The World Ends With You: Best JRPG Ever
Posted by Ben Zeigler on May 13, 2008
I’ve now played 30 hours of The World Ends With You (for Nintendo DS), and I think it is the best Japanese RPG ever made. It may not necessarily be everyone’s favorite (I think Chrono Trigger is still mine), but as far as game mechanics, presentation, and innovation, it is the current pinnacle of the genre. It may seem a bit weird at first (modern day setting? dual screen-dual character combat system? bizarre animal-shaped music enemies?), but once you get about an hour or so in, the game is transcendent bliss. Every time I thought of something that would make the game better, they’d do that exact thing. Here’s my capsule review:
The World Ends With You is a Japanese RPG set in an alternate version of modern day Shibuya, which is lovingly recreated and integral to the game. The conflict between the creative and destructive aspects of a style-driven place like Shibuya is central to the gameplay and plot. The main character, Neku Sakuraba, arrives confused and without his memories. Shockingly, the amnesia actually makes sense given later developments. He is forced to team up with a partner, and battle music-based animal enemies (Shrew Gazer, Gabba Bat, etc) in a two-character Action RPG combat system. You control Neku on the bottom screen using an extremely wide variety of stylus gestures to activate special Pins (you know, like Flair from Office Space). Your partner is on the top screen, and you control them using d-pad motions (or the AI can auto control them for ease of use). This sounds incredibly confusing, but after half an hour or so you’ll be an expert at focusing your attention. The main quest can take from 10-25 hours, and there is extensive post-game content. As far as graphics, it is one of the most attractive games on the DS. It features 2.5D scaled sprites with lots of detail and parallax. The characters are designed by the same guy who did Kingdom Hearts, and I much prefer them here due to a complete lack of Mickey Mouse. The interface is cleanly designed and very usable. The soundtrack is absolutely outstanding, and consists of a somehow cohesive mix of J-Pop/Rap and more Ambient pieces. If you own a DS and are vaguely interested in RPGs, Action games, Japan, Fashion, Theology, or Fun, this game is an absolute must buy.
With that out of the way, I wanted to talk a bit about some of the more innovative parts of the design. First, the overall structure of the game is great. It’s split up into 21 chapters, and all of them are self-contained experiences that switch between free-range sections and tightly controlled goals. Narrative developments tie them together, and there’s no extended “you now have an airship” portion of the game that drags down the pace. I found myself alternating between grinding and plot development, and the game supports whatever mix the player wants. The best part of this structure is that it drives the New Game + mode, which is an objective mode where you revisit past chapters. The goals tend to be fun and challenging, and finishing them opens up extensive information on the game’s back story. I’ll talk about Pins below, but the other major components of the game’s overall mechanic are Items. Items are either clothing or food, and you buy them from stores. Food gives you permanent stat boosts, and you can only eat a certain amount per day. Clothing gives you stat boosts while worn, as well as special abilities. The interesting thing is that these special abilities are unlocked for you by the various shopkeepers as you develop a relationship with them. The bondage pants only give you improved attack while in critical condition if you become friends with the creepy shop owner. Oh, and the brand of clothes you wear affects your battle performance. If you bring sweat pants and a hoodie to the high-class zone, you’re going to suck. The upshot of all this is that buying and trying on different items is really fun, and it’s extremely easy to lose yourself in this part of the game.
The most innovative part of the game comes with the Pin system. Pins are what you use to activate powers, there is a huge variety of them. They work by tapping the screen, or scratching enemies, or by drawing a path, etc. Every gesture you can think of is used. Additionally, the pins all have a Brand (which ties into the zone), a description, some art, and possibly an Evolution. Pins can evolve through battle, shutdown (gained for real-world time spent between plays), or mingling with other players (you get exp for talking to people who own TWEWY, with other DS’s, and with “Aliens” that randomly occur). So, there’s a complex and complete system for evolving pins into other pins, and the pace of evolution is very high. But where do you get Pins from in the first place? Most Pins drop from enemies. So, you spend a lot of your time in game repeatedly killing enemies in order to get rare drops. What’s so innovative about that?
The vital part is that drop rate is part of the game mechanics. At any point, you can lower your effective level to increase Pin drop rate. Additionally, if you chain together more than one battle, you get an additionally boosted drop rate. So, the game encourages you to fight as difficult a battle as possible, and there is a risk-vs-reward dynamic for getting the 1337 drops. Oh, and you can also tweak the AI difficulty (which switches classes of items that drop, instead of just frequency) in addition to your own level. Plus the better you do in combat, the more Pin experience you get at conclusion so player skill is encouraged. On top of that it gives you a comprehensive list of all possible item drops (with undiscovered drops listed as ????) with percentages, so you know what you need to fight. And if you fail at the battle (once you pass certain point), you can retry right away at a lower difficulty if you just want to progress in the story. To make it even better, the Pin progression system (because it’s so fast and easy) ensures that you switch pins out frequently. This means that each battle plays out differently even against the same enemy. If you add all this together, what you get is a system where grinding isn’t required, it’s totally awesome. I’ve fallen for this part of the game in a way I never fell for Diablo 2 or Pokemon, and it’s because it’s just so fun and non-frustrating. I’m pretty sure I’m going to master this game (which I don’t think I’ve ever done to an RPG before), and enjoy it a hell of a lot in the process. I can honestly say that so far I have enjoyed every single minute of this game, and I don’t think it’s going to let up any time soon.
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