NEO: The World Ends With You is nearly here + Demo Impressions
Attention everyone! Ah wait hold on, let me grab my loud hailer for this.
It's a Wonderful World (すばらしきこのせかい) - so says the Japanese title for what is arguably the boldest and freshest IP of the Nintendo DS generation, The World Ends With You (TWEWY).
Co-developed by Square Enix and Jupiter, TWEWY occupied top spots in multiple DS Game of the Month awards, and has consistently been hailed as one of the best games on a Nintendo system in the decade (2000-2010), thanks to its combination of inventive combat, character and world design, as well as hard-hitting narrative.
Its protagonist, Neku, has since gone on to feature in Kingdom Hearts as the only character that is not from Final Fantasy, Disney, or is not originally created for Kingdom Hearts. TWEWY has also been ported with additional content to iOS and Android (Solo Remix) and the Nintendo Switch (Final Remix).
And, based on the demo for NEO: The World Ends With You which dropped last night (26th June) at 2AM JST, it is a wonderful time to be a TWEWY fan, because this sequel looks zetta good.
For those unfamiliar with the series, NEO: The World Ends With You is about Rindo, a high-schooler who finds himself unwittingly involved in the Reaper's Game, a fight-or-die game lasting a week set in a parallel-universe Shibuya called the Underground (or, UG).
The game requires its participants to survive, and fight, fantastical monsters called the Noise while solving puzzles in order to rack up points to win the game. In both the original and the upcoming sequel, the main characters, Neku and Rindo respectively, find themselves in the game without any memory of how they got there.
But enough with the numbers, the figures, and posturing. We'll leave that to Minamimoto.
Here are our impressions of the demo - and we have to say that the wait was well worth it.
Art and Music
One of the biggest draws for TWEWY was its art and music, which featured absolute head-boppers, as well as breath-taking urban fantasy elements brought to life by an art style heavily influenced by Shibuya's youth and street culture. In NEO, all these return in full force, ready for the current generation of consoles, high fidelity graphics and sound systems.
Fans of the original will be pleased to hear familiar riffs from Twister, Calling, and Long Dream in the opening cutscenes, as well as in the battle music. The music this time is a little less electronica and punk rock, and more hip hop, rock and nu metal - perhaps a better reflection of a more aggressively and unapologetically expressive youth culture of the 2020s.
If you need catching up on the events of the first game, Square Enix has also released a short anime series (Hulu link) so you can catch up on the story before picking up the game.
The anime and graphic novel inspired art-style which felt at home in the franchise opener has been completely rejuvenated with 3D and HD graphics which look sleek, sharp, and colourful on large displays - though that is to be expected judging from the teaser trailers we've seen up till now.
There is also top-notch camera, frame, and perspective work in 3D, which shifts to bring focus to landmarks or to highlight multiple voices sounding off at the same time. For example, the game wonderfully makes use of vanishing points above the towering 104 to draw your eye to it as a central and imposing figure in the cityscape.
The comic-art popups depicting the overheard thoughts and dialogue of the various characters are a beautiful and non-intrusive way to learn more about the hopes, ambitions, fears and anxieties of the people in Shibuya, which is excellent icing on the cake.
Perhaps it isn't a surprise that both the music and art have been significant but excellent evolutions from the original, seeing as a number of core creatives have returned to helm this sequel. These include Tetsuya Nomura (Creative Producer & Character Designer), Gen Kobayashi (Character Design), Hiroyuki Itou (Director), as well as Takeharu Ishimoto (Composer).
What, then, of the gameplay and combat, now that we have massively departed from touch-screen devices like the Nintendo DS and mobile?
Combat and Gameplay
The original game featured a "Stride Cross Battle System", which required players to use the dual-screens of the Nintendo DS to control two characters, one with the D-Pad (or ABXY, if you're a southpaw), and the other with stylus gestures on the DS's touch-screen. Neku could use a variety of attacks, which become useable when equipping pins and performing their required stylus gestures (such as holding, tapping, swiping, etc.).
Neku's system, which has lore-related reasons to it, asked for perfect synchronization between left and right hand. By taking turns to hit the Noise, players could chain combos in order to ping-pong an energy ball across the DS's dual-screens to set up powerful sync attacks.
The dual-screen system for the Nintendo DS was later adapted for the mobile ports (more touch-screen), as well as the Switch port (motion controls). So, it is only natural that it has evolved once again for NEO. This time, it features a more familiar button-mashing action style that is reminiscent of hack-and-slash games.
