Version tested: DS
I'll be the first to admit that games reviewers can easily become jaded, brave martyrs that we are. Playing so many games does mean that the uninspired offerings need to work harder to make an impression, while games that innovate become glittering gems to be treasured. And, sometimes, the elements that jump out of the mire aren't always the first priority of the everyday gamer. The end result is that any game that arrives on the crest of a hyperbolic wave, festooned with praise for its fancy new ideas, can make you - the common peasants who have to pay for your games - suspicious of anything heralded for its fresh thinking.
The World Ends With You could certainly fall into that trap. Released last summer in Japan as Subarashiki Kono Sekai (or "It's A Wonderful World"), it's since been praised to the high heavens for the way it reinvents the RPG, making use of the DS and its unique properties in ways that make even the most hardened hack sit up and pay attention.
Of course, I'm using RPG as a sort of catch-all description, since the game flits between genres like a hummingbird, slurping up delicious nectar from fighting games, adventure games, even social management games like The Sims. Such eclecticism alone would be impressive, yet what makes The World Ends With You so surprising - and often so oblique - is that almost every element of the game is delivered in a way you've not seen before, and then proceeds to offer even more depth beyond those daunting first impressions. It's a dizzying experience.
There are some familiar genre touchstones though and our lead character, Neku, is one of them. Like all good RPG heroes, he's fifteen, moody and afflicted with convenient amnesia. At the start of the game he passes out and wakes up in Tokyo's achingly hip Shibuya district. Nobody can see him, and he's somehow obtained a black pin (or badge, as we'd call it) that allows him to read people's thoughts.
Then he receives a cryptic text message - "Reach 104. You have 60 minutes. Fail, and face erasure." Clearly it's not referring to the camp pop duo. Neku has somehow found his way into the Reapers Game, in which disaffected youths must survive seven days of trials and challenges set by the hooded Reapers. Paired up with Shiki, a bubbly young lass, Neku is thrown into a world dictated by complex rules, cryptic puzzles and frequent combat, and you're coming along for the ride.
It's the combat that dominates the game, and the Stride Cross Battle System is also where much of the hype is coming from, so let's start there. The gameworld is populated by creatures known as Noise - weird animalistic manifestations of our urban malaise. Neku can see them as floating shapes when he activates his black pin, and clicking on them initiates an encounter. The gameplay then splits into two, with Neku fighting on the touch-screen using the stylus while his partner battles on the top screen, controlled with the d-pad or face buttons. Both characters are separate but battling the same foes and sharing the same health gauge.
Neku's attacks are dictated by the pins he wears - all of which level up with use - and activated by carrying out the appropriate stylus taps, sweeps and scribbles. His partner, on the other hand, must navigate timed combos to the left or right depending on where they want to strike. Success on one screen sends a green "light puck" to the other character, where it can be increased and rallied back by yet more successful combat. In this way, increasingly powerful attacks can be built up.
There's no easier way of explaining this bewildering system, other than to say watch a video, but suffice to say the effect is much like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. And only having 30 seconds to get it exactly right, or you'll die. Yes, the game is hard, with a learning curve that initially has more of the vertical about it. While most RPGs warm you up with fights against rats or gooey blobs, The World Ends With You ramps up the difficulty almost immediately and, coupled with the unique combat system, the result can be exhilarating but also deeply frustrating.
There are ways to offset this rude awakening though. You can automate the top screen (though this means you'll be unable to fully explore the combo system) and later on you're able to restart the battles at an easier setting. Neither completely compensates for the harsh pace, however, and if the game has one major flaw it's that it doesn't do enough to ease you in. Much like those Magic Eye pictures, I suspect there'll be a significant number of players who will simply be unable to get the knack and walk away muttering about hype. While that attitude won't get you anywhere, young man, the game itself must take some of the blame. The punishing process of grappling with so many new elements at once teeters on the tightrope between addicting challenge and off-putting chore.
And that's a shame, since the longer you play, the more the game reveals. It's no exaggeration to say that this may be the deepest game on the DS. Take Neku's pins, for instance. There are 300 to be found, all of them able to be levelled up, moved around into different configurations or assigned to sub-slots for additional combat options. Each of Neku's partners throughout the game can earn stars by completing card-based combos during combat. At every turn, there's a fresh idea, itself built on a foundation of yet more fresh ideas.
For instance, Neku's psychic powers also enable you to immediately see what all the milling NPC characters are thinking about, with their thought balloons opening up yet more info when clicked. Sometimes you get vital clues to your current task, most of the time it'll just be a glimpse into their personality. The comments can get samey, but as an alternative to walking around, clicking on each person in turn, it's quite brilliant. But that's not enough. No, the game goes deeper still, and as you grow more adept at using your powers, you're later able to pick up memes from one person and then transplant those thoughts into others. Not only does it work as a clever gameplay mechanic for delivering and solving puzzles; it's even a sly commentary on modern society.
Speaking of sly commentary, even fashion plays an important role in the game. The impossibly trendy Shibuya district isn't just a funky backdrop for the action; it's the heartbeat of the game. As you move from one area to another, so the styles and fashions change. Present yourself accordingly and you get yet another stat boost. Yet even this concept looks positively vanilla when you look at some of the other ways the game uses the DS to continually tweak your statistics. Thanks to the rarely used internal clock, you can earn experience while the DS is switched off, for instance.
Not by a huge amount, and it tails off the longer you leave it, but as a way of encouraging players to keep the game in the slot and turn it on each morning, it's undeniably nifty. Wireless is another way of boosting your stats. Connect with a fellow player and you can swap stuff, just as you'd expect. However, enter Mingle Mode and the game will give you benefits just for being in the vicinity of any Wi-Fi DS owners, regardless of what they're playing. Again, it serves a dual purpose - as an interesting gameplay addition, and as a way of furthering the social theme of the game in the real world. Really, the games-as-art pundits are going to have a field day with this.
And here I am, banging on, and I haven't even had a chance to talk about the ice-cool artwork or the impossibly catchy soundtrack, both of which would be worthy of paragraphs of praise in most reviews. Judged purely as a piece of game design, The World Ends With You is a staggering achievement. It's easily one of the most original and confident games you're likely to see on any current platform - though the fact that it could only ever work on the DS is surely part of the genius.
However, I can't quite bring myself to give it the glowing endorsement of a 9/10 simply because it often feels like the designers were so much in love with their audacious new ideas that they neglected to put down a welcome mat. The game throws a lot of information at you, and then takes its time actually making sense of it. While this works in the context of the story, it makes for a frustrating introductory period made all the more distancing by Neku's irritating petulance. JRPG heroes are almost always selfish whiners to start with, but this surly little brat really isn't any fun to be around and it's easy to grow tired of his monosyllabic sulks long before he reaches the end of his (rather predictable) character arc.
The World Ends With You, then, is the sort of game I desperately hope will leave some scratches on the unyielding grey carapace of modern games design once it's bounced off into inevitable obscurity. It's bold, inspiring and bubbling over with dozens of ideas, any one of which would be cause for celebration in most games, but the over-reliance on a daunting sink-or-swim combat system that will leave many players gasping for breath ultimately counts against it. A truly brilliant game, it's just a shame that it couldn't ease off on the information overload and make that brilliance easier for everyone to appreciate.
8 / 10