The world ended with you, but the new world begins with us.
As I have said many times in the past, 2007’s The World Ends With You is one of my favorite games of all time. I love its story, mystery, characters, the frantic action combat, and most of all its aesthetic. The angular character designs, bold colors, and energetic multi-genre soundtrack were like nothing I had ever seen or heard before, and have shaped my preferences to this day.
When I first played it in 2009, I thought it laid a great foundation that I wanted to see explored and developed in a full-on sequel. However, the tepid sales of the original made that unlikely, so I remained content with its conclusive ending, despite some lingering plot threads.
But then around 2012, Square Enix drummed up hype and anticipation by bringing the original game to mobile, complete with a now infamous sequel teaser, putting TWEWY characters into Kingdom Hearts, and hinting that a sequel was in the cards. Nothing came of this until 2018’s The World Ends With You: Final Remix, a remastered version of the original title that was cleaned, expanded, and refined into what I consider the definitive version of TWEWY.
However, Final Remix also introduced new characters and plot threads, which opened up the doors for a sequel that would be announced in 2020 as NEO: The World Ends With You. A completely new title that aimed to evolve and iterate upon everything the original did, while offering something distinctively new. Hence the name.
Seeing as how NEO was released 14 years after the original, it was anybody’s guess how the title would turn out. Now, after putting over 70 hours into this title, I am exceedingly happy to say that not only did the developers capture everything that I loved about the original, but they made a title that, in many ways, surpasses it.
NEO: The World Ends With You Review
Platforms: PS4, Switch(Reviewed), PC
Developers: h.a.n.d. and Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Set three years after the original, NEO: The World Ends With You follows Rindo, a 15-year-old boy enjoying the liveliness and bustle of Shibuya with his buddy, Fret. All before, for reasons not made immediately clear, he winds up being sent into the parallel dimension of the dead, the Underground, where he is forced to partake in the Reapers’ Game. A weeklong event competition featuring a scattering of teams, where the winner receives whatever they desire, and the loser faces erasure.
Rindo and Fret are quick to form their own team, the Wicked Twisters, and stock up on other team members as they try to crawl up from their position as the underdogs. Though, it is clear from the start that this is not a week-long engagement, as the Reapers’ Game goes through three cycles, with the complexity of the storyline and lore growing each time. Starting fairly straightforward, but bringing in more baggage, characters, and ties to the original TWEWY as time goes on.
The cast of characters is a lovable lot of quirky weirdos with plenty of opportunities to flaunt their personalities. There is a good amount of character development for those who need it. The storyline is peppered with exciting moments and twists. And they detail the mythos established in the original as the world broadens with the introduction of new characters. It, effectively, does everything that I found compelling about the ‘story’ aspects of TWEWY, but with more room to breathe and a bigger cast of oddballs to work with.
For as much as I enjoyed the story, there are two aspects about it that struck me as… odd. First, the story here is not necessarily a sequel to the original The World Ends With You as much as it is a sequel to A New Day, a mini-expansion introduced in Final Remix. So if you did not play this or only experienced the story to the original via an earlier release, or the anime released earlier this year, then you will probably be confused. Hell, I played it, and I was still confused as to what exactly happened. Which leads to my second problem with the story.
While NEO ends on an emotional high note, there are a lot of little nitpick-tier things and are never fully followed up on. What exactly certain characters’ plans were? What’s the deal with the teaser girl? Why did some returning favorites only get a few minutes of screen time, despite having gone through a good deal of character growth during the time skip? And I’m still not entirely sure what the original protagonist, Neku, was doing these past 3 years.
The story overall could have benefitted from a more developed epilogue, or simply more conversations where characters pump the breaks and explain things in detail, instead of relying on fans to break down information into something more cohesive. This is not necessarily a mark of bad storytelling, and the original TWEWY was guilty of doing this as well, but in both cases, I think the story could have tried to be more comprehensive, instead of hiding breadcrumbs in collectible postgame journals or behind a secret ending. Though I know some people prefer working for their story, so I guess this is more of a preference thing.
