The World Ends With You (DS)
From Final Fantasy to Dragon Quest to Kingdom Hearts, the folks at Square Enix have given gamers some of the best RPGs to date. While a few iterations of these have wound up on the DS, the handheld really has yet to be able to showcase a quality Square Enix game. Until now. The World Ends With You is unlike just about anything else you've played on the system. If you're a fan of quirky, deep and unique gaming, don't even bother finishing this review. Just go out and get the thing.
I'm generally not a giant fan of action games on the DS. There have been a couple of decent fighters and racers for the handheld, but I'm at my happiest when I'm boosting my brain, trying legal cases, or performing surgery. Action-based games I always felt suffered because of graphics and controller issues. The World Ends With You is a complete DS anomaly. It not only uses the handheld's two screens to deliver a visually impressive performance, its combat system is unlike any other you've hacked away at.
TWEWY breaks away from traditional RPGs from the very outset. Instead of being set in a mystical ancient or futuristic fantasyland, the game set in modern-day Tokyo. Sort of. You play as Neku -- the RPG-standard mopey and disaffected 15 year-old. One day he "wakes up" to find himself in the middle of Tokyo's trendy Shibuya district. He has no idea how he got there, why most people can't see him, or why there's a strange-looking black pin in his hand. Slowly, through encounters with others he pieces together what's going on -- and it's a story that could have been ripped off the front page of today's newspapers. Just as scientists have suspected for quite some time, there's actually an alternate version of one of Japan's busiest areas. In this alternate universe, "reapers" make bets with other reapers about how various "players" will deal with an assortment of daily missions with which they are faced. The players must complete the missions or they will be erased. Neku -- and the partners alongside whom he'll end up fighting -- are players.
Okay, it's a really weird-ass premise, but within the context of the game, the story unfolds relatively logically. There are also some English 101 themes that pop up and may make you think a bit -- the concept of being invisible in one of the most populated places on Earth, the struggle between individuality and conformity, etc. It's not Shakespeare, but it adds some depth to the cart. In my opinion, last year's abysmal Cartoon Network tie-in Ed, Edd & Eddy: Scam of the Century would have been better received if the game had also dealt more with le condition humaine. Anyway, while you try to figure out just what the heck is going on in this bizarro world, you'll have to fight your way to the truth -- and that's where the real fun happens.
TWEWY will blow you away with its combat interface. You need to do your fighting on both the top screen and the bottom screen -- at the same time. At first, it's a daunting task that'll have you button-mashing to take care of top-screen enemies and flailing the stylus around wildly to take care of bottom-screen foes. Eventually, you will learn most of the finer points of combat. I say most, because even though I've played the daylights out of the thing, there remain some battle nuances that I'm still unclear on.
Neku fights on the bottom screen using various swipes, taps and drags of the stylus to activate powers that come from pins that he either finds or is given. The pins offer him the power to set stuff on fire, shoot things, etc. He can eventually have up to six pins active at any time.
Top-screen battle is keyed to the directional pad -- or the face buttons for left-handed stylus-wielders. The idea on the top screen is to follow the directional cues the way you would in any rhythm-based game. Your various top-screen partners all have similar, though different to each, ways of powering up their attacks and activating a fusion attack pin that lets both fighters join forces to mete out extreme teen angst aggression. Fighting both screens at once can get hectic, but helping you out is a green "puck" that gets passed from screen to screen. It illuminates the fighter on whom you should be concentrating and can help you get back on track if you find you've been concentrating too much on one of the screens.
To its credit, the game is amazingly customizable and will let you simplify things to help you get the feel for the action when you're starting out. In addition to an "easy" fight mode that you can unlock early into things, there's also the option to put your top-screen partner on auto-play, so all you have to do is worry about Neku. I found the auto-play option too dumbing-down. It turned one of the more complex and captivating games on the system into a stylish -- but very generic -- action title.
You can also tweak various elements to make things more difficult for you when you finally have nailed down the idea of dual-screen combat. If you're feeling greedy -- and very confident of your fighting skills -- you can use a slider to lower the level of your character. Fighting at a lower level is obviously more of a challenge -- since you're going up against nasties appropriate for your maximal level -- but the trade-off is a greater drop rate. It's a cool option, but one that you may hold off on unless you have some kick-ass button-and-stylus skills.
The game uses the Shibuya setting for more than just a novelty. The game's armor system is based on clothing versus the traditional chain mail and plate mail -- and because you're running around one of the trendiest and most style-conscious places on the planet, you have to be wearing the right stuff. Depending where you are on the area map, different clothing brands will have different strengths and weaknesses. It's a neat twist on traditional armor system and just another of the billion oddball things that just "work" in the game.
The only think that doesn't "work" for me is the lack of additional game save slots. I wanted to lend the game to a friend to let him check out how cool it was, but when I realized he'd be screwing with my saved game, I pulled the offer off the table. There should be more than one slot for saved games.
The World Ends With You flew under a lot of gamers' radar in its pre-release days -- and that's actually a good thing. For a lot of gamers, this one will fall into the "best game that you've never heard of" category. It's a stylish game that delivers an intriguing and kookball story and a combat system that's as fun and challenging as anything you've ever wrapped your thumbs around. Square Enix has another stellar RPG in its lineup.
This review was based on a retail copy of The World Ends With You that was purchased by the very stylishly-clad reviewer.