When I’m playing Neo: The World Ends With You, I’m smiling. Whether I’m running Rindo Kanade and his pack of teen misfits through the streets of Shibuya battling monstrous living graffiti beasts and picking up the latest fashions, or just rifling through the menus fiddling with equipment loadouts, I’m doing it all with the biggest grin on my face. Neo: TWEWY just makes me happy like that.
For one, I love a game that takes me to Tokyo, even if they always seem to take me to the same couple locations. From Tokyo Mirage Sessions’ own trendy teenage adventure to Mario and Sonic at the Tokyo Olympics, I feel like I know these streets despite never setting foot in them in real life. If I ever make it to Japan I will be very disappointed if its capital isn’t filled with questing adolescents and sporting hedgehogs.
I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for Rindo and his dumb-but-lovable friend Tosai “Fret” Furesawa, the latest couple of kids to get caught up in the Reaper’s Game, a desperate, desperately hip battle for survival that takes place in an alternate dimension version of Tokyo’s Shibuya region. After picking up a pair of mysterious pins—the decorative kind, not the stabby ones—the pair find themselves unwilling participants in a team-based battle for turf, points, reputation, and possibly their eternal souls.
The Reaper’s Game has come a long way since Neku Sakuraba and his friends went through it back in the 2007 Nintendo DS game. The original The World Ends With You paired Neku with different partners as the game progressed, forming teams of two characters battling enemies simultaneously, one for each DS screen. Freed from the awkward touchscreen controls of its predecessor, Neo: The World Ends With You lets you bring up to four characters (initially) into battle, each with their own pin-powered battle abilities, each mapped (again, initially) to their own controller button.
It’s quite a chaotic battle system until you get used to it. Neo: TWEWY starts you off slow with only two characters, Rindo and Fret, equipped with pins with powers mapped to two of your controller’s face buttons. Early battles against Noise, the neon graffiti creatures that plague the Reaper’s Underground domain, can be won through simple, gratifying button mashing. One character punches, the other shoots some sort of energy. Hit buttons until all critters are dead.
As more players join Rindo’s team, christened “Wicked Twisters” by Fret (he means well, really), combat becomes more tactical, or at least it does if you want to survive. Button mashing doesn’t work well with four characters, each with their own meter-limited powers. Some powers are invoked with rapid button presses. Some are targeted, others send out waves of attacks that hit multiple targets. Other attacks must be charged by holding down a button before releasing. There are abilities that chain enemies, which can be paired with abilities that deploy powerful time bombs that explode after a brief countdown, holding baddies in place for the big boom. Some pins give characters the ability to heal or cast shields.
With more than 300 power-granting pins to collect, evolve, and distribute among four or more characters, there are hundreds of possible viable loadouts for you to play with. Each new pin you collect has the potential to completely change the way you play, and that’s a beautiful thing. I am endlessly fiddling with who is using which ability on my team. At one point I went through an hour of painfully challenging battles, only to swap out one pin and start tearing through Noise like they were nothing. I was so surprised by my sudden success I had to pause the game to make sure I hadn’t accidentally lowered the difficulty. Being able to fiddle about with my party’s powers and abilities between every battle pleases me to no end. Had I the spare time I could easily spend hours just mixing up pin combinations and charging into combat to test them out.
Unfortunately, I don’t have that sort of time to play around, unlike my party of psychic teen friends. Rindo, his best pal Fret, intense anime fan Nagi, and former Reaper Sho Minamimoto may be engaged in a battle for the fate of their very souls, but shopping comes first. Shibuya is dotted with restaurants and clothing boutiques, where Rindo and company can trade their hard-earned yen on stat-boosting goods and services.
Neo: TWEWY’s commerce system is a stat lover’s dream. Buying and equipping clothing from the various shops around town increases your character’s stats. Each piece of clothing also has a special ability, like extra defense, hit point regeneration, or an experience boost, which can only be used if the character’s style stat matches the clothing’s requirement. So to get the most out of clothing, your characters need a high style stat.
Strangely, the best way to raise your style stat is to eat, which provides permanent buffs to hit points, attack, defense, and style. The amount your party eats depends on how full their appetite meter is. The appetite meter lowers after every battle. So the key to success is to shop, eat, fight, and repeat. (If only that worked in real life. Well, maybe without not the fighting bit.) It’s that simple, rewarding cycle that keeps me charging into the largely optional battles as often as possible.
I enjoy this foodie-fashion-grind so much I get a little annoyed when the game pauses the action for a comic-book-style cutscene. It’s not that the story isn’t interesting, with a mystery that unfolds slowly, day by day over the course of several in-game weeks. The new teen gang is mostly likable, bordering on lovable. That even goes for Fret, who somehow manages to make his role as hapless idiot sidekick not nearly as annoying as I usually find them. Hell, I might steal his battlecry. “Galaxy Brain, Activate!” That’s good stuff.
But as much as the story twists and turns and as charming as the game’s English voice acting turned out, I’d much rather be stalking the streets than pressing a button to advance through dialogue. When my team charges into battle, dressed in their Shibuya boutique finests, accented with their most powerful pins, that’s when Neo: The World Ends With You really sings.
I mean that literally as well as figuratively. The game’s battle music is a punk tune called “Your Ocean,” and it slaps.
While most of Neo: TWEWY is punk rock, there are times the game slips into a more easy listening, borderline elevator music vibe. For example, story missions that send me from one Shibuya zone to the next after a target that’s never there when I arrive are not fun. And Rindo has the ability to turn back time and replay events in order to effect a different outcome, which sounds exciting but is used in such a linear fashion I might as well be reading a visual novel. Rather than a dramatic element it just feels like an unnatural and unnecessary extension of the story.
Then there is the biggest letdown of them all. Despite the focus on fashion and shops filled with unique garments of all shapes and sizes, none of the clothing you equip shows up on your in-game character models. When Fret is wearing a “Delightful Dress” from the Natural Puppy boutique, I want to see that shit, Square Enix. I want to see how the dress clashes with his “Minimalistic Mules,” while not caring because one of them grants me “ATK Boost II.”
Otherwise, most of my issues with Neo: The World Ends With You are not only minor, the game seems to sense when I get annoyed and offer upgrades to rid me of the problem. When I started to get tired of selling my yen pins between battles, I used the game’s skill tree-ish Social Network to unlock an ability that automatically cashes them out. When I got tired of running from place-to-place, I gain the ability to dash through the streets by pressing a button to the beat of each area’s music. I know the game is not adding quality-of-life improvements to please me on the fly, but it kind of feels like it, and it’s a good feeling.
In fact, that’s what Neo: The World Ends With You has been for me in the 30 or so hours I’ve put into it so far: just a constant barrage of good feelings, glowing on my monitor screen and blasting out of my speakers. It’s an endlessly cool and controllable sort of chaos that I don’t want to ever end.