For the past 13 years, fans of the Nintendo DS cult classic, The World Ends With You have been practically begging Square Enix to whip up a new entry in the world of the original. The vibes of that first venture are flavour-rich, boasting a bouncy and energetic soundtrack, a loveable cast of characters, and a combat system just as unique as the rest of the game. So we were thrilled to bits when the news of a sequel came across our desk last year, although at the same time cautious, as we hold the tale of the first game close to our hearts.
Would the story of the original have been better off left untouched by NEO: The World Ends With You? Do the creators really have the gusto to match or exceed the energy from that first waltz through Shibuya? Will the new protagonist Rindo and the rest of these runts ever be able to live up to the likes of Neku and company? We’ve been asking ourselves these same questions for weeks, months even, and thankfully it was all for naught. This new action-RPG romp through Shibuya’s streets is full of fresh beats and surprising treats to appease longtime fans and newcomers alike.
The story opens up in the heart of Shibuya, following two stylish youngsters named Rindo and Fret, who just happen to be out on the town grabbing some lunch. One thing leads to another and both of them end up finding themselves wrapped up in a competition known as the Reapers Game, a life-and-death battle hosted by an organization known as (you can probably guess) Reapers. In order to survive this week-long event, they’ll have to form a team and rack up enough points by completing missions that the Game Master, Shiba, dishes out each day. Whichever team comes out on top at the end of the week can have one single wish granted, whereas the team that holds up the rear faces severe consequences.
Over the course of the Reapers Game, Rindo and Fret make friends with plenty of new players and a few old faces familiar to fans of the series. Nagi Usui (a fresh face and one of our favorites at that!) is fairly reserved and straightforward (and quite an Otaku) and will jump at the chance to introduce someone to her favorite mobile game, Elegant Strategy. Then we have Sho Minamimoto, an edgy outcast ready to crunch any equation that gets in his way. Minami was one of the antagonists in the first game, so it’ll make you question why he’d shift positions and join your party early on. Then you’ve got Fret, who gives everyone he meets a punny nickname ('Rindude' & 'Nagirl' among them) whether they like it or not. Every character is brimming with life and has their own truth to discover, and you’d be hard-pressed to nail down a singular favorite by the end of the journey.
Speaking of the adventure, while there are a few fancy pre-rendered signature “Square-Enix” cutscenes sprinkled throughout that arrive at well deserved moments, 99% percent of the story is delivered through visual novel-esque segments. Characters are represented on-screen with satisfying hand-drawn art that’s reminiscent of the original game’s style, and while they aren’t animated, their portraits will change at the drop of a Pin, displaying their current emotions brightly.
A decent chunk of dialogue is voiced as well, usually at the beginning and or end of a day during important moments. While there is the option to use the original Japanese dub, the English voice cast has really gone above and beyond to give each character an extra dimension, and we stuck with that through our adventure.
While NEO: The World Ends With You takes place after the events of the first game, the original isn’t necessarily required reading. Some of the many conversations littered throughout the game will go down smoother if you have some prior understanding of the returning faces and their backstories, but the game does a great job of briefing the player naturally with any necessary intel. There are plenty of twists and turns that are sure to have you on the edge of your seat, although we’re not sure it really gripped us in the same way the original did. There are some pacing issues here and there during the 40+ hour adventure, but every time we started to get a little bored it felt like something new got thrown our way to snap back our interest. The aspect of competing against other players' teams offers a new dynamic not found in the first entry, as well. Suffice to say, the bar was set pretty high after all these years and for the sake of spoiling things, we’ll leave the surprises for you to discover.
The story is one of the most integral parts of the game, and the conversations between your party, rival teams, and reapers alike will consume about half of your overall playtime, so make sure you come equipped with your readers and be prepared to press 'A' a lot. There is an auto dialogue option for the voiced segments but we turned it off fairly quickly per our preference. One minor complaint we could make about the original TWEWY is that it doesn’t necessarily give you enough time with most of the characters to really get to appreciate them, but NEO offers you plenty of moments to learn more about your team, the Wicked Twisters. Watching Nagi swoon over Minamimoto but then quickly ignore any kindness from Fret never gets old, and this kind of banter helped keep us constantly invested. There are plenty of side quests that’ll deliver more of that back and forth chatter, too.
