, it’s still looking to be the follow-up that surpasses the original while trying new things and staying true to its roots.
NEO: The World Ends With You is out on July 27th for PS4 and Nintendo Switch with a PC release sometime this Summer.
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