Still, I had a great time getting to see the old and new faces. Seeing what wackadoo person would hop under the limelight. Hanging out with the main party as they banter about their objectives, bash enemies with style and characteristic barks, or pair up to go on shopping trips. And entering each chapter to see what they offered, as there was a clear effort to give each new day its own identity as players manage micro-tasks and subplots, while steadily progressing along a greater narrative through line.
It is through this daily structure where the game breaks up its standard combat encounters and story sequences with a variety of sub-games. Such as time trial gauntlets against souped up enemies where the player’s skills are put to the test. Turf wars with other teams where the player’s skills are put to the test, but in the opposite direction. Time travel days where the player needs to hop through events to avoid an unfavorable future. Or gamier ‘puzzles’ such as spot-the-difference and tilt the sticks.
There definitely could have been more developed puzzles, and the persuasion mission on Week 3 Day 2 is… just bad. But overall, I like these diversions, as they act as nice supplemental bits to the core of the gameplay. The reworked combat system. But before diving into NEO’s combat, I want to talk about its predecessor’s.
The original DS version made use of the dual-screen display and touch screen by having the player control one character on the bottom screen with the stylus, while controlling the other character on the top screen with the face buttons or D-pad. While this was a unique and innovative control scheme, I never particularly liked switching between the two, and would instead have the game AI take care of the top screen for me while I prioritized the bottom screen.
Some consider the mobile version and Final Remix to be lesser versions because they lack the second screen gameplay. Personally, I think that by ditching the second screen, TWEWY was able to advance itself as an intense high-stakes action game. A title where enemies can cleave through the player health bar like it’s nothing. A title where players can customize a loadout of rechargeable skills (known as psychs and represented using pins) capable of decimating enemies in stun-locking combos. And a title where the inputs are often simple, allowing a wide audience to utterly wreck shop against the opposition, so long as they strategize properly.
While this was all present in the original, the combat’s pace was slowed by the dual screen gimmick, and it was a gimmick, to the point where I do not think this combat system reached its full potential until developer h.a.n.d. reinvented and expanded it. This took the form of the aforementioned A New Day expansion, which pumped up the enemy count, difficulty, and overall intensity of the combat to what I consider its logical conclusion. h.a.n.d. clearly knew what they had here, and it should come as no surprise to hear that, despite numerous changes, NEO not only captures the thrill and fun of this combat system, but it makes it better.
The most notable change is the shift from a touch-screen interface to a standard controller. Meaning players move with the left stick, change targets with the right, dodge with one face button, use a super move with another, and assign various pins to the four shoulder buttons and two face buttons. By tapping, holding, or releasing these buttons, players can unleash their psychs on enemies, known as Noise, in a collection of contained combat environments.
It sounds fairly simple, and it is, but the game’s combat system gives players a lot to manage. Players have a maximum capacity of 6 pins with gauges that limit how many times their corresponding psych can be used before becoming temporarily unusable. Thus forcing players to manage their damage output over time to avoid dawdling on the battlefield while waiting for pins to recharge.
Enemies often appear in large groups, forcing players to maintain crowd control as enemies jump, dash, and lunge towards player characters during combat. However, crowd control also goes two ways. By the end of the game, players are rocking a full party of 6 characters, all of whom can be attacked by enemies and incapacitated. Which would be annoying, if not for how party members are generally immune to damage unless the player is controlling them by using their assigned psych. So if your squad gets wrecked, it’s probably your own fault, not the game’s.
Even though the combo counter is no more, players are encouraged to switch from psych to psych, hitting or hurting enemies until they enter a “Beat Drop” state. When an enemy in a Beat Drop state is hit with a different psych, the enemy is both momentarily stunned and the player is given “Groove.” A gradually decreasing power reserve that the player can channel into three tiers of super moves that are introduced as the party expands.
It is a clear evolution of the sync attacks from the original game, but here the player needs to be more deliberate about how they amass ‘meter’ and how they use their supers. These are not screenwide clears, and you absolutely can whiff your super if you are not using the right one for the job. Although, that complexity is kind of outmoded by the 300% super introduced 60% of the way through the campaign, which rains down damage onto enemies and provides a full heal, making it an essential tool for harder difficulty levels. …Or maybe it’s only essential for scrubs like me.
