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[Reviews] Games of Ultimate Awesome – The World Ends With You

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When I was asked to write a review for my ultimate favorite game, I immediately thought of 5 different games. 2 of them, I’ve already reviewed for this site, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (HD) and Persona 4 (Golden). The others that popped into my head were The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, The World Ends With You, and Super Mario Bros. 3. While I’d consider OoT to be my favorite game overall, I also thought it was too easy of a choice and already has enough attention surrounding it. Same goes for Super Mario Bros. 3. But The World Ends With You? Yeah, that’s a game that left a deep impression on me, and didn’t get nearly enough attention when it came out, despite being something of a critical darling and developing a small, devoted following.

In fact, some 6 years later, few games have left such a big impression on me as Square Enix’s unfortunately overlooked gem. It’s a masterful blend of art design, story, music, and unique gameplay that hasn’t since been copied; it took the concept of dual-screen gaming to an extreme, even more than what Nintendo themselves attempted, playing two different segments of a game at the same time. It’s simultaneously confusing and exhilarating, and when it finally clicks, you’ll be beyond hooked. If you have any of Nintendo’s dual-screened handhelds, I strongly urge you to look this game up. I promise it will be worth your time.

So let’s dive in and see what makes it so great, and one of my all-time favorite games!

The Gameplay Mechanics

By far the most noticeable thing that sets this game apart from virtually every other game out there is how it controls. Navigating Shibuya is pretty standard fare, you use the touchscreen to move to different areas, activate battles, shop, and talk to people. Or, more accurately, listen in on their thoughts. More on that in a bit. Nothing you haven’t done in other RPG’s, right? But wait, there’s more!

First, there are 13 different brands of clothing and pins. As you’re probably aware, Shibuya in real life is a very trendy place where things will be “in” one moment and then horribly out of style the next. Fortunately for you, you control what brands are popular; the more you use them in battle, the more trendy that brand becomes, which brings additional sets of benefits and status buffs. Conversely, wearing out of style clothes or using similarly unfashionable pins will incur a penalty. Mercifully, that’s limited to the single least popular brand, but it is enough to encourage you to keep diversifying your attacks when you enter new areas around the city. Or, if you’re stubborn and don’t want to change, you’ll influence the brand to be more trendy relatively soon, so it’s not too much to worry about. Oh, and regardless of how trendy a brand is, you need to be “brave” enough to wear it. Think that’s enough to keep track of? Nope! Let’s keep adding more!

Next, is stat growth. One part is typical RPG fare; you gain Experience Points as you defeat enemies and level up. However, that only increases your max health which you and your partner share. If you want higher Attack, Defense, and Bravery, or want to grow your friendship with your battle partner, you have to eat some food. You have limited stomach space, of course (24 “bytes” to be precise), so you need to manage how much and what kind of food you eat since different foods will give you different benefits and are different sizes. You digest 1 byte per battle, and once the food is entirely digested, you gain the benefit of the food. However! You’re limited in how much food you can eat per real-time day. Out of those 24 bytes, 18 become completely full as you eat, limiting you to food of 6 bytes or fewer for the remainder of the day. It’s a clever use of the DS’ internal clock, which has been copied into other games in some form, most recently Square Enix’s Bravely Default.

All of the battle pins. Think there are enough of them?

I’ve mentioned before about attack pins. These are basically Neku’s attacks, and there is great variety among them, some 304 attack pins in total. They’re not all entirely unique, since many are stronger versions or variations on standard attacks, but there are a few different ways to activate them, including both the touch screen and the microphone as I mentioned before. More than that, the pins get stronger and some will even evolve as they gain a certain amount of Pin Points, or PP. PP is gained three different ways: through battles, through inactivity (another clever use of the system clock), and through Street Pass. While all 3 versions of PP will make the pins gain levels, the pins that evolve will only do so if they gain the majority of their PP in a certain type. The only way that this system falls short is that it never explains or even gives you a clue, as far as I could tell, about which type of PP the pin needs to evolve. It’s left up to trial and error, which can really be a bummer with some of the more rare pins. Other than that, it’s certainly satisfying, and even the Street Pass growth is used well; since the original DS system was limited by needing both Passers to be using the same game at the same time, the game would give you random PP boosts without needing to tag another player to counteract the low chances of finding another player mid-game. Since the battle-based PP are much more common, it’s also balanced by giving inactivity and Street Pass PP more weight.