When not discussing your next course of action for the Reapers Game, you’ll be given the chance to roam the bustling streets of Shibuya and explore its many locales. The Hachiko Memorial Statue is still adjacent to the busy intersection Shibuya is known for, Tower Records is there, too, and offers you CDs that you can purchase and listen to in-game and the 104 shopping center (which may not share the same name as our real-world counterpart) looms overhead, full of clothing and Pins to purchase for your team.
The camera is always locked to an angle when in the overworld and will follow the player as you roam about, but it’s fixed perfectly to give you a wide and expansive view of the city. There are tiny details snuck into every facet of the world that makes us wish there was some sort of first-person photo mode to explore a bit more freely and bathe in the finer details even more. We would have preferred if at least one of your party members followed you around while you searched the streets, as well, as it can feel a little lonely running around as just Rindo, but there's enough banter between the team that those feelings never lasted long.
While you can’t directly chat with most of the passersby on the street, you can scan the area and read their thoughts. Why ask someone a question when you can rip the answer straight out of their brain, right? This is mostly a novelty and if you use it frequently you’ll start to recognize repeat thoughts, but NEO uses this feature in conjunction with some of your teammate's abilities. For example, Fret has the power to help people remember something they’ve forgotten, and this can lead to giving you a clue for a mission or can simply get someone to cheer up and move on with their day. Nagi on the other hand has the ability to tap into someone’s mind and rid them of negative Noise that’s afflicting them in combat, which sounds like a great opportunity to explain the battle system.
While scanning your environments on the overworld you’ll notice red tribal tattoos floating around all over the place, known as Noise. Interact with them and you can challenge them to a faceoff, which takes the form of a real-time battle. Back before we had our hands on the game, we were worried NEO was going to borrow combat elements too heavily from its cousin, Kingdom Hearts, and not enough from its DS sibling, but thankfully that's not the case.
Each of your teammates will go into battle equipped with a singular Pin that gives that user a unique psych ability. Some allow your characters to fire a stream of energy blasts, slice away with a kinetic beam sword that emanates from the user's hand, or even create a lava whirlpool below their enemy's feet. Controlling so many characters at once with different abilities sounds like it’s going to get pretty messy, but there are many elements at play that make this actually work. Pins are assigned to a specific button, and when pressed the assigned character will start attacking whatever Noise you’re currently locked onto. As you attack, Pins will drain energy but will recharge over time so you won’t have to wait too long to use that attack again.
When in battle you’re able to freely control the camera and move about as any of your teammates, but beyond attacking one of your only other skills is a dodge roll, which really does come in handy if you can keep your eyes focused on the enemy while you fight. There isn’t a jump button, but certain Pins still allow you to uppercut enemies to take to the skies every now and then to achieve those epic battle moments that just feel naturally cool.
Stringing your parties' attacks together is key to victory. After dealing enough damage with one of your characters a blue circle will appear over the enemy telling you to “Drop the Beat.” If you’re able to start attacking then with a different character quickly before the Beat timer goes away, you’ll raise your overall Groove meter. Once this hits 100% you’ll be able to pull off a special AOE attack depending on the style of Pins you have equipped. These attacks can really help out when you’re in a pinch and range from a massive fireball falling down from the sky to a cluster of tornadoes taking over the streets.
Battles will take place fairly frequently as the story goes, but you can battle Noise whenever you like on the overworld to gain some additional EXP or new Pins. You can even string multiple Noise battles together to raise your chances of pulling in more Pins. There’s a mission type called the Scramble Slam, a turf war for Shibuya, which pits rival teams against one another. This can make for some tedium as most of these battles against players lack variety since the opposing teams' combat patterns feel systematically similar. However, this was the only time where combat ever seemed to overstay its welcome.
