I bought The World Ends with You recently, not out of the blue, but specifically after holding off for several years after its release in 2008. Any RPG from Square merits at least a strong consideration on my part, but there was always something generally unappealing to me about this game. The thing that finally got me to buy in was a recommendation from somewhere on the Internet, based on how much I had enjoyed the deep and complex storytelling in the Zero Escape franchise. The two titles in that series had blown my mind with their mysteries and twists, and if I could play a JRPG with an equally impressive story, why wouldn’t I?
Unfortunately, when it comes to video games, story isn’t everything.
It’s often been said that there are three key components in Japanese role-playing game design: plot, exploration, and combat. “Plot” is more or less the story the game tells as you push your way through it. Who are these characters? What are their goals? What stands in their way? That sort of stuff. “Exploration” is everything you do in the game that doesn’t directly relate to advancing the plot, like walking around town, talking to random people, taking on a side quest, going places you don’t need to go, watching scenes that you don’t need to watch, and so on. There’s often some overlap between plot and exploration, but it usually isn’t hard to categorize chunks of different games as one or the other when push comes to shove. Lastly, combat obviously consists of all the fights and battles in a game and, more broadly, of the entire battle system the game has set up – leveling up, status changes, skill trees, and all the rest.
The best RPGs excel at all three of these elements, but different types of RPGs can shine in different ways. An MMORPG, where open-endedness overshadows storytelling, is generally going to be light on plot but extremely heavy on exploration. A turn-based strategy RPG will make its hay with the intricacies of its combat. And then there are epic and romantic RPGs where the scope and emotional impact of the story is the chief selling point. Let’s take a minute now to explore The World Ends with You and see how it stacks up in each of these departments.
- Plot: The story really was the hook this game had going for it. You play as Neku, a boy who wakes up one day to find himself an unwilling participant in a game where losing means dying. The game takes place on an alternate plane of reality, and the participants can see everything in the real world, but cannot interact with anyone; they’re essentially ghosts. Neku partners up with three different people over the course of the game, trying to survive and also to figure out why he’s here at all. It’s not the deepest or most profound story, but constant revelations and timely twists keep things entertaining and interesting enough.
- Exploration: Here’s where the game starts to suffer. The entire story takes place in a subsection of Tokyo, which means that all the environments end up looking and feeling very similar, and perhaps worse, sounding identical. Furthermore, since there aren’t a lot of people to interact with from the ghost world, there really isn’t much optional dialogue. The game also employs all kinds of roadblocks that don’t allow you to progress on much more than a linear track. It’s about as straightforward as a rail shooter, unfortunately, and the biggest opportunities for independent exploration come during fetch quests and minor puzzles.
- Combat: In a nutshell, battles were just a total mess. First of all, you have to use the DS stylus to swipe and tap on enemies on the touch screen. This might have been okay if this had been a turn-based strategy game, but these enemies move and attack in real time. Complicating things, your partner battles on the top screen against the same enemies, and is controlled by the directional pad. The partner will enter auto-battle mode by default – which is something I learned not to mess with, very quickly – but that just means I spent my battles focusing on the bottom screen, tapping and swiping enemies that were already getting hit by my partner half the time. I never really got a firm grasp on the flow of battle, opting instead to just hack and slash my way through every fight; that this non-strategy was sufficient enough for me should tell you everything you need to know about how anti-climactic all of the fighting felt. There was also a “pin” concept in which you had to equip fashionable buttons in lieu of spells or weapons. These pins stood in for everything from basic attacks to healing spells, and I never understood it or made much sense of it. I found new pins all the time in this game, but never really felt any need (or desire) to tinker with my equipment after the first hour or two of the game. The combat design here was bold and innovative, but it was kind of a disaster in implementation – at least for me.
So at the end of the day, this was a game in which battles felt clunky and broken and field movement consisted of running from Point A to Point B a whole lot. The plot was the only element of the game that wasn’t underwhelming, but it also wasn’t anything special. Besides, a decent story alone doesn’t make any game worth twenty hours of time and effort. I wanted to like The World Ends with You, but the best thing I can say about it is that it took some bold chances and tried some interesting things.
If you’re looking for a good RPG, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for a gripping and compelling story and little else in terms of gameplay, check out the Zero Escape games. If you’re big on touch screen hack-and-slash elements or a late 2000s take on edgy urban teens, fine – give this a shot.
An earlier version of this review appeared at back-blogged.blogspot.com, where in addition to video games the bros occasionally discuss books, movies, and television.