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PLATFORMS: PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows
RELEASE DATE: July 27, 2021 (PS4 & Switch), 2021 (PC)
DEVELOPER: h.a.n.d. Inc.
PUBLISHER: Square Enix
ESRB: T for Teen
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The World Ends With You was that special, out of nowhere RPG that just blows away the competition. It's one of those games you always say 'This game should really get a sequel' but then late at night you lie awake thinking how there is no way you could ever recapture the magic of a game like that. When they finally did announce that after 13 years the game would finally be getting a sequel, Neo: The World Ends With You, I had no idea what to think. The DS touch mechanics of the first game were no longer viable and as the Nintendo Switch release reminded me, not quite as enjoyable as I remembered, and the game would be switch to a 3d art style built using Unity.
As Neo booted up, catchy music and the game's signature anime style drew me in, and again I thought, there is no way this game can deliver an experience that satisfies in the way the original did. None of that was the actual game though, just the expectation that expectation can never live up to reality. That was when the game started, both the Reaper's Game and Neo: The World Ends With You, and all those doubts were a thing of the past. Neo offers an experience that players of the first game will be familiar with and new players can easily pick up. The 20 hours into your exploration of the streets of Shibuya will still feel fresh and exciting.
Welcome To The Reaper's Game (Story)
If there is one extremely minor criticism I should lodge early on, it is that Neo draws from a lot of the story beats that the first game used. Similar to the original protagonist Neku, our new protagonist Rindo finds himself walking through Shibuya when he enters the Reaper's Game with little to no provocation. This matters later to the narrative since, as the name implies, this is some form of afterlife that the main cast has no idea how they stumbled into it.
Unlike in the original, Rindo is not alone in the UG since his best friend Fret enters it alongside. This time around the game has changed, no longer focusing on the bond between two characters and instead focusing on a team of players attempting to gain points to ultimately win the game. The winning team gets their wishes granted and as the wildcard new team in the mix everybody, both players and reapers, are excited to see what they bring to the table. This fight to reach the first place and escape this game of survival forms the crux of everything the player will do as each mission is framed as a day in the week-long Reapers' Game.
The game boasts an eclectic and bizarre cast of characters the player will meet along the way. Since the game has long chucks of static exposition presented through character images and comic style paneling it doesn't hurt that both the voice acting (I am referring to the English VO) and the characters are phenomenal. While arguable not on the level of say Persona, each actor brought a level flair to their characters that it is never a chore to listen to all that banter. The only sin the game commits on this front is having too many moments in which this dialog is not voiced. Make no mistake, plenty of it is, but even one scene unvoiced is too many when the many goofy faces of Negi or the intimidating muscle flex of Susukichi don't have their voices to perfectly accompany them.
Similar to death itself, the game presents its cast in shades of gray. Take for instance the Reapers that run the Reapers' game. Interactions with them can always be expected to be a source of amusement. These urban outfitted cool kids have no vested interest in the outcome of this game at all. Some are likely to offer your team advice just to buck the status quo, others might explain certain plot points because they can, and all can be expected to end each conversation with snark and condescending. In this world death is just a game and being a reaper is just a job, which brings us to Shoka, who firmly establishes herself as the best girl from the moment she calls the team "losers". Listening to her constantly complain about following your team because it's her job is somehow the most relatable thing I can think of.
The Rhythm And Beats Of The Shibuya Streets (Visuals & Audios)
Unity is not the usual engine for a game like this. Honestly, with Square Enix using the Unreal Engine 4 more and more in-house I am surprised it isn't also being implemented on projects such as Neo. While Square Enix is not developed properly, it is their franchise to have however much control they might want over it. Now, I have no problem with the Unity engine but anybody doing a quick search of its most well-known titles will see a big difference between what it is commonly used for and a major JRPG title. What's more shocking is that the finished product does not at first glance envoke the idea it was built with unity.
Neo: The World Ends With You, similar to many JRPGs lacks polish in its environments, such as textures. The game, however, deploys a static camera that moves along with your character from fixed points, allowing for most of these imperfections within the environment to seem less intrusive on the experience. Though this also sometimes has the converse effect of making navigation a chore. Since the game often has you backtracking then re-backtracking through set areas, you should quickly become acclimated with the world. Why by your tenth hour in the game it would not be shocking if you can navigate blindfolded. For me, I never minded the backtracking, but I could see how that might become annoying to some.
Literally every character in a Square Enix game that has Tetsuya Nomura involved in it everybody looks like they belong in some kinda pop idol group. The difference between say Final Fantasy, Or if anybody remembers The Bouncer, is that this franchise was built around music. Characters invoke these types, like idols, rappers, punk rockers, and so on, and the soundtrack backs their identity up. From the second the game starts if the soundtrack doesn't hook you then you must be insane in the membrane.
The best part about it is how even individual songs have multiple identities. For instance, an earlier song in the game starts with an upbeat pop vocal with a female singer, however not long into the song it breaks into heavy metal, super loud hook. It reminded me almost of any number of tracks from the Japanese band Maximum The Hormone. And the game continues with this feeling in mind through every song. Sometimes the music transitions from punk rock into rap, others it is pop into rock, but never is it boring. Of course, some music doesn't transition and simply offers one catchy tune throughout. Additionally, it elevates the combat of the game - as a good soundtrack always should. Each track is collectible from shops as you progress through the game, so your favorite song is usually never more than a menu screen away.