Now, all of this might sound abstract and simple, and it is. But when all these parts are put together, when you consider the lightning-fast speed of combat and the sheer variety of 300+ pins at the player’s disposal, and introduce multiple tiers of difficulty that will wipe the floor with a careless player, you have what might just be my favorite combat system of any game I have ever played. I thought about why I liked it so much, why I was so inclined to get into battles just for the hell of it, and I reached a simple conclusion: NEO: The World Ends With You captures everything I love about character action games, with none of the crap!
NEO does not put a lot of emphasis on precise or direction-specific inputs and instead has the player merely tap and hold buttons. Players merely need to let psychs out at the opportune moment to string together elaborate combos and juggle enemies without the same worry or frustration of a sloppy input. While every battle ends with a rank for the player’s performance, all it does is determine how much equipped pins level up, and if you get bad rankings, that just means you need to play the game more and get more drops, which is far from a punishment.
The varying difficulty levels offer a nice spectrum of challenge for players. Easy is comfy enough for people who like slower or more menu-driven games. Normal is a good difficulty for people who want to beeline to the end. Hard is balanced for people who want to do a fair bit of power leveling (like me). While the postgame ultimate difficulty strikes this careful balance where enemies are this delightful blend between punching bags for the player to style upon, and vicious bastards who can look a cocky player in the eye and shred their health to black in three seconds flat.
But the best part about the combat system is the sheer energy behind everything. Combat is this frantic bombardment of flair and visual stimuli, as you have so many characters, enemies, and psych effects going on at the same time while the camera aggressively swings across the battlefield to keep up the action. All of which sounds like it would be a disaster to keep up with, but enemy tells are well communicated, the camera works exceedingly well… 98% of the time, and NEO does a good job of gradually introducing complexity to the player.
The party is capped at 4 characters for about half the game, which is enough to be manageable and minimize downtime, but as the party shrinks and grows over time, the player realizes how to utilize their party members and pin slots to their advantage. So by the time the party is truly full, the player hopefully has the familiarity needed to absolutely and utterly wreck shop of the enemies.
Seriously, if there was any game that I would use as an example for why I prefer bigger parties in games, it’s this. Because when the player is rocking 6 characters, they become a goldarn monster, and it’s even too much for the game to keep up with at some points. Playing the Switch version, I can say that the system struggles to render the chaos and can tank the frame rate during some busier combat encounters. While most would consider this a detriment, this is the stuff I genuinely want in my intense action games, because seeing the fps drop below 20 is how you know shit is getting wicked!
Technical issues aside, I think the biggest criticism one could have to this combat is the enemy variety. There are only about 15 distinct non-boss enemies in NEO, with the rest of the bestiary being populated with different and more powerful versions of the same foes. The original did as well, but even then, that game still had more common enemies.
That being said, every enemy is distinct, has their own movesets that expand with each iteration, and by throwing so many at the player at once, combat feels fresh and exciting even after fighting the same basic gaggle of baddies for the 700th time. Sure, I would have liked to see a few more enemies show up, but where the game lacks enemy variety, it makes up for it with moveset variety and lavishly produced boss encounters that introduce new sub-mechanics. Seriously, in a game as conservatively budgeted as this, these bosses are truly gorgeously excessive.
Oh, but I have not even talked about the progression system, which, much like with the combat system, looked at what TWEWY was trying to do, and made it better. The game wants players to get into this cycle of grabbing a bite to eat to raise character base stats (HP, attack, defense, and style) by filling up their stomach. The party’s combined stomach is depleted by battling Noise, who drop pins players can equip, level up, possibly evolve into a different better pin, or sell to buy threads at shops or buy better food from restaurants.
It is this wonderfully addictive feedback cycle punctuated by level ups that increase overall team HP and pin drop rates, and kept me locked in so much that I started hitting the stat caps of 999 HP, 500 ATK/DEF, and 300 Style before I even had my fifth party member. Hell, part of the reason why it took me so long to clear this game was because I just wanted to pile on more and more chain encounters to test out new pins, max out my collection, and feed my kids their favoritest foods to up their stats, all while amassing wealth to buy the flyest fashions.
