The World Ends With You is an action RPG developed and published by Square Enix. It was released for the Nintendo DS in 2007. A port / remake for iOS called the Solo Remix was released in 2012 and for Android devices in 2014. A final release with an epilogue and remixed soundtracks entitled The World Ends With You: Final Remix was released for the Nintendo Switch in 2018. I played the Switch version.
You ever wonder how JRPG characters went from wearing robes and sashes to wearing black leather and zippers? You have Tetsuya Nomura to thank for that. He began as a debugger for Squaresoft, but became a character designer for Final Fantasy VII. He was a fan of high fashion, and brought street wear, counterculture, and idol makeup into his designs. Nomura’s designs certainly gave personality to his characters, but they had little impact on the actual plot or game mechanics.
In The World Ends With You, however, Nomura’s counterculture is the very lifeblood of the game.
The game begins with our protagonist, Neku, waking up in the middle of the famous Shibuya Scramble Crossing. He does not recall how he got there, though it’s soon apparent that it’s not the Shibuya that he knows and lives in. His phone goes off with a mission to complete and a time limit to meet it. His hand suddenly sears with pain and a timer appears in his palm, counting down the time he has left. He meets an energetic young woman named Shiki who enlightens him that he’s playing The Reapers’ Game, and that he will need her as his partner if he is going to survive.
Neku starts out as a grumpy antisocial jerk, a character trait I’ve seen in many anime shows and video games. I knew how he would end up, but the journey to that destination still got me invested into his character. Throughout his time in The Reapers’ Game, Neku meets other players, establishes new partnerships, and uncovers how he ended up there in the game in the first place. The game is on the short side for an RPG, but even then the pacing doesn’t always work. One chapter may flow with plot developments only for the next to ignore the developing mystery and investigate a ramen shop owner’s unrelated problems. And no, the shop owner doesn’t actually tie in at the end in any way. It was just padding, plain and simple. The final reveals, though, are highly entertaining and make up for the moments when the story stalls. Neku’s tale is a familiar RPG dance, but the song is different enough to feel fresh.
Speaking of music, the game is overwhelmingly stylish. A wave of pop, hip-hop, techno, and alternative rock rushes into your ears at all times. Shibuya is a semi-open place filled with colorful advertisements and graffiti. Every store clerk judges your clothing and impatiently waits for you to buy something. Every precinct in Shibuya has its own fashion trends that will affect what brands are in-style and consequently affects what kinds of attacks and armor you want to use in battle. The normal enemies, called Noise, look like angsty tattoos come to life. The World Ends With You is way cooler than any of us combined.
More than the style, though, the gameplay provides the most compelling substance. Neku’s abilities in battle consist of Pins that he wears. Each pin has its own attack method, status effects, recharge time, and brand. Like with his clothes, the popularity of certain brands will affect how specific Pins will work – they may increase his attack power if they were popular, or decrease it if they were unpopular. Each partner can also chip in and if you coordinate the attacks you will build up a synergy gauge for a super-strong attack to do together. I appreciate that the game encouraged me to experiment, but obviously some pins worked for me better than others. It takes a while to get used to the combat, but when you find pins that work, it’ll click.
It all appears like this game is a home run, right? Unique setting, engaging combat system, what’s not to like?
There’s one flaw that might ruin the whole experience for many people: the controls. The game originally was designed with the DS touchscreen in mind, and it utilized those same controls when ported over to smart phones. On the Switch, there are two control options. In TV mode, you use the joycon’s motion controls to move a cursor around which Neku follows. These controls are frequently inaccurate and you constantly need to re-center the cursor. Given how fast-paced the battles are, it was impossible to get them to work for me. In handheld mode, you use the touchscreen instead. This works much better, but it still comes with its flaws. Literally everything is controlled through touch, unlike Super Mario Maker 2‘s handheld controls, where you only use the touchscreen some of the time and can still use buttons. I used Super Mario Maker 2 portably quite often; in fact, I bought a special stylus and a table stand to support the Switch’s weight so that I could design levels more comfortably and for longer sessions. I feel confident in saying I’m used to Switch touchscreen controls. The World Ends With You, however, demands a lot from the controls. In battle you are swiping and tapping and pressing across the screen to nab every enemy, and it is quite tiresome. I could only play for 20-minute sessions at the most, and that was with all of my fancy doodads. Not only that, but the game sometimes mistakes an attack for a dodge, and some attack styles just did not register my touches. When learning a new game, it always takes some time to learn the controls, but at some point the controls are supposed to become invisible; the controller becomes an extension of your mind. While I managed to work around the controls, The World Ends With You never became seamless like that. They were always giving me a least a bit of friction.
It’s tragic how this game turned out on Switch. While flawed, I love and recommend almost every aspect of the game except for the controls. They were so frustrating to deal with. If you want to play it on Switch, be ready to feel some temporary carpal tunnel. I don’t know how the controls are on the DS, but I don’t know if they could be much worse.
If you’re interested in the story and are fine with missing out on the gameplay, I have an alternative for you. The anime adaptation of The World Ends With You just premiered on Funimation. I’ve yet to see it myself, but story is still interesting enough that I think it would work well. A sequel to the game is coming out later this year for PS4 and Nintendo Switch, so the anime may be the best way to catch up on the story at this point. If the sequel Neo: The World Ends With You uses traditional controls, it will probably soar right up to my top tier of my RPGs for the Switch.