In 2007, The World Ends with You quietly released on the DS. While Square Enix and artist/producer Tetsuya Nomura are known for Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts, this new IP managed to carve a dedicated following. Looking back, it’s easy to see why. It was ahead of its time thanks to its unique battle system. One that linked the story to the dual screens in a way that was never replicated. Its modern setting explored Shibuya a decade before Persona 5 did. Its focus on technology, style and trends helped it stand out in the RPG space. It even used a primitive version of StreetPass, allowing us to get stronger by passing by other players.
For years, its future hung in limbo. We got mobile and Switch ports in the years to come, each of which compromised the gameplay to fit a single screen. Both had hints of a sequel, but years of silence had us all expecting the worst. Then finally, 13 years later, NEO: The World Ends With You was finally announced. But with the announcement came questions. The original was lightning in a bottle that made full use of a dual screen platform. Would the new game be able to replicate the unique qualities of the original while being able to stand on its own? The end result is a mixed bag that excels as well as peaks just as hard as it sinks.
Story- Welcome to the Reaper’s Game
NEO follows Rindo and his best friend Fret. While hanging out in the bustling Shibuya, all they care about is hitting up new lunch spots and catching monsters in Fantasy GO. It’s a typical afternoon until they come across a vendor handing out free pins. Once in hand, the two suddenly find themselves in a different plane of existence. One where no one in the crowded city can see them and where monsters called Noise are roaming free. They quickly learn that they’ve been pulled into the Reaper’s Game, one where teams of players must fight for seven days to earn their freedom. But find yourself in last place, and you face being erased from existence.
Like the original, NEO takes full advantage of its setting to establish the plot. Themes of isolation despite being surrounded by people is a constant thread. This is amplified by the excellent cast of antagonists, from the reapers who constantly antagonize you, to the Ruinbringers, the team that’s constantly winning despite rarely participating. I constantly felt the struggle that Rindo and his friends feel as they desperately fight for their freedom despite impossible odds. Their banter often feels authentic, displaying the believable friendship these characters develop.
Moving at a Padded Pace
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about their core personalities. Through the course of the lengthy campaign, there were only a handful of moments where I noticed any strong character growth. Even then, most if it is towards the back end of the game. Compared to the original that constantly showed growth while dangling new mysteries in front of Neku, its protagonist, the sequel doesn’t take meaningful steps forwards until late into the story. It got to the point where I was anxious for something important to happen.
When it finally does, it doesn’t always feel earned. Characters debut towards the end for a single purpose and get no other spotlight. Others appear seemingly as fan service to the original and nothing else. It often feels like a story for a 20-hour game that was stretched out to fit the play time. One of the first game’s strongest points was that it was character driven. It attached us to the cast and told their stories with no wasted movement. Given that this game is almost twice as long, more plot driven and with a comparable amount of story to tell, the story fell behind and never catches up. It doesn’t help that its best moments are tied to the first game, so get caught up soon if you’ve never played it.
Gameplay – Tin Pin Slamming
Tasked with the difficult goal of capturing the dual screen gameplay with more traditional means, the developers at h.a.n.d. pulled it off well. How do you follow combat that had us control two people at once and use every function to fight? By doing the same with the controller. While NEO never has you doing anything as crazy as fighting with a microphone, it gets pretty close. Equipping each party member with a pin assigns them an attack. That attack is mapped to a specific button. During combat, we take control of whichever button is being pushed in real time. Doing so helps aim the attack, but also makes the character more vulnerable.
This ties in to the high risk, high reward mechanics that are prominent in every aspect of the game. If you use more than one function at once, more characters are at a higher risk of taking increased damage. Yet, prepping more attacks leads to bigger damage and increases your Groove meter. Max that out, and the team can unleash powerful attacks that can wipe out the Noise. As enemies are defeated, each pin levels up and can potentially evolve. Completionists will be busy for a long time as they discover and power up each of the 300+ pins. One strength is that the game constantly encourages you to try different abilities.
Chasing a Legacy
This action focused battle system is daunting at first. Remembering which button you have to hold, tap, release, etc. can get confusing. Especially when changing your loadout so frequently, your adjustment time will shrink as you get used to the game. Where the combat starts to show its flaws is later in the game. As you accumulate more party members, the enemies multiply as well. Suddenly, there’s so much going on on-screen that it becomes hard to follow. When the party was at three and four, I felt in complete control of my surroundings. Any higher than that and I felt like I was mashing buttons as characters took damage off screen. At times, that was the most effective way to play.
