In recent years Square Enix has gone all out to try and cater for Western audiences. They’ve began to support the Xbox 360 hardware with The Last Remnant, Star Ocean: The Last Hope and Infinite Undiscovery,even releasing a couple of these titles onto the hugely popular Steam software. However, amongst the avalanche of Final Fantasy ports on the Nintendo DS, a sleeper release has snuck in. Developed by Jupiter (the same team behind Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories on Game Boy Advance) The World Ends With You is a game with a premise and control scheme never seen before.
Taking on the role of a Tokyo teenager named Neku Sakuraba, you awake one day at the cross roads of the infamous Shibuya fashion district. You can barely remember anything about your past, or why no-one around can see or talk to you. Suddenly, monsters appear from the shadows and using the powers of a few strange pins, you learn the ability to battle these new foes. As your time in Shibuya progresses, you learn about the vicious seven day contest that you’re stuck in. Everyone involved is trapped between life and death, fighting for the chance to live once more. Anyone who is left behind… faces erasure.
Confused yet? You will be. This plotline is not for the casual gamer, so if you’re expecting to play this for five minutes on the bus you’ll be disappointed. It’s a strange choice for a portable game, as I found myself having to sit down and set aside some serious hours to get engrossed in it. However, the payoff is worthwhile because the characters and story are of a high calibre. Neku may start off as a typical Squre Enix, angsty teenager but it’s great to see him develop and embrace his friends. Shibuya has been crafted with loving detail, taking every detail of Japanese youth culture such as fashion, food, cell phones and music to its limits. Real locations, such as the famous ‘Scramble’ crossroads and the statue of Hachiko are all present. The visual style is stereotypically anime, but the dark outlines and gritty edges give it an original spin. If you’ve ever had an interest in Japanese culture, this is as close as you’ll get in gaming.
Each day follows a familiar game play sequence. You wake up, discover your day’s mission through a text message and listen to the next snippet of dialogue. Neku and his partner then race around the city to complete the task at hand, opening new areas by defeating ‘Noise’ monsters or wearing certain brands of clothing. It sounds rather lame, but shopping for your next t-shirt is actually really interesting. Not only do they give you stat improvements, but wearing them in the right location or street where it’s fashionable gives you even further attack boosts. Conversely, wearing an item that isn’t deemed as ‘cool’ will do the exact opposite. A nice touch is that by using a brand consistently, regardless of where you are it will eventually become fashionable and you’ll see your peers around you wearing similar threads.
Battles are played out using both the top and bottom screens. Neku takes the bottom and you control his actions with the stylus. The different pins your wearing effects his attacks; for example, a pin with a flame symbol allows you to hold and drag a path of fire towards your foe. At the same time, his partner will be shown above and you can control his/her attacks using either the D-Pad or the A/B/X/Y buttons (depending on if you use the stylus with your left or right hand). It’s overwhelming at first and the difficulty level is steep and unforgiving. If you try and control both at the same time I promise your eyes will begin to hurt from constantly flicking up and down.
Luckily, one of the greatest assets to The World Ends With You is its difficulty settings. You can set your partner to fight automatically, manually or so that they take over after a few seconds without your input. You can unlock new Noise difficulties too by selling your merchandise and pins. These range from the comfortable ‘Easy’ to quite literally insane ‘Ultimate’. Changing these settings will reward you in different ways. Fight on Ultimate and you’re more likely to pick up rarer pins. You can decide to de-level Neku (for example, you may be Level 50 but decide to battle with him at Level 30) and the quantity of pins you receive will increase too. Most of these options are aimed at hardcore players, but it means that if you’re looking for a challenge there is always a way to make it tougher.
The soundtrack features full vocal tracks that have been created specifically for the DS title. They’re a blend of electronica and J-Pop that fits in well with the Tokyo setting and adds some atmosphere to each battle. Additional music can also be bought from AMX (a nice reference to HMV) and you can imagine these tracks playing through Neku’s large purple headphones.
Rather than try to upgrade the visuals to 3D (which the Kingdom Hearts franchise has done with 358/ 2 Days) Jupiter has taken the engine they used for Chain of Memories and run with it. The characters are all sprites and the backgrounds are very simple in design. When the sprites are seen up close they’re very rough and pixelated, which would normally be a poor design choice. However, Jupiter seems to have done this on purpose and the entire package gives off a surprisingly positive retro feel. The animated cut scenes that are scattered through the game also do a good job at fleshing out the characters’ various personalities.
The initial story easily lasts up to twenty hours, but there’s plenty to do afterwards as well. You can replay any of the previous days with all of your new stats in tact, hunting new hidden items and reports that explain more about the plot of the game. ‘Another Day’ is a brand new chapter set in an incredibly comical alternate plot, revolving around the side-game called ‘Tin Pin Slammer’ that you learn in the main story. If you’re looking for value for money, this is a game that could easily last you a couple of months. The sheer number of pins, levels, clothing and stats to upgrade means that The World Ends With You offers a ton of depth.
I haven’t touched upon Tin Pin Slammer and its multiplayer mode, the shopkeeper system and the synchronisation/puck in combat. Rest assured that if you want a title that you can really get involved in, this will fill your every need. This is probably the biggest strength and weakness of The World Ends With You. If you want a game that you can pick up and play while you wait for the train, this isn’t it. Without Wi-Fi support, 3D graphics or a simple concept it won’t appeal to many casual gamers. An action-RPG isn’t for everyone, but if you’re tired of the usual Japanese imports this is certainly worth giving a try.