Though much of my writing may not reflect this fact, I am a man who loves video games. On July 27th, I and many others celebrated the release of the long-awaited sequel to the beloved cult-classic Square Enix RPG The World Ends With You.
While I was late to pick up Neo, I have enjoyed the hours I have spent with it so far; however, in light of the release of the sequel, I believe it’s worth taking a look back at what made the original game so endearing. While different people will have different opinions on what made the game pull them in, I’d like to focus on what has, in retrospect, made the DS original place itself so firmly into my heart: the game’s commitment to its central theme.
The World Really Does End with You
It’s quite rare, I think, that a title so perfectly encapsulates the essence of a story. The phrase “The World Ends With You,” while sounding slightly apocalyptic, does not refer to Armageddon; rather, it refers to the end of your world as a physical boundary. The game’s title (and the character who uses the phrase in game) is saying that your world ends where you let it end. Those who keep to themselves, never leaving their own comfortable bubbles and shutting themselves away from the people and places around them are constricting their world, and while they may not necessarily be unhappy, they are missing out on so much of what life has to offer.
It’s only by interacting with others and being exposed to new places and new ideas that one can live their lives to the fullest and become the best version of themselves. This is the lesson that the main character, a teenage boy who has completely cut himself off from everyone around him, spends the entire game learning, and it’s a lesson that strongly impacted many who played the game.
As he plays the sinister Reaper’s Game, a game that sets dead souls on 7 days of dangerous missions for a chance at returning to life, he meets a number of people who convince him to start opening up and trusting others, as well as open his eyes to the wonders of the world he’s been ignoring. However, as I mentioned previously, it’s not just the plot and dialogue that further this theme; many of the game’s core mechanics also serve to reinforce this central idea.
It Takes Two to Tango
For those unfamiliar with the combat system of The World Ends with You, the original game uses the DS’ twin screens to create an incredibly unique (and sometimes mind bending) experience. In-universe, the game’s main enemies, the Noise, exist simultaneously in two dimensions and must be destroyed in both places simultaneously, or else they can not die. Thus, participants in the Reapers’ Game must form partnerships with other players in order to erase these monsters from existence.
While the justification may sound somewhat convoluted, the resulting battle structure is fascinating: the player controls two characters, with one on each of the DS’s screens. The character on the top screen is controlled with the D-pad, while the protagonist, Neku, occupies and is controlled by the touch screen. Neku uses a variety of pins, each with different effects and methods of activation (swiping, tapping enemies, etc.), that the player can mix and match in small groups called “decks.” Each of the game’s partner characters has a different gimmick, requiring different input chains on the d-pad.
If one were required to operate both of these completely concurrently, it would get overwhelming far too quickly; however, to further the theme of synergy with others as the ideal, the game implements an interesting combo system: when you complete a combo with one character, a ball of light will bounce up to the character on the opposite screen, powering them up.
When you complete a combo with that powered-up character, the ball of light will bounce back to the other character; this encourages you to bounce your attention back and forth between them, putting the other character into defense mode while you focus on doing as much damage as possible with the focus character. This allows both characters to feel completely necessary, and encourages you to learn the patterns and combos of all of your teammates.
Even the Armor System
While in many games, the best armor is locked behind different class or strength stat requirements, The World Ends With You takes a different stance on armor requirements. The armor you can use is locked behind a “Style” stat, and the more stylish a piece of clothing is, the better its stats are. Fashion brands that are safe and generic, with things like regular polo shirts and cargo shorts, are generally lower in style and in stats.
Clothes that are more bold and fashion-forward tend to have higher stats. While many players will just look at these clothes as raw numbers, this actually serves to further demonstrate Neku’s personal growth throughout the course of the story; as you play further on, you will raise your Style stat higher and higher by trying new and exotic foods (another mechanic of the game; rather than raising your stats through level ups, you raise your attack and defense by eating different foods around Shibuya), Neku will expand his wardrobe further and further out of his original comfort zone.
The game encourages you to wear various different styles of clothing to find what suits you, and the adjustable difficulty ensures that a style-focused player doesn’t necessarily need to sacrifice form for function.
Shopkeepers are people too!
Perhaps the most subtle-yet-explicit expression of the theme is how the game’s shopkeepers are written and programmed. As mentioned before, the player will take Neku & co. to various clothing stores and restaurants around Shibuya in their quest for stats and armor; however, the shopkeepers aren’t just generic npcs with the same few lines of dialogue every single time you speak to them.
Each shopkeeper has a unique portrait, full name, and personality, and their dialogue will begin to change the more you visit their stores. As I mentioned previously, these dialogue changes are where the theme becomes the most explicit; the level of friendliness and familiarity the shopkeeper shows when speaking to you will depend on how often you visit the store, as well as how much you buy there.
You as a player will start to learn more about the backstory and personality of the cashiers at your favorite stores, much as one might do so in real life, and those at stores you never visit will never be more than a face and name tag. The experience you have at each shop will change based on your actions as a player.
The World Ends With You left a strong impact on many of those who played it, and it’s not necessarily difficult to see why; its chaotic, youthful energy, eclectic soundtrack, and unique aesthetic are all captivating in their own right, but its commitment to its premise and themes are also nothing to sneeze at.
The game is available on Nintendo DS, mobile, and Switch, though the simplification of the combat system due to the singular screen on the latter two platforms definitely means that there were some losses in the porting process.
While it’s definitely not a game for everyone, those who love RPGs and the funkiness of the mid-2000s Shibuya aesthetic would definitely do well to check it out.