Ah, young love! Fixing eyes in freshman class… Inventing excuses to meet your crush… Daring to hope they like you back… Collecting and cataloguing candid photos of every girl you know… World End Syndrome successfully bottles the bristling potential of the summers of youth: before school’s back, perhaps you’ll solve a rash of serial murders; perhaps you’ll just get some ice cream and your first kiss. The only sure thing is you can’t live those exquisite moments more than once. Or can you?
If you’re not a visual novel fan, then World End Syndrome might ring some familiar alarm bells – a branching story you’re expected to read and re-read; doublethink contortions to manage what has and hasn’t actually happened on this run through as opposed to that one. But wait! This game softens some of the sharper edges of the genre and makes something accommodating enough to give a try.
If you are a fan of visual novels then perhaps those accommodations ring alarms bells for you. But wait! World End Syndrome strikes a great balance between relieving the mental management of story threads and keeping the spirit of a novel rather than a to-do list. This is worth checking out.
The scenario is genre-typical and bubblegum-light. New kid in school from out of town; exclusive after-school club; pretty girls and boys; long summer holidays by the sea. Throw in some murder and a possible connection to folkloric prophecy and you’re away. You could think of it as Dead Poets Society meets Fast Times At Ridgemont High meets Groundhog Day (if those ageing reference points clarify things for you then just be aware that all the characters in the game are half your age).
World End Syndrome’s first couple of hours is spent on its prologue. This is tightly linear and requests minimal player input. Energetic writing ensures this doesn’t become a slog, as does the voice acting (in Japanese) supplied for all but the protagonist’s lines. An auto-play feature lets the dialogue run.
Meet your teacher, Miss Yamashiro, dressed in a lab coat hanging open over attire that would raise serious questions on parents’ evening. In fact, even the lab coat raises questions since she’s supposed to be the history teacher. She runs an afterschool club strictly limited to Mihate High’s best scholars, all of whom are extremely beautiful girls, by the way. Down for some extracurricular activity? Join the club.
That scene-setting out of the way, you find yourself on summer break, crossing off August days as you pick your path through the holiday. In a mechanic reminiscent of the Persona series, you select a place to go each morning, afternoon and night, perhaps meeting your friends or taking on jobs and errands. Your choices determine who and what you encounter and your story grows from there.
The structure feels wide open. The possibility of frittering the days away with little action breezily recreates the sense of a youthful summer. However, some subtle railroading makes sure a narrative always develops and wraps up by summer’s end. This is a hard balance to get right – between player freedom and authorial control – and Worldend Syndrome sticks it very solidly.
The small-town map records all your previous choices and encounters – even across different saved games. This means you can try a route then reload an earlier save without having to keep track of what you learnt on your cancelled timeline. It’s a tweak to the save mechanics that gamers take absolutely for granted, so it can be confusing. However, it works seamlessly if accepted and ignored.
The skip mechanism for previously read text is also simple and functional, making retracing your steps quick and fun. It might have been nice to have a more detailed checklist of things done and things to do, but such bureaucracy would risk taking the heart out of the characters and story so can perhaps be forgiven.
The production is slick, with sumptuous artwork bringing locations to life and ensuring each character is distinctive despite being drawn, almost all, from the same stencil of conventional physical perfection. Blazblue’s Yuki Kato is the big name on the bill here. Meanwhile, Japanese voicework covers all key events, including the entire prologue, and the localisation is excellent in terms of linguistic and cultural translation. (It’s the simple parts they naffed up: the proofreader clearly needed another coffee and a quick rock-paper-scissors could have settled whether it’s “Worldend” or “World End”.)
Despite the cast of nymphs and waifs paraded about in the marketing bumf, surprisingly convincing and sympathetic characters emerge over the course of the game. It is sadly jarring that key plot developments are marked by (yes, luscious, bold, glorious) drawings of schoolgirls in compromising positions. These are saved in your camera for later (ahem) "study and contemplation". The artistic problem here is that this sort of bikini-based religion is just not befitting the protagonist, in contrast to his friend Kensuke, who would be its most brainwashed acolyte.
World End Syndrome has the branching story paths you would expect of a visual novel, but it manages to keep tons of fresh content in store for several times through, and makes the process of replaying fast and exciting. The core story is also built to offer more and more insight as you run different paths, making for a sense of a coherent game and not just a handful of alternative outcomes, each asking that you pretend the others never happened. It will inevitably have you barrel-scraping for story scraps if you have the 100 percent itch, but can stave off that kind of rote work for an impressively long run.
The story is teenage love and lust and corny, throwaway murder, all washed in seaside summer and decorated with knowingly blatant “twists”. If that sounds like your thing then there’s nothing here not to recommend for visual novel fans. For the visual-novel-curious, is this where you should take the plunge? The story signposting and interaction model are sophisticated enough that your patience through the linear prologue will be well rewarded. If you do feel like walking away after 8 or 10 hours, then the game will hand you a neat get-out at your first proper ending, which won’t leave you feeling like a quitter.
Overall, polish and craftsmanship elevate a lightweight but amusing story to something that really stands out. For visual novel freshmen, it could even be your first crush.