Despite the strong effort to retain the spirit of the original, there was one aspect that noticeably fell short. Given that every character can equip every pin, nobody feels unique. TWEWY let its lead equip a variety of abilities, but each party member had their own fixed attack. It made the lead feel especially powerful while the teammate had their own niche. In NEO, no one stands out, which leads to some narrative clashes. Very early on, there are characters introduced that are clearly supposed to be far above Rindo’s and Fret’s ability. They might even one-shot powerful enemies in cutscenes. Yet, once the game starts back up, they have the same abilities and restrictions as everyone else.
Instead, the characters are made unique by having special powers that they access in the overworld. Navigation is separated into blocks, where each region in Shibuya is its own environment to explore. When the characters hit a roadblock, Fret might be able to affect the memories of the people around him for vital information. Others can dive into the consciousness of those overwhelmed with negative thoughts and clear them out, (which makes up the large majority of side missions). Rindo’s is a driving force of the plot. He can time travel within the same day to change negative outcomes. That sounds cool on paper, but it leads to the game’s most glaring flaw.
Time Travel Shenanigans
As alluded to prior, this game feels padded. The biggest reason for it is because of the poor use of Rindo’s time manipulation. Aside from a small handful of successful applications, most of them are excuses to play entire chapters over again. Repeatedly throughout the entire game, Rindo and company won’t have things go their way. From there, we’re given a list of every area that a seemingly important interaction took place. More often than not, it’s either made abundantly clear what to do or we’re flat out blocked from entering an area other than where we’re told. This strips away all engagement, turning what should be an open ended mystery mechanic into a linear slog.
It doesn’t help that time traveling usually results in having to re-read similar conversations almost verbatim every time. One particularly bad instance is when the characters go back and forth for way too long deciding who should pick someone up from the train station. With no option to make your own choice, you have to go back and forth repeatedly. That results in having the same conversation three times before the story dictates that Rindo picks the right person.
That’s an extreme example, but the game is rife with them. When a section of the game has you play an entire chapter three times over, it becomes an exercise in tedium. I’d take a 25-30 hour game with the fluff cut out over a 45 hour story that makes repetition a core mechanic.
The Shibuya Experience
An aspect from the original that carries over almost perfectly is the way stats and materials are handled. Rindo can move freely around designated sections of Shibuya, with more of the map opening as he completes challenges and riddles. Leveling up only raises HP, so the team’s other stats grow through eating or fashion. When eating, each party member has their own likes and dislikes, which can give bonus stats if they enjoy the meal. Calories determine how much they can eat. If the team is full, they have to burn it off by fighting enemies rather than wait in real time. The only odd choice is that the team shares a hunger meter, so feeding one person fills the whole party.
Clothing also plays a large role, but not as much as it used to. Each item will belong to a particular brand. Before, stat boosts would be awarded if that brand was trendy. If it wasn’t, using it in battle would increase its popularity. Now, the popularity mechanic was done away with. Still, having brand synergy has its benefits. On top of the standard stat boosts, wearing a full outfit can raise your VIP level, gaining a larger shopping catalogue. Each item also has a bonus perk that unlocks if the character wearing it has a large enough Style stat. This adds an extra layer of depth that helps vary character loadouts, an important factor for late game.
As mentioned, NEO embraces the idea of high risk, high reward. To earn new pins, enemies must be defeated for the chance to have them dropped. There are no random battles, so picking fights in the city becomes more active. The enemy’s symbol hints at what you’ll fight, and stacking multiple encounters in a row increases your pin drop rate. To up your chances further, changing the difficulty will increase drop odds and change what’s dropped. Manually lowering your level also increases the drop multiplier, but leaves you with less health. Considering pins are both your main source of money and your method of attacking, its advantageous to fight enemies at every difficulty setting.
Don’t Fear the Reapers
For better or worse, changing the difficulty doesn’t make much difference when it comes to combat. Even on hard, the first half of the game was a breeze, letting me roll in money early. Late game is where it becomes more of a pain. While I rarely died, as the party grew, so did the enemy health bars. Each standard encounter would often be more of a time sink than the actual boss fights, hurting the game’s fun factor in the process. Switching back to normal helped, but they were definitely spongier as time went on. It left the game feeling unbalanced as bosses would regularly go down at the same pace, (if not faster), than some run of the mill foes.