Now that you’re completely inundated with information, it’s time to apply even more into the battle system. Arguably my favorite battle system in any game, this is what truly sets The World Ends With You apart. On the touch screen is the main character, Neku Sakuraba (and as a side-point, my avatar for this site), whom you control through swipes and taps of the touch screen, as well as the microphone to activate other attacks. On the top screen is your battle partner, whom you control with either the D-Pad or the ABXY buttons, depending on if you’re left or right handed. And yes, you control them both simultaneously. Ideally, as the game explains, you take turns focusing on either person at once and pass the “Light Puck” back and forth; the character with it gets a bonus to their attack, and when they finish a combo they pass it to the other person. However, if it gets to be too much, you can focus on just using the touch screen and let the computer control your partner. That’s far from ideal, since they’re more likely to take damage without your intervention, but it’s still an option. (Don’t forget, you share a life bar!) In another merciful addition, the life bar is entirely refilled between single battles.

A sample battle screen. The bottom half is touch controlled, and the top half is button controlled. Wrapping your head around how it works is an excellent challenge, and one of the best parts of the game.

The final cherry on top is how flexible the entire game is. Don’t want to focus on using both characters? Tell the AI to take over immediately as battle starts. Having a hard time keeping up with the battles? Just drop the difficulty down, at the cost of a lower experience and money premium, as well as a lower chance for rare or more powerful pins. Conversely, if you have a strong grasp of what you’re doing, you can ratchet up the difficulty in two ways: First and more noticeably, you can set the difficulty to Hard, once you unlock it, which will give you more Experience Points. Second, you can actually decrease your level to make the battles more difficult and have a higher chance for more drops. There’s also the option, once you unlock it, to chain battles together, which will once again increase the chances of drops and bonuses. However, the enemies get continually stronger and your health will not recover between battles in each chain. It’s a wonderful amount of flexibility overall, and allows you to play the game pretty much however you’d like to.

Now I know that this sounds like a lot to take in. And believe me, it is! However, that’s a large part of what makes the payoff for this game so great, being able to wrap your head around all of the different aspects and play it well. Even more than that, though, the game is paced supremely well to where you’re not inundated with too much information at once, and you’re continually getting new ways to play.

The Story

Ahh, the familiar amnesiac story device returns. No, wait, don’t run away just yet! This sort of comment gets thrown around a lot lately it seems, but it really is used well in the story, and you do get everything explained to you.

Neku wakes up in the middle of a busy intersection of Shibuya, full of amnesia and questions, and soon forms a pact with Shiki and is sent on a quest. Failure will result in Erasure, or death. So many questions, so little time. What is this week-long “Reaper’s Game?” Why can’t people see the players? What is the Noise (enemies of the game) and where do they come from? Why would you even get involved in a death-game like this anyway? It seems like there are more questions than answers, and having a main character with amnesia puts you on a level playing field, learning what’s going on at the same time, and for a while each answer seems to only bring another question. And then the story reveals its first big twist.

While there is enough foreshadowing to figure out some of the major story elements, I don’t want to go into any details about the story here to avoid spoilers for anyone who hasn’t played the game before; there are enough pieces that even certain little ones can unintentionally spoil the twists. However, I will say that I greatly enjoyed the personal growth that Neku received, accompanied by a not-so-subtle message at the end about how we can limit our world by limiting who we let in as friends. (The World Ends With You… get it?) There are plenty of enjoyable story twists, and it easily held my attention all the way until the end. The characters are enjoyable, even if a bit cliched, and the final resolution is entirely satisfying.

