A cult classic of the Nintendo DS era, The World Ends With You was a game that has deserved a sequel for more than a decade now. And to be fair, a sequel has been teased for quite some time, first previewed in the 2012 mobile remake and then later expanded in the 2018 Switch-exclusive port. In a way, I can appreciate Square Enix taking the time to do a sequel right. TWEWY was known for its exciting easy-to-pickup gameplay, memorable characters and music, which the term “Head-Banging” and “Ear-Worm” would have been understatements for. In other words, it was a franchise that Square Enix could have easily milked over the last decade. But ultimately, outside of a remaster on each platform generation and a cameo appearance in Kingdom Hearts, the franchise remained untouched until this year.
Perfectly timed to be released alongside the conclusion of The World Ends With You’s TV anime, Square Enix chose 2021 as the year to publish NEO: The World Ends With You – a proper sequel which fans have been waiting these many years for. The action RPG is now available to purchase on both the Nintendo Switch, as home to the franchise, and in a somewhat surprising twist – the PlayStation 4. Rather than maintain core gameplay elements which has served them well for years, albeit struggling to adapt to even the recent Nintendo Switch port, the game’s creative and development teams took vital elements of the original and brought them over to 3D. On offer this time around is a new pin-based battle system, longer days with more puzzles in them and a larger open-world environment, all the while retaining the series’ anime-esque charm.
First, I would say that one of NEO: The World Ends With You’s most significant flaws is not anything done in the game, but instead in its marketing – particularly the pre-launch trailers. So many were eagerly awaiting this game, and I would argue it didn’t need too many details to get the hype train started. Instead, despite a few scattered surprises, much of what made the narrative good was spoiled during the game’s promotion. This includes what was ultimately the main climax of the story, the teasing of certain cameo appearances from the previous game, and the presence of Neku in the story. These are all things I would have loved to have gone “GASP!” at as I played through the story, not feeling like I am heading towards a trajectory I already knew.
NEO: The World Ends with You is a chronological sequel to the first game, taking place after the events of the Switch-exclusive ‘A New Day’ arc. The game follows new protagonist Rindo and his friend Fret, who find themselves in a very different Reapers Game. No longer is the game broken up into teams of just two, with groups of participants duking it out to obtain points. The winning group will get their wish granted… while the lowest-ranked group suffers the consequences. Forming The Wicked Twisters, and later joined by returning character Sho Minamoto (serving as a disinterested mentor for the pair with his own unspecified objectives) and Nagi (A social hermit who finds herself, like the other two, dragged into the game unknowingly), they begin solving the puzzles, defeating noise, and aiming to survive the week. All the while a new set of reapers pose a new threat to Shibuya, with few able to stand in their way.
NEO follows a similar gameplay structure to the original game, broken up into days within a week. Each day traditionally consists of its own sets of puzzles and barriers to completion, although ultimately, the end result is pre-defined, setting Rindou on a linear narrative from start to finish. As before, the first week is really about getting you acquainted with the setting, teasing later plot points and getting you familiar with the different gameplay systems, before ramping up in the following weeks. The unique plot device of NEO is the leading trio’s abilities, most notably Rindou’s ability to turn back time to resolve solutions he (and the viewer) were unable to accomplish the first time around. Again, this serves no active gameplay benefit. However, it serves as an interesting plot device as the cast pieces together their former failings to change their fate.
The one concern I had with NEO: The World Ends With You’s storyline was that they would pander to players of the original game. After all, this is a game fans have been waiting many years for. But I think they struck the right balance, choosing select characters to have return more substancially and others limited to short cameo roles. While the former cast are present, this is very much about the journey of Rindo, Fret and Nagi – and the other players of the new Reaper’s Game.
Visually, the game has transitioned across well from a 2.5D environment to a fully-3D world, with the creative team capturing the same spirit charm of Shibuya featured in the original games. However, my comments on the demo remain unchanged as it can take some time to adapt to the various (and sometimes awkward) perspectives players are forced into – such as in the vicinity of 104.
For those who worry they will miss the 2D anime-style visuals, the dialogue still makes use of character portraits and similar styled art assets, which are even better than they were before! Although the 2.5D environment suited the anime theme well, NEO provides a more versatile, expansive environment to navigate through, which works better for many puzzles. While the anime-style 3D visuals are amazing, there was one major downside – performance. At least on the Nintendo Switch version I was playtesting, the frame-rate varied quite a bit. Sometimes the game would run fine, while other moments you would see the game slow down to a snails pace or (on multiple occasions) crash back to the home screen. All I can say in those instances, given they tended to happen during pivotal moments in the game, the auto-save managed to kick-in without too much data loss.
One of the defining elements of The World Ends With You was its soundtrack, composed by Takeharu Ishimoto. Fortunately, the development team brought back Ishimoto-san as lead composer for NEO, which to be quite frank, is the only logical option to take, I believe, given how defining the music was to the original. The minor issue with the soundtrack of NEO is that none of the remixes of original songs felt as good as the original – they were by no means bad – but they couldn’t improve the songs through remixing. Many of the new tracks encompassed a broader range of “trendy” genres. The music is satisfying, and on multiple occasions, I was singing along with the lyrics during a set of chain battles. This is one game you may want to consider buying the soundtrack – or even the pricier vinyl soundtrack – for.
