You vs. The World!
Latent psychic powers... a hundred items for character customization... a dying city and some killer characters... it almost sounds like the 2007 crowd-pleaser Bioshock. But it’s not! The World Ends With You, the latest accomplishment from Jupiter (Kingdom Hearts: Chains of Memories), is a triple-threat of action, RPG, and story. It’s a striking achievement, hiding on the shelf between copies of Nintendogs 8: Unfwuffy Edition.
[image1]Fifteen-year-old loner Neku Sakuraba wakes up in the fashion-obsessed streets of Shibuya, Japan with the ability to read minds. His situation gets stranger and more dangerous by the minute: Neku is actually dead, a ghostly blip in a purgatory called the Underground. If the killer frogs don’t eat him, sadistic punks called Reapers will erase him from existence.
For a second chance at life, Neku must abandon his solitary ways and team up with a fellow ghost for a week. Like Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, our misanthropic hero reluctantly faces personal demons with the help of three fellow spirits, except there are lasers and skateboards and miniskirts and whatever else an attention-deficit audience goes ga-ga over.
Luckily, the spiky-haired hero has enough talent to summon swords, flames, and meteors out of trendy collectible pins. Think of this as the plasmids in Bioshock or badges in the original awesome Paper Mario. You pick six pins for Neku and activate them by tapping or slicing the touchscreen with the stylus or even shouting into the DS microphone. So just to be safe, grab some $2 screen protectors before you etch out your touch screen completely.
Neku’s psionic sorcery takes up the bottom screen while your partner, which you can control with the D-pad or face buttons, automatically fights a second battle at the same time on the top screen. If you can spare some mental bandwidth, additional elements like button combos and poker games give your duo an advantage. Just remember to save after every battle and conversation, because it’s Game Over if either Neku or his partner dies.
[image2]It's already halfway through the review and you probably only have the tiniest inkling of what the game is like... but is it fun? It’s incredibly hard to put down. Combat, for example, sounds insanely complex, but it's done so quickly and so smoothly that you’re ready to try it again, win or lose. The World Ends With You has a number of features that look good, play well, and encourage you to steer Neku into every nook and cranny of Shibuya.
Neku’s journey is sliced into day-long chapters, each of which is enclosed by a linear path of battles and errands. If you want to kill every monster and clean out every department store in Shibuya, you can wallow in your own pleasant non-linear exploration. Either way, everything in the game points back to its ridiculous battles.
Shopping is just one diversion, and there's a strategic element as you fight that can keep your brand of clothes popular. If you want to build your stats, there’s a system for eating ramen and burgers. There’s even a marbles-like bonus game featuring the collectible pins. If you are physically within range of another DS, The World Ends With You gives you bonus experience, and when you turn the game off, it starts leveling your pins for your next visit. The multitude of activities and bonuses is sometimes overwhelming and sometimes just a novelty, but it sure as hell spreads the experience over every aspect of the DS and then some.
The twisted neighborhood, drawn directly from the streets of Shibuya itself, is a visual treat. Kingdom Hearts character designers Tetsuya Nomura and Gen Kobayashi are behind the gorgeous art direction, full of sharp manga-styled illustrations and instantly recognizable faces and archetypes. Skewed angles and clever framing add character to backgrounds, and you can bet that elements like the graffiti-inspired icons and the large crowds of pedestrians were chosen specifically to excel on the DS.
[image3]The good in The World Ends With You heavily outweighs the not-so-good. It suffers slightly from imprecise stylus controls. When I sucked at drawing circles or tapping clusters of characters, I swapped in different pins and kicked ass on the next try. There are many different ways to adjust the difficulty for those who are struggling as well as those who prefer to gamble for better rewards. The J-pop soundtrack is also a little disappointing; the devastating funk in Jet Set Radio makes The World Ends With You sound like an elevator or a waiting room.
Despite a few clichés and silly kangaroo monsters, the artful character dramas burn slowly over the eight-hour playtime, until you hungrily wish to see them go further at the game’s conclusion. In the meanwhile, there’s still plenty of game to play and story to see after the credits roll... but enough about that. Parents be warned, Neku and company get a Teen rating for a bit of foul language.
With its frantic dual-screen battles in a dense little city, The World Ends With You is a surprisingly hardcore, impossibly ambitious DS title. This pint-size powerhouse might sadly intimidate a few DS owners and their Pokeymans. Don’t get scared off; put down your Zeldas and your juice boxes for two minutes and try taking on The World.