Speaking of bosses, there’s a noticeable lack of variety for most of the game. Most are stronger versions of regular Noise. Most of the unique ones don’t appear until the last third of the story. Considering the game encourages you to fight so much, encounters become less exciting when you’re constantly seeing the same Noise. As you progress, most new opponents are color swaps with more health. The first game had this issue, but the original bosses were more spread out. NEO has a smaller enemy roster, which is clear the more you fight. Even late game bosses are color swaps, making it impossible to ignore. It’s glaring when a cutscene will show a person, only to be replaced by generic enemies once the fight breaks out.
Lastly, the area where NEO sets itself apart is its side content. In addition to a post game bonus chapter and a series of secret reports to collect, it’s also added a skill tree tied to a plethora of side quests. Known as Rindo’s Social Network, everyone he meets, (and everyone they’ve met), can unlock various perks. To do so, he collects Friend Points by advancing through the story and completing tasks for other players and Reapers alike. Some involve quizzes, talking to the right people or wearing the right clothes. Most of them are time trials that have Rindo and crew eliminate negative thoughts from the public by erasing the noise in their heads.
These missions are usually great and provide something to do outside of the battle heavy story. Yet, the time trials present another glaring flaw. To earn maximum FP, each has to be completed with a gold rank. Failing to do so should be a matter of resetting or restarting, but there’s no way to do so without dying. That often involved shutting the entire game down just to restart. These quests are where the damage sponges get particularly bad, with large enemies that take a long time to kill without heavy food grinding.
Oh, and if you decide you want to retry for a better time later? Chapter Select lets you try again, but you have to actually play the chapter from the start until you reach the quest. Why can’t you just select completed missions to retry from the menu? And why are late game quests so hard to get gold ranks in? If it was a matter of needing to grind more, then the story bosses shouldn’t go down so much faster by comparison. You’re forced to grind on the spot and put the story on hold or reply large parts of a chapter to retry later. It’s another example of the game padding out its play time. Can we replace some of the trials with mini games like Reaper Creeper or Tin Pin Slammer instead?
Audio and Graphics – Blocking Out the Noise
Music was the calling card of the first game, no pun intended. Featuring an all-time great soundtrack to add personality to its stylish aesthetic, the sequel follows suit nicely. Featuring a mix of returning favorite tracks, remixed songs and brand new additions, each one adds so much life to the vibrant world. Totaling at a massive 51 songs that can be played at any time once purchased in-game, there will sure to be something to vibe to.
Full voice acting also debuts here with both an English and Japanese option. Outside of Kingdom Hearts, the cast only expressed themselves with short phrases and grunts. Now, every major scene is acted out. Each new character’s voice fits nicely, while returning characters like Minamimoto took getting used to since I’m not used to hearing full sentences. However, that went away in no time. It’s great to see that Square Enix went out of their way to re-cast the same actor after 14 years. The small things add up. I just wish there was more acting, since most of the dialogue outside of the beginning and end of chapters is solely text.
Style Doesn’t Come Cheap
Visually, the cell shaded direction compliments the colorful environments that make the city come alive. Each effect and attack during combat is often met with the same vibrancy, leading to eye catching combat. The movement and animation all his this stylistic quality that’s immediately apparent within a few minutes. This doesn’t always carry over to the stationary character models though. NPC’s especially look like lifeless statues when accepting missions. Once the pre-rendered cutscenes kick in, that description goes right out the window, with beautiful movies that bring the story to life. Like the major plot points though, these are few and far between until the end.
Performance wise, the Switch handles the game well enough, but takes some noticeable dips in quality as NEO becomes more complex. I experienced the expected framerate drops when the screen gets crowded in both docked and handheld modes. Aside from slowdown, the game crashed on me multiple times, which never amounted to more than a minor annoyance thanks to frequent auto-saves. Those issues aside, I can’t stress enough how much style the game exudes. Everything from exploration to the end credits have so much personality. Even the achievements are awarded through graffiti designs that you can place on a wall that actually appears later in the game.
NEO: The World Ends with You was reviewed on Nintendo Switch.