For the most part, the backdrops of each battle will line up with the area you started the fight, offering up a wide-open space, free of civilians to help keep you focused on the Noise. At first, we got a little bored of the same old cement roads and concrete buildings, but then we realized they allow for the colors of your Pins abilities and the Noise you're fighting to pop like paint on a blank canvas. The action can get chaotic and messy, but it can also feel like you’re watching a well-orchestrated play when you pull together a string of attacks perfectly.
One of the major aspects that make us want to jump back into the battle system again and again, though, is the Pins. Experimenting with different types and formulating strategies is extremely rewarding on its own. Pins also gain experience as you use them, becoming stronger in turn and some can even evolve into a more superior version. You’re constantly gaining new ones along your journey and most won’t take too long to max out, so they never overstay their welcome if they’re not vibin'. Good thing, too, considering there are over 300 Pins to collect. By the end of the main campaign we had collected a little over half, so there’ll be plenty more to go back and dig up for anyone looking for more reason return. Plus, you can adjust the difficulty on the fly before any battle, with higher difficulties offering up the chance to earn rare and exclusive Pins.
Your party members will gain experience from battles, too, but only their HP will rise with each level up — you raise their other stats by eating out at restaurants in between battles. Every meal will deliver a permanent boost in HP, Defense, and or Style. However you can only stomach so much food at a time, so you’ll need to burn off some calories in battle before you can swallow more stats. There are over a dozen different restaurants, each with their own unique menus littered throughout Shibuya and your party will call out a restaurant whenever you pass one if they're feeling famished. Each character has their own distinct taste and preference as well, and you have the chance of earning more boosts if you feed them their preferred dish. It’s a nice little diversion that brings a smile to their faces and yours in turn, especially when you discover a food that Minamimoto actually enjoys (surprisingly, he loves avocado toast).
Clothing was a huge part of the original DS adventure, and it's back with a few changes in NEO. You're able to equip up to four different pieces to each of your party members. From what we experienced, all of the equipment is purely stat-driven and won’t change the cosmetic appearance of your characters. Those Style points we mentioned earlier go towards allowing your characters to take advantage of extra abilities dished out by your equipment. Some pieces of clothing may simply give a stat bonus if a certain character has it equipped while others could raise your chance of collecting more Pins after a battle if said character has a high enough Style point level. The clothing you wore in the original also had an overall effect on the city and the way the citizens viewed each of the different clothing brands, but with a larger party of characters who all have their own equipment this time around, we can see potentially why that feature was axed.
The soundtrack offers a wide mix of tracks covering everything from pop tunes with catchy choruses to heavy metal breakdowns. New songs are introduced at a healthy rate throughout the adventure, making it a nice surprise when you discover one. Shibuya Survivor and Your Ocean would definitely jump straight to the top of our weekly music playlist if we ran one. Fans of the first outing will be happy to hear plenty of cherished songs made the jump as either new remixes, completely new renditions, or unaltered originals. Give it some time and we’re sure some of these songs will start slipping into your day-to-day life.
Overall, NEO: The World Ends With You runs relatively smooth on Switch in docked mode. We experienced a few light frame dips when scanning the city for Noise and when fights got extremely hectic, and while this happens more frequently in handheld it doesn’t detract from the overall gameplay. Also in handheld mode, it can be a little tough to make out the characters in the heat of a battle with lights bouncing and colors splashing all over the place, but it won’t hinder your combat either.
We also experienced a few crashes where we were booted back to the Switch Home menu, twice while we were scanning different NPCs and once right before a cutscene kicked in. Thankfully, the game autosaves fairly often, so we only lost a few minutes of progress each time it occurred. Square-Enix has stated they're releasing a Day One patch to crush some bugs, so hopefully, this is one of the problems getting squashed.
NEO: The World Ends With You impresses in all the categories we were terrified it could fail in. The game boasts an energetic soundtrack that feeds off the energy of the original, a deep and rewarding combat system that makes a successful leap to 3D, an inspiring cast of characters that stand tall on their own, and importantly, a world that begs you to come back even after you’ve finished the 40+ hour campaign. After 13 long years, many fans lost hope we’d ever see a sequel to that first Reapers Game, but we’re so pleased to see these talented developers never lost their calling.