NEO: The World Ends With You (review)

The sequel to 2007’s The World Ends With You (Subarashiki Kono Sekai) finally released late July this year. Set 3 years after the events of The World Ends With You, the game focuses on a new group of teenagers forced to play the Reapers’ Game in a parallel plane of existence (the Undergound, or UG) in order to return to their lives in Shibuya (the Realground, or RG). They must work together using ‘psych’ abilities attained from pins in order to survive a week of challenges imposed by the Reapers coordinating the Game.

But the Game is seldom fair.

Frankly, I didn’t expect or even want a follow up to the The World Ends With You (TWEWY), having thoroughly enjoyed the cult classic on the DS and on android as a standalone and complete story. That was until the arrival of a port to the Nintendo Switch as a ‘Final Remix’ and the addition of ‘A New Day’ as new playable post-game content.

In short, Coco changed everything.

I should probably give a warning here that this review will have spoilers for the original game and may contain small spoilers for NEO: TWEWY, though I will try to keep the latter to a minimum. If my Coco comment confused you, and you intend to play through The World Ends With You, now is your chance to back out.

You have been warned.

Allow me to indulge in a little backstory before digging into NEO: TWEWY. The conclusion to ‘A New Day’ was bold. Almost too bold, I thought, and I was a little anxious that perhaps Square Enix were setting themselves up for a big fall with a sequel. Originally the game concluded with a happy ending for all, basking in the growth of all of the main characters and a second chance at a bright future. The title card changes from The World Ends with You to The World Begins with You. Heartwarming.

‘A New Day’ brings the young Reaper Coco to the spotlight, formally just a side character that acted as a marketplace to buy additional content in the game. At the end of this new scenario, in which Neku is forced to save Shibuya from the Noise once more, Coco loses it and shoots Neku.

Heartwarming to heartbreaking – but that wasn’t all.

Coco reveals that she intends to ‘save’ Neku (despite having just killed him and taking away his second chance at life) and that she needs him to save Shibuya from a new threat. She even revives Sho Minamimoto, the secondary antagonist, to meet this end. The day concludes with the arrival of a new character: a girl carrying Mr. Mew walking through Shibuya, following the news that the entire Shinjuku ward had been erased. The 104 tower reads: New 7 Days.

It was confirmed. A sequel was indeed in the works.

When I saw the trailer for it in Decemeber 2020, I had a feeling they might just pull it off: a great follow up that in no way tarnishes – perhaps might even improve upon – the original story.

I can only imagine for those that did not play the Final Remix version of the game and experienced ‘A New Day’ that seeing Minamimoto as a playable character was a total shock – not only that, but the cover art for the game sported a character covering their face and turned away. As the first half of the game also implies, this is a familiar face being hidden from us.

The reveal does not disappoint. Frankly, little if anything about this game does. It has the same atmosphere and style as its prequel transferred to a 3D setting, bringing Shibuya to life in ways that the DS had no hope of doing back in 2007. The psychs are flashy yet innovative and the soundtrack – a particular highlight of the original game – really stepped up. The sonic range is still wide, with new mixes of tracks like ‘Twister,’ ‘Calling’ and ‘Jump Over Yourself’, but offering plenty of new, often heavier, songs like ‘Storm’ and ‘Breaking Free’, and ‘World is Yours’ that won me over just as the original OST had.

NEO: TWEWY is a faithful sequel in that most elements of gameplay and interactive character growth have remained the same or similar. You can still deck your characters out in a wide range of ‘threads’ and improve their stats by consuming different kinds of food from all over Shibuya. Your synergy in combat with your partner/team still builds up to a special combined psych attack, but this time the type of attack varies on the element of your last attack. Grinding up your sync rate (now ‘Groove’) to 300% results in a brand new finisher, the ‘Killer Remix’, which is as flashy as it is devastating.

There is a lot of familiar stuff to pick through, but what of the newer qualities? How do Rindo, Fret and Nagi stack up to predecessors Neku, Beat and Shiki? Honestly, they are a refreshing new cast. My particular favourite is certainly Fret. From his character design, his goofy facade and his endearing yet fragile nature beneath, Fret won me over from the get-go. Rindo (AKA ‘Not-Roxas’) takes over the more reserved role that Neku originally filled, and Nagi is an awkward yet articulate ‘fan girl’ with deep emotional intelligence – both an echo and an evolution of Shiki (who so badly envied her friend Eri that she took on her physical form in place of her own in the UG and her arc revolved around understanding why this had happened). It took little time at all to adjust to the cast and appreciate them and their unique abilities in a whole new way.

