NEO: The World Ends With You is a sequel I’ve waited for ever since 2008’s The World Ends With You captivated me as a teenager. Though I’ve played plenty of JRPGs in the years since, the fantastic soundtrack, vibrant cast, and beautiful combat still have a hold on my mind all of these years later Yet while NEO: The World Ends With You is a solid game in its own right, I can’t help but be disappointed that it doesn’t quite capture the magic of its predecessor.
Set in Shibuya, Tokyo, NEO: The World Ends With You follows Rindo Kanade and his friend Tosai ‘Fret’ Furesawa as they are drawn into the Reaper’s Game, a weeklong life or death competition between teams that takes place in a parallel dimension. To escape, they have to make use of pins that allow them to use psychic powers while competing against other teams and creatures known as Noise in order to win. Creating a team called the Wicked Twisters, Rindo journeys through Shibuya to find a way to win the Reaper’s Game while discovering how he was pulled into the game in the first place.
It’s a charming story, one that shines when the focus is on Rindo and the relationships he has with his ever growing team. The bonds between the characters, such as the comically adversarial relationship between Fret and teammate Nagi Usui, growing and changing in interesting ways throughout the game’s runtime. Rindo is a strong protagonist himself, with the bulk of his arc focusing on him coming into his own as a leader and making decisions without waffling over the potential consequences.
And while no knowledge of The World Ends With You is needed to enjoy its sequel, there are times where the game gets bogged down in details over the past. The highlight of the narrative is when the focus is on Rindo and friends, and the latter half of the game often neglects that in favour of trying to firmly connect the two games together. Though that may be fine for some, I found it detracted from the otherwise strong story.
The World Ends With You had one of the most interesting and compelling battle systems I ever played. NEO: The World Ends With You cannot replicate it, primarily because the DS’ dual screens were a key component of its greatness. In its place is a system that feels familiar, though there are key differences. Instead of two partners working together, you now control a team of characters, each of whom are assigned to one of six buttons on the controller. Pressing a button activates the pin that each character has equipped, which ranges from simple melee attacks to massive energy beams to traps that immobilize enemy Noise.
In the early game, this system is functional but bland, as encounters lack challenge and there isn’t much to do at times as you wait for pins to recover from their cooldowns. But as more party members join, thereby allowing for more buttons and abilities to be used in each battle, it becomes akin to a rhythm game at the best of times. Timing an attack after an ally finishes a combo or deals enough damage increases the team’s groove, which can be used on special abilities when certain thresholds are reached. Certain fights, particularly boss fights in the late game, are genuinely challenging and require good coordination and reflexes in order to take them down. Coupled with the cycle of fighting battles to increase your hunger and eating in order to improve your stats, and NEO: The World End With You’s battle system shines under the right conditions.
“NEO: The World End With You’s battle system shines under the right conditions.”
Yet most fights aren’t like that; most fights are simple and repetitive due to how effective mindless mashing can be because there’s not much of a challenge to them. You can increase the difficulty manually, both by choosing one of four difficulty settings and by lowering your party’s level in order to increase the drop rate and acquire special pins. But that only influences your team’s health and the amount of damage enemies deal — it doesn’t task you with developing new strategies. This is fine, for the most part, but it is uninteresting to me since it doesn’t let the stronger parts of the system shine.
There’s a particularly bad example of this tediousness that occurs about a third of the way into the game where you lose access to a key resource. For two in-game days, battles become exhausting and unexciting as the limitations imposed upon you do not challenge you to come up with ways to overcome them. Instead, it serves to only lengthen otherwise simple fights and make the game far less fun because there’s no inherent challenge to most battles in the first place. Not helping matters is that the story drags at this point too, causing a good four to five hours of a 30-odd hour playthrough to feel tiresome.
Yet as a whole, the game feels fresh. This is partially thanks to the visual and audio design of Shibuya itself, which is fully 3D albeit with fixed camera angles. The world is colourful and popping with life with each frame, and the character designs are particularly well done. I would have preferred if I had complete control over the camera, as there are times where I just want to look at Shibuya for myself, but I grew used to it in time. Special mention must also be made of the soundtrack, which would be my favourite soundtrack of the year were it not for the existence of Guilty Gear Strive. Still, each and every tune in NEO: The World Ends With You is fantastic to listen to, and I expect to be listening to the soundtrack long after I leave the confines of virtual Shibuya.
As wonderful as the world is, it is hampered by a number of technical issues that make me think that the Switch version may be inferior to the PlayStation 4 version (Though I have not played the latter). The most persistent is an unsteady frame rate, which sometimes drops while exploring but frequently does so in battle. Though it’s not particularly severe, when it happens in a game that is combo based and requires good reflexes to dodge attacks, this can be a killer. Less common but more grating was input lag, which was bad enough at one point that I changed controllers several times just to make sure that they weren’t causing the problem. And to top it all off, the game crashed a handful of times, including one instance during the final boss battle. While NEO: The World Ends With You may be pretty, it is in need of a few patches to smooth things over.
Despite a weaker battle system and some pacing issues, NEO: The World Ends With You still stands as a good game in its own right. The technical issues can hopefully be fixed, and what looks to be a hearty post game should keep players invested for more than 60 hours if they’re being thorough. And for all my comparisons to its predecessor, both good and bad, I ended my time with the game with one thought: It’s good to be back in Shibuya again.