Pin It To Win It (Gameplay & Combat)
The World Ends With You never took a traditional approach to the idea of combat. In fact, combat is mostly an optional affair in Shibuya. Yes throughout the story you will be forced to fight enemies and bosses it is pretty easy to avoid fights while wandering the street. Rindo and the gain use an ability to sense Noise (as the enemies are called) and can both read people's thoughts in this mode as well as engage in combat with enemies on the map. Quick moving players can chain up to five Noise emblems together for back-to-back fights that offer more rewards. And like players might expect, defeating enemies gains you experience that will level your team up.
This is where Neo: The World Ends With You flips that concept on its head, however. You really don't want to level up so that you are stronger, you want to level up so you can get more items in combat. How this works is that the player can choose their level between their highest and level one. With each level, you go down your health decreases but your drop rate raises. Everything from money to combat abilities drop as pins so having these increased numbers should keep players in the money and with plenty of skills for combat to choose from, with any excess being more money in the bank. Similarly, difficulty acts as an in-game mechanic, with higher difficulties offering stronger enemies but rarer pins.
In actuality, the way you will make your characters stronger is by stuffing your face at every restaurant you find. Stopping at restaurants offers the player a range of foods to choose from with each party member having their own preferences of food. These foods have set stats they will increase such as health, attack, defense, and style. In truth even food a character hates will benefit them, but if they like the food they might get a tasty bonus that increases their stat buff further. In truth eating will become a driving force for combat as the core way to decrease how full they are is to fight noise.
The style stat plays into the second-way players will increase their characters, through equipment. Stopping off at the many hip and trendy clothing stores to pick up outfits. Now, these outfits ONLY act to increase stats and do not change appearance. On the one hand, since the characters have such identifiable looks I understand the choice, on the other hand, the outfits all look so cool I would have loved to see customization through equipment. I want... My Rindo... Dressed as a gothic lolita maid... With a rainbow afro! Most outfits also have special skills that can be accessed when your style points hit a high enough level so even if they don't like the dish keep shoveling in those style stat boosts.
In a game where combat mostly comes down to a choice made by the player, you would hope combat is good. It is not good. No, the combat in The World Ends With you is absolutely amazing. In the beginning, it is simple, easy to pick up. You will understand the combat from the first battle, and you will probably already enjoy it. Soon, however, you will see that what appeared to be a simple concept has a level of mastery you will spend the rest of the game chasing.
Unlike the first game, where Neku used all the pins and his partner Shiki acted as a supporting character, all of the team fights in this game. Pins have associated buttons that dictate the kinds of skills they are. As I explain, keep in mind that my layout was that of the PlayStation 4. For instance, the square button is usually associated with long-range attacks but these can range from shooting power bursts at your enemies to firing a stream of garbage. This button also has bombs that can be placed on the field as well, completely changing the flow of your team comp.
Triangle is associated mostly with close-range slashing abilities, with R1 and L1 being charged throw abilities. Since you have four characters at most you can equip these on those characters however you like. My preference was to go Negi as my long-range and Rindo up close, everybody else switching as I needed them. Uber pins can be placed into the mix as well offering even more diversity as they range from powerful beams to healing, to literal lava pits under enemies. There is also a groove gauge that when characters combo their abilities they will eventually get a powerful attack that uses the affinity of the last major pin attack. Since pins run out of juice and must recharge the balancing act of combing, and holding back characters for just the right moment versus just going all out with everybody is very real.
All of these abilities mix differently but as I found all can mix. This changes the flow of combat as you test out and try new ability combos to get them just right. Each of these pins can also level up, with several also evolving into a better version of themselves to give improved stats. With over 300 pins to collect before the game ends, you will find that combat is constantly changing, and just like the level system and difficulty, it revolves heavily around player choice. If I have one singular complaint about the pin system, it is that there is no way to create load-outs. Once I started finding solid pin choices I like to switch off to try new stuff forced me to search around when I wanted to go back. There is a recommended list for pins, but in fairness sometimes that list felt like it just picks four random pins to showcase.
Early on Neo felt at times limiting, for instance only being able to store 99,999 yen when that really isn't much in the grand scheme of the game. But the friendship system acts as a leveling system for the mechanics. While many simply offer more variety in stores you will eventually start to break several caps you previously had. This also incentivizes exploring the relationships between characters around the town.
Neo: The World Ends With you is one of the coolest RPGs you will play and not just this year. While the story doesn't bring anything new to the table when compared to the original, this isn't always a bad thing. The strongest points with both stories, which lies with the characters deliver in a way that few games do and make becoming invested in their journey easy. The biggest change comes in the flow of combat which has changed from a touch screen swiping combat to a more traditional button association. This change could have been what killed the game, instead, it proves that the franchise absolutely has a life beyond this sequel, and then some.
After years of waiting, Neo: The World Ends With You is everything fans could have hoped for.