Other changes include regular missions or side missions in each week such as Scramble Slam – a ‘turf war’ that awards points to teams that clear rivals and Noise out of different regions of the city – and Hide and Seek, which revolves around finding the larger-than-life Susukichi as he zips around Shibuya taking selfies. The user interface (UI) is dramatically expanded and improved upon with the introduction of a ‘Thoughts’ tab, which not only holds useful information about the day’s mission and optional side quests but also houses a social network. The network contains a short record of the characters met in the story so. As you help others throughout your journey you will earn ‘friendship points’ which can be spent on unlocking abilities and skills through the characters recorded in the network, allowing the player to prioritise growth in ways that suit their individual play-style while rewarding exploration and interaction beyond the main quest.

The story itself follows a similar formula to its predecessor, in that the Reapers’ Game is played over 3 times, with one technicality or another causing a rollover to a new week. The stakes are essentially the same – beyond playing for their lives, Rindo has visions of Shibuya being ‘erased’, and so they are also fighting for the city; just as the legendary Neku once did before.

Each day has a LOT to offer, from skits between characters, side quests to save residents of the RG from Noise, hunting pig noise, and lots and lots of shopping. I generally found that playing a day through thoroughly took a big chunk of a day in real time, something that I found I was making more and more time to do as I played through the game.

Normally I hold story above all else in a game – hence my attraction to JRPGs, I suppose. When the story ends, I usually put down the controller. It’s very rare that I feel moved to keep playing and exploring afterwards if there is no more narrative or interesting lore to experience. Only once before have I actually wanted to complete a game 100% (NieR: Automata). With NEO: TWEWY, I knew before I had even finished the Final Day that I would likely be playing for quite a while after the credits.

NEO: TWEWY is the second game I have ever wanted to 100% ‘complete’ – and I have almost done it, with a few pins and threads, a moderate chunk of the noisepedia, and the final superboss yet to do (oh yes, there is a nice chunk of postgame content akin to the prequel). This level of engagement made me reflect on the game and my expectations going in. Square Enix had actually done it: they had stuck the landing on a sequel I never thought I would want so badly. This is a game I can see myself returning to again and again in the future, as I have done with the original title.

So, with praises sung, did I have any hang-ups about the experience?

One thing stands out to me: time travel.

Naturally, this is an element that can make or break an experience. Time travel and alternate worlds present the potential to undermine any sense of stakes, or sabotage the narrative flow wherever it is included as a device. If you can undo mistakes, revive the fallen, or simply explore every possible route a story might take, then there is no need to worry about the worst happening, right? This isn’t always the case, and this is not to say that it cannot work, as there are plenty of instances in which temporal control enriches a story. Look at Stein;s Gate, for example, a visual novel and anime in which every jump between world lines holds tragic consequences that cannot be avoided. Look at Undertale, in which the player can go back and change their approach to the story to achieve different interactions and endings. The latter highlights the concept that some players will naturally start a new game to do things differently, and the game actually calls the player out on this and delivers just deserts. That said, time travel is one of the features of the Kingdom Hearts franchise that I truly dislike, despite being a series I adore.

So how does NEO: TWEWY incorporate time travel, and how does it fare?

I have had mixed experiences.

Without spoiling too much, Rindo possesses the ability to ‘replay’ events of the day in order to avert disaster (which he is forced to do a several times a week), but is limited by having to commit to a future once he is done meddling in the past: once he commits, he cannot go back again that day.

This has the potential to be quite a neat take on the temporal ability, but it is limited to narrative purposes and the player is prompted quite clearly on what they must change and whether they will succeed or not if they are to commit to a new future. While initially the story is enhanced by seeing alternate interactions between characters or a revised series of events, this wears thin as the game goes on and becomes a chore of simply ‘fixing’ interactions you have just played through in order to progress. Thankfully, these tasks are usually short and easily accomplished, but by the final week it had become tedious and simply interrupted the flow of the story.

This isn’t to say that there was no sense of stakes. Often Rindo’s group would be in dire straits and forced to reverse time to simply stand a chance at surviving the day or saving a team member. This meant that even changing the past didn’t guarantee success. Often an unexpected ally would turn the tables or something entirely different was lost in the altered conflict. As Rindo learns by the end of the game, turning back time always comes with a cost.

In summary, time travel lost its novelty but it didn’t much diminish my overall experience. The story is a fantastic follow-up to The World Ends With You, bursting with vibrant settings, characters and an awesome score. It’s accessible to new players while being incredibly rewarding to those who played the first game. It’s no competition at all that NEO: TWEWY is my game of the year.

I imagine I will get a lot more from it while we wait for the next TWEWY installment, as Square Enix seem to have left more than enough to build into a new story. Let’s just hope it isn’t 14 years in the making this time around!

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