Then there’s even more after you beat the main game that gives you even more to do, including finding “Secret Reports” that more fully explain the story and what was going on by fulfilling objectives in the main game, and an incredibly difficult boss battle. It takes the main characters from the game and puts them in a slightly insane separate story.

Odds and Ends

That makes up the bulk of this game, and why I love it so much. Still, there are other touches and influences that really tie the whole experience together. Really, this whole game just exudes a level of polish and thought that isn’t found in a lot of games, especially new IP’s. Everything about it works well and fits together to make a cohesive product, which is amazing considering just how much is going on. The only thing that doesn’t work well is the map that you use to get around Shibuya, but you’ll figure your way around quickly enough that it’s not necessary to use, so it’s not a terribly big deal. Just a bit frustrating at first.

First of all, is the strong visual style that this game employs. Strong, thick lines and bright colors are everywhere. Tetsuya Nomura really did a fantastic job; I personally think that visually this is the best, most consistent thing he’s worked on.

The Japanese title for this game, "It's a Wonderful World," actually works very well as the title too, though it won't make sense until you complete the game.
The Japanese title for this game, “It’s a Wonderful World,” actually works very well as the title too, though it might not make sense why until you complete the game.

Another function that I appreciated was the ability to “sell” your unwanted or unneeded pins at any time, whether or not you’re at a store. Rather than giving you cash at the end of battles, you get pins that are worth certain amounts of money, so this is a much appreciated little bit of streamlining. Oh, and if you’re wondering why not just immediately cash in all of your money pins, that’s because some pins are much more rare than others, and are used in trade for other, equally rare food, clothes, or attack pins. A word of advice: never cash in your ¥5 pins.

Then, there’s the music. Oh man, the music! A fantastic melange of styles, and while not quite as varied as Persona 3 and 4, it’s similar as a great example of the music fitting the game perfectly. Plus, despite being crammed into a DS cart, the quality is still surprisingly good; it’s definitely worth playing the game with headphones just for the music. I’ll just link to the soundtrack on YouTube and let you listen for yourself.

There’s also a multiplayer mini game called Tin Pin Slammer, which you also play against AI opponents in the game. You use the various pins in the game to try and slam the other person’s off of the game board. It’s relatively simple, but can be pretty fun if you can get someone to play it against; the AI is usually too simple to play against. Still, like the rest of the game, it has plenty of polish for being “just” a side activity.

It definitely bears mentioning that this is one of the few games that fully utilized the unique features of the DS, including the unfortunately limited Street Pass feature that I mentioned before. That one alone is enough to wish for a 3DS remake or sequel, since that feature was refined and incorporated much more fully on the new system.

Speaking of remakes, there is a remake for iOS devices, it’s $18 for the iPhone/iPod Touch version and $20 for the iPad version. What’s frustrating is Square Enix didn’t make it a universal app, especially at that price. While it’s certainly not an unfair price for a quality game like this, I don’t know how it holds up. After all, the original game was built for the two-screen experience, and reworking it to work with a single touch screen seems like it could possibly simplify the game too much. I also don’t know if any of the DS features were carried over as well, such as a Street Pass style system. As much as I love the original, until I try this version out for myself then I would hesitate to recommend it to anyone who has an iOS device; for the full experience it would just be better to track down the DS version.

So there you go, easily one of the most unique games ever made. That uniqueness is one reason I love it so much, but everything working so well together is what cements its place in my heart. I’ve played it quite a few times over the last few years, and I know that I’ll keep going back to it well into the future. I’m disappointed that there hasn’t been a sequel yet, or even a “true” remake, but between the 3DS and the Wii U which would provide a very similar experience, I’m not about to give up hope.

"Listen up, Phones. The world ends with you. If you want to enjoy life, expand your world. You gotta push your horizons out as far as they'll go." — Sanae Hanekoma
“Listen up, Phones. The world ends with you. If you want to enjoy life, expand your world. You gotta push your horizons out as far as they’ll go.”
— Sanae Hanekoma