Tearing up many RPG conventions that its publisher Square Enix put into place, The World Ends With You is vibrant, energetic and an absolute blast to play.
You play Neku Sakuraba, a young Japanese kid who wakes up with no recollection of who he is or how he got there. So far, so standard, right? It would be, except for the fact he wakes up on the street in Tokyo's ultra-cool Shibuya district with a pinbadge that lets him read minds. Teaming up with a young girl named Shiki, he sets out to discover the truth and return to the real world.
Elements may sound formulaic but it's a thousand miles from the majority of RPGs: Neku must escape the Reaper's Game, a meta-game that sets a main challenge to accomplish each day, and dividing the story into short chapters suits the handheld format perfectly. Along the way, there are moments of surprising emotional depth and plenty of well-written dialogue, with enough twists to keep you guessing until the end.
Undoubtedly the highlight of The World Ends With You is the real-time battle system that succeeds where so many RPGs fail in allowing you create a truly unique fighting style. Neku can equip various pins that grant him attacks ranging from bullets to psychokinesis as well as defensive moves and health restoration, and you're free to equip these in any combination you choose. Controlling Neku with the touchscreen, you can slash, swipe, tap and circle to activate the pins, and learning how to combine attacks for multiple hit combos is satisfying and elevates the battle system far above the simplistic brawler it could have been. As you progress and gain experience your pins improve as well, dealing more damage and sometimes evolving into more powerful attacks. In fact, your pins even improve when you're not around: save the game and return to it later and they've gained Pin Points, adding extra incentive to keep returning, though you won't be lacking in that.
Tapping enemy Noise icons in the overworld initiates battle; tapping multiple icons chains combat rounds together, increasing the rewards whilst also upping the difficulty. If you find combat still isn't yielding enough rewards, you can improve the drop rate by decreasing your level, temporarily sacrificing power for pins, and fighting well increases the amount of Pin Points you gain from battle. What sounds like a complicated battle system is remarkably exciting: it challenges the player to push themselves for more reward, always making you ask if you could lower your level a bit more, or initiate one more round of combat.
Then there's the dual screen battling to add to the mix. Whilst Neku occupies the touchscreen, his partner lives on the top screen and is controlled by the D-Pad (or face buttons if you're a lefty). Whilst your partner can't move freely like Neku they can attack with button commands to move through an on-screen combo chart, with combo finishers moving a "light puck" between characters that increases the holder's attack. The key to success in tough battles is to manage both characters equally, and there's something unassailably satisfying about dealing huge damage with both characters before finishing off your opponent with a team-up Fusion attack. If the dual screen combat isn't for you, set your partner to automatic in the options: remember, you're in control.
There's similar levels of innovation outside of battle. In a world where style is everything, your clothes and pins can help you power-up in battle: trend charts reveal which brands are popular in your location, and switching attire accordingly yields statistic boosts. Feel too attached to those knee-high boots to swap? No problem: keep fighting and you'll popularise the brand, increasing its power.
Yet for all this talk of combat and style, the game's strongest characteristic is its spirit: like Jet Set Radio before it, it makes its surroundings come alive with ambient sounds, a fantastic soundtrack and an unquantifiable sense of ‘cool’. Graphically gorgeous, with intricately detailed sprites and backdrops punctuated by hand-drawn cutscenes and portraits, there’s always something to draw the eye. The audio accompaniment ranges from J-pop to rock and electronica to elevator, with crisp vocals and well-sampled speech in battles and certain cutscenes.
The World Ends With You is a mass of innovative ideas stylishly combined into a beautifully presented package. Its battle system, although complicated, can be tailored to suit each player’s style, and the flexibility displayed throughout the game is highly commendable. The end result is an RPG that’s every bit as unique as the person who plays it, and that is truly rare.