The World Ends With You did have English voice acting, however, for a very few scenes, with the dub mostly limited to mid-battle grunts and comments. With the release of NEO on modern hardware with fewer storage limitations, the amount of English dialogue may not rival the likes of a Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts title, but still features all pivotal scenes dubbed into English. For returning characters such as Sho Minamoto, Uzuki Yashiro and Koki Kariya, the game’s original voice actors, including Andy Hirsch, Kate Higgins and Andrew Kishino all return. Which was very much welcome given we can’t have anyone else shouting “So Zetta Slow!” other than Hirsch. The main cast also consists of series newcomers, including: Paul Castro Jr as Rindo, Griffin Burns as Fret, Miranda Parkin as Nagi, Xanthe Huynh as Kanon, Shaun Conde as Shiba, Bailey Gambertoglio as Shoka and Xander Mobus as Kubo. Overall, the recording is of a sufficient quality, and my only comment would be that I wouldn’t have minded them dubbing every line of dialogue…
NEO: The World Ends With You’s Battle System had the most question marks around it. The original battle system was designed exclusively to take advantage of the Nintendo DS’s unique features. The iOS, Android and Switch ports of the RPG all felt like the development team had to make compromises and have players jump through hoops to get anything close to the original experience. Fortunately, the development team opted to adapt their mechanics to suit the functionality shared between the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4, delivering an overhauled battle system that takes advantage of the 3D world of Shibuya, the presence of more characters on the battlefield and more universal controller mappings.
Battles once again require you to “open up your senses”, and chain together noise that Rindo and his team can perceive. In combat, every member of your party can be assigned a single pin, and you combat Noise threats by pressing the buttons correlating with each pin. Adding to the complexity are elements such as the different pin types (eg. Rapid-fire, Charge), the ability to charge up more powerful attacks, pin evolution and optimal switching patterns. Furthermore, until you progress later into the game, each character is required to have a pin corresponding to a different button (X, Y, L, ZL, R, ZR [Switch] or Square, Triangle, L1, L2, R1, R2 [PS4]) – each typically corresponding to one or two different types of combat pin. With each pin having its corresponding cooldowns, AOEs and powers – it becomes a juggling act, as it isn’t always possible to just mash the buttons to victory… at least on the more demanding difficulty sessions. However, I would argue one shouldn’t play the game for hours on end as I did, as I ended up with some wrist pain for a week after my multi-day binge session (it is far too easy to go hard on the controller).
The puzzles in NEO: The World Ends With You are nothing special, ranging from one-off concepts such as a spot-the-difference mini-game to taking down X amounts of noise. Initially they are a good way of learning early-game concepts such as the combat mechanics, how to collect pins and can serve as a narrative-driven reason to access some of the game’s returning and new systems. However, there was only one occasion I was truly stumped, near the end, where I could not for the life of me answer a combination of question responses to progress through a time-travelling segment. Embarrassingly, I am not sure whether that was meant to be a puzzle or not. Other than that, most are forgettable. As with its predecessor, there are also several bosses to tackle across each week, from reapers and other players to fully-fledged boss fights. There is always the ability to switch the difficulty to Easy and (at the risk of gaining less EXP and less desirable pins) speeding through the battles. Still, the Normal, Hard and Ultimate difficulties provided sufficient challenge from start to finish. Combined with the music as mentioned earlier, it is easy to lose yourself in a 10-20 minute noise combat chain.
Character customisation takes the form of the Threads system, which returns from The World Ends With You. By visiting different shops across Shibuya, you can acquire different outfits which each improve your HP, Attack and Défense stats. However, unlike its predecessor, all characters can wear pretty much any outfit. However, what makes a good thread great is your Style Stat, obtained by eating certain foods continuously throughout the game. By meeting the threshold, you can gain a sufficient boost in any stat, a skill or one of several other options out there. Oh, and don’t worry about those calories causing characters to put on extra weight, those battles surely burn those very quickly – no matter how many ramen bowls they tackle. Another new system is the Social Network system, where through completing quests for main characters and NPCs and spending Friendship Points, you can obtain a bit of lore behind the character and obtain more substantial perks. These perks range from significant combat boosts, new difficulty modes, unique equipment, the ability to auto-convert money pins into actual money and more. Even if they are primarily sameish, having more alternate missions was welcome, although outside of lore purposes, they were very much complete and forget.
In terms of post-game content, you are once again invited to return to Shibuya through a chapter select menu. From here you can collect your missing pins via different difficulty settings, wrap up any social networking opportunities you may have missed and complete the new mission of each chapter to unlock a new series of “Secret Reports”, providing backstory to the events of the game from the perspective of an observer. There is other new content as well, allowing you to tackle even greater challenges than before, although you may find yourself a little short on narrative content compared to TWEWY.
Aside from the sore wrist I gained after playing NEO: The World Ends With You almost non-stop over a few days, I’ve got to say that this is a game that those who have waited so long for a sequel deserve. On the gameplay side of things, it takes elements of the Nintendo DS version and adapts them perfectly for the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4, retaining the charm in both them and the new concepts the development team played with. On the narrative side of things, it featured a story that stands out in its own right, not just relying on nostalgia, but also offering references for returning players to enjoy. While somewhat common crashes to the home screen and the promotional material sharing a few too many surprises better left for players to experience themselves did render the game not perfect (and in the former case, hopefully resolvable by patches), it is a very competent JRPG – arguably one of the best on the market in 2021. Here’s hoping that this is a stepping block to ensure that we don’t have to wait another decade for h.a.n.d. and Square Enix to make a third game in the franchise.
A Nintendo Switch review code of NEO: The World Ends with You was provided by Square Enix and Australian distributor Bandai Namco Entertainment Australia for the purposes of this review.