However, the key element that made the combat special in TWEWY still remains in NEO. Getting different team-members to attack in tandem with each other builds a sense of rhythm and eventually allows you to beat your enemies into submission. This time, there is less fretting about left and right-hand coordination with the exclusion of divisive stylus gestures (which was never going to happen on the PS4 anyway).
You can change up the way the combat flows by collecting and equipping pins - each having differing elemental effects, and discrete attack animations which influence combat. You can select from literal hundreds of pins that either rapidly shoot projectiles, slice, lift enemies with upward attacks, or smash enemies into the ground or walls.
Certain attacks require charging up, and the true feeling of synchronization starts to click when you begin charging up another character's attacks even before the current combo completes, causing heavy hits to land in a one-two fashion. As a result, the combat felt incredibly intuitive and engaging.
The demo also teases that you may be able to combine pin-effects later in the game, which suggests that there will be more depth to it. That comes as a slight relief, as I personally felt that the combat allowed in the demo was a little too simple compared to the challenge the Nintendo DS version of TWEWY had.
Additionally, while beating enemies on Normal difficulty with an average battle rating could be easily managed, the real challenge is in the higher difficulties, which can once again be changed in two ways. On one hand, you can change the native difficulty of the battles (Easy, Normal, Hard, Ultimate). On the other, you can lower your party's level (and subsequently their HP) in exchange for higher pin drop-rates. You can also chain multiple Noise fights and clear them consecutively, though you do not heal between these fights when doing so.
For maximum satisfaction, you can also chain combos to defeat enemies quickly, without getting hit, to secure Star-ranking for battles. All in all, there are many ways to work toward completionism and style, because by gosh is The World Ends With You one of the most stylish franchises ever.
Other returning features include the ability to listen in on NPCs' thoughts. Their "handles" are fun to note as well, though they tend to be pretty generic.
There may be a deeper use for this mechanic at a later stage. For now, though, it is used as a way to discover clues in order to solve portions of the Reaper's Game, or as generic flavour text.
It also seems like Rindo's friend, Fret, has the ability to remind people about things they've forgotten - a mechanic which becomes more prominent in the latter part of the demo. This seems similar to the mechanic of implanting thoughts (through the use of "memes", I kid you not) in the first game. Evocating memories and implanting new thoughts are very different in nature, though, and could therefore ensure the narrative remains fresh in relation to the prequel..
Considering how NEO's demo heavily teases asynchronous memories right from the get-go, this is surely going to play a deeper role in the storytelling. This is especially so for the later chapters as we get to unravel more about why Rindo, Fret, and the other cast members are involved in the Reaper's Game. An additional mystery for long-time fans would, of course, be what became of Shibuya, the game, and its principal characters from the first game, in the time that has lapsed since.
Other returning features that have already been shown off in trailers include the return of the fashion system, which is reinvention of the gear system in traditional RPGs. While shopping for new kicks allows for improved stats such as attack and defense, their impact will be augmented by a zone-by-zone fashion system which grants boosts when wearing a brand that is in vogue. There will also be a return of the food system, which gives permanent stat boosts but is limited by a fixed number of 'bytes' a character can take in a day.
The return of characters such as Sho Minamimoto, as well as being able to once again explore UG Shibuya will be a huge splash of nostalgia for fans of the franchise. There's also the multiple nods to Shiki Misaki via Mr. Mew, which has become the brand mascot for an in-game brand called Gatto Nero.
The new cast also proves to be as quirky and interesting as their predecessors. We were particularly enamored by the standoff-ish and snarky Shoka Sakurane who sports a Mr. Mew inspired hoodie (attention Square Enix, when can we buy a replica of this?)
The demo takes the player through two relatively slow first days of the week-long Reaper Game, and it is sure to heat up soon after. It commands several hours (which is cool) and yet still barely scratches the surface/itch for more TWEWY, particularly for returning fans. At the same time, the dialogue-heavy nature of the franchise is realistically and honestly portrayed, so we know to expect more of that when it fully launches.
We would be kidding ourselves to believe that this Reaper's Game is going to last 7 Days, going by the track record for participants in the previous game, so there is going to be so, so much more to it than we've been given a glimpse into.
All in all, NEO: The World Ends With You is looking like a Day One purchase for us. See you Zeptograms in the UG!
NEO: The World Ends With You launches on the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 (PS5 players can play it via backwards compatibility) on 27th July 2021. You can try out the demo on all platforms it is releasing on.
Feel free to let us know what you think about the demo, or our article! We also tried it out on our Twitch channel, where we play a variety of games and generally just have a chill time - come check us out here!