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It's pleasing to see that Square Enix — despite having the Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Kingdom Hearts mega franchises in its line-up — is still willing to go boldly into new frontiers with the release of original games like The World Ends With You. This role-playing game eschews the company's tried-and-true swords-and-sorcery settings and instead transports the action to modern-day Tokyo. Although there's nary a chocobo or keyblade to be found here, The World Ends With You still incorporates some of the company's best-known trademarks and wraps plenty of innovative new gameplay around them, particularly an initially mind-bending dual-screen combat system. The result is a game that manages to feel familiar and yet strikingly new at the same time, and one that deserves to be ranked alongside Square Enix's best works.
At first glance, the game seems little more than a pastiche of all the things that have made the famed Japanese developer's RPGs massive successes in the past. Angsty teen hero with an absurdly angular haircut? Check. Complex, team-based combat system? You betcha. Detailed customisation options with weapons and armour that border on the anal retentive? Fer sure. But The World Ends With You merely uses these Square Enix conventions as a launching pad for a unique experience that is both impressive in its use of the Nintendo DS's capabilities and compelling in its storytelling.
The most apparent difference from previous Square Enix games is location. The World Ends With You is set not in an imaginary kingdom, but entirely within Tokyo's fashion and shopping hub, Shibuya. Several real-world landmarks from Shibuya are re-created within the game, such as the train station, Shibuya Crossing, Hachiko's statue, Dogenzaka, and more. However, this shift to a modern setting isn't mere window dressing, given that it greatly complements the game's overall design. Developer Jupiter Corp has stuck to a character look similar to that found in the Kingdom Hearts series, and though the far-out fashion seemed somewhat out of place within that game universe, here it seems entirely appropriate to the fast-paced and fashion-conscious world of trendy Tokyo.
The story itself is a little like The Matrix, and a little like Battle Royale. The game follows main character Neku Sakabara as he's forced to play The Reapers' Game, a sinister competition in which the (mostly) evil Reapers assign players, like Neku, a task every day for seven days. Fail to complete the task within the set time limit and the player is completely erased from existence. Strangely, none of the other inhabitants of busy Shibuya can see Neku or the other players, although a mysterious pin that Neku finds on his person when he first wakes up in Shibuya lets him read people's minds. What's even more disconcerting are the large groups of strange creatures now roaming the streets. Although normal people can't see these creatures — called the Noise — they can see Neku, and they're out for blood. Along the way, Neku is forced to make pacts with other characters because forming these bonds and fighting in pairs is the only way to do damage to the Noise.
There are some genuine twists in this game's intriguing story, and there is also plenty of heartfelt emotion from its teenage protagonists, which makes for some truly touching moments. The themes explored here — finding your identity, overcoming insecurity, teen angst, coping with guilt, the weight of obligation — are nothing new for a Square Enix game, but they seem somewhat more resonant and identifiable because they're coming from characters who use mobile phones, eat fast food, and who do other things that ground them in the same world we live in.
Traversing the world of Shibuya is done through the stylus and touchscreen, but battles are where it gets more complex. The game's setting might be somewhat of a departure for a Square Enix game, but the combat is a completely new take that uses both of the DS's screens at the same time. Neku and his partner share the same health bar, while the Noise they're fighting appear on both screens at once (although not necessarily in the same location). On the bottom screen is Neku, whom you control via different directional swipes with the stylus on the touchscreen. Neku uses objects called psych pins to attack, and each type of pin requires a specific move with the stylus to unleash its power. These moves can include rapidly tapping the screen, performing slashes across enemies, quickly scratching empty space, drawing circles with the stylus, and more. There are also some pins that require you to yell into the DS's microphone.
These pins feature varied powers such as the ability to call a meteor strike, erupt a mini volcano, create lines of flames, throw cars and other objects around, shoot out electrical fields, and much more. Though there are supposed to be 300 different pins to be found in The World Ends With You, that doesn't mean there are 300 different types of powers to be unleashed in the game. Considering that many powers are replicated among different brands in the game (more on this later), you can definitely expect to see the same powers again and again. And just like Neku, psych pins can gain experience in battles, going up in levels the more times they're used.
The DS's top screen is where Neku's current partner will battle the Noise. The partner's actions are controlled via the D pad, with different combinations of directional presses resulting in different attacks or defensive manoeuvres. Both Neku and his partner can also unleash powerful combos, which are earned by following a specific pattern of attack on the top screen and released via tapping the bottom screen.
As you might guess, controlling both characters at the same time is confusing. Thankfully, the World Ends With You rewards you not for trying to control the action on both screens simultaneously, but for rapidly switching control from one to the other in a smooth way. At the beginning of each fight, Neku will be bathed in a green light. As soon as he makes a successful attack, this green light will move to his partner in the top screen, which will then move back to Neku after the partner makes an attack. Successfully passing this green puck back and forth between the two results in increasing damage bonuses done to enemies, which of course means that you'll need to concentrate on whoever has the puck to keep the combo going.