In doing so, I reached the conclusion that, for as elaborate as the systems of NEO are, they might not be the most carefully balanced. Some earlier difficulties offer better money yield depending on the day. Some pins are near worthless based on my experience. And I do not quite get the distribution of restaurants and food-based stat boosts… But that’s just being pedantic, even by my standards.
In addition to reinventing the gameplay, NEO also marks TWEWY’s bold jump into the third dimension, and my goodness did they do a wonderful job of that! TWEWY had a bold and striking style conveyed through its sharp 2D art and detailed sprite work. Using modern technology, and the Unity engine, the developers were able to bring this aesthetic to the third dimension with zero compromises.
The city of Shibuya is rendered at fixed camera angles that see the city morph and contort itself as the player moves throughout it, with skyscrapers shrinking and tilting like unreal pillars of ethereal substance. Character animations are all visually appealing and expedient. The character models accurately capture every part of their design, although you might not always have the opportunity to see them in detail. Everything is presented using bold colors and sharp black outlines. The attacks are peppered with a rainbow of different flair that keeps combat looking beautiful through and through. And the remaining 2D elements are just… splendiferous!
The sleek yet grungy design of the menus that nicely compromise aesthetic and functionality. The gorgeous and lively character art. And most especially the dialogue sequences. Not content with slapping two or three chodes in front of a BG and calling it quits, NEO looks inward to its manga/comic influences and renders every dialogue sequence as a series of portraits and panels that dynamically shift as conversations go on, giving each talking scene a sense of style and liveliness that is hard to capture via a standard adventure-style VN sequence.
It is countless leagues better than the usual AA Japanese game thing where characters go through 5 animation cycles and 7 camera angles, and is clearly something that multiple people had to meticulously go over, piecing together every single talking scene with the right layout of panels. It is simultaneously an economic feat, as this was probably cheaper than 3D animation, and a presentational feat, as these sequences do such a great job of telling the story, all while the city remains blurred in the background and the soundtrack coolly plays underneath everything.
Oh my goodness, the soundtrack! TWEWY’s euphorically eclectic multi-genre soundtrack was unlike anything I had been exposed to as a teenager. It influenced my musical tastes ever since then, and I love the soundtrack a little more every time I revisit it. NEO… pretty much continues the trend established with the original, bringing back a few tracks, remixing others, and offering some entirely new tracks that pick up where the original left off, but shine with a slightly different and new vibe to them. Which is what you want, because artists should constantly evolve and hone their craft, and it is clear that series composer, Takeharu Ishimoto, has been doing just that.
To conclude this long and rambly review, NEO: The World Ends With You is a game I never thought would or could actually exist. Now that it does, I am left amazed by the end product and how much I enjoyed my time with it.
I could nitpick and point out myriad shortcomings or areas where NEO: The World Ends With You could have realistically been improved. From how weirdly ill-defined the other teams are with their template-based supporting members, to how cluttered the pin collection can be, or how terrible the spacing on italic text is. But sometimes you need to not worry about the small and nebulous minor faults and focus on everything else a title offers. And NEO offers a lot!
A detailed story with a lot of mythos and an expansive cast of colorful, likeable, or otherwise interesting characters. A rousing and energetic combat system that nicely mingles everything I love about action games and RPG progression systems into what just might be my favorite combat system of all time. A presentation that is positively pulsating with style and pizzazz between the dialogue sequences, the menus, and especially the world itself, which serves as one of the best translations of a 2D artstyle into a 3D one that I have ever seen. And a soundtrack that slaps just as hard, if not harder, than the original, and is something I am definitely going to become intimately familiar with over the next few weeks.
Not only did the folks at h.a.n.d. and Square Enix make a sequel to one of my favorite games of all time, and not only did they do a good job of it, but they delivered a game that I like better than the original. I didn’t even think that was possible, but they did it. On every front, I adore NEO: The World Ends With You, and while it is different enough that I can say it will never replace the original, it has definitely surpassed it on my favorite games of all time, landing firmly somewhere in my personal top ten.