Bringing NEO: The World Ends With You’s Stylish World to Life in the West

Square Enix explains the challenges of translating pop-culture and language for the sequel's western release.

Localizing a video game is a monumental task under the best of circumstances, but there’s an additional layer of pressure when working on a sequel with a devoted fanbase that has held out hope for over ten years.

This was the situation Square Enix’s English localization team found itself in while developing NEO: The World Ends With You, a direct follow-up to the 2007 JRPG The World Ends With You. The team went through great lengths to capture and expand the tone of the original, but that was only part of the task. To convey the core message, they also had to ensure the new, unique characters would come across engaging and relatable, regardless of what language the game is played in. Fanbyte spoke with NEO: The World Ends With You’s localization team to find out how they dealt with these challenges.

NEO: The World Ends With You thrusts you into an alternate Shibuya in Tokyo, called the Underground, where everyone is dead. The enigmatic Reapers who control this Underground hold a competition called the Reaper’s Game, pitting teams of humans against each other for a chance at coming back to life.

The setting and Reaper’s Game are the same as the original, but the context has changed during the decade in between both games. The first was released during a time when Katherine Ellerhorst, one of Neo: The World Ends With You’s English translators, says Western audiences tended to label certain foreign video game media as “weird.” Now, changes in the global cultural landscape have made audiences more open to these types of experiences, to the point where a game in Shibuya with character names such as Nagi and Kaie are hardly out of the ordinary.

While mainstream games such as Persona 5 played a role in this change, Ellerhorst attributes the evolution to other sources as well.

“We’ve seen Japanese games and anime make a bigger appearance in the mainstream consciousness, like the global popularity of K-pop and K-dramas, and generally more calls for diverse stories from a variety of places, people, and viewpoints,” Ellerhorst tells Fanbyte. “I think more people have realized that seeing all these different perspectives can be really rewarding and introduce you to ideas and ways of seeing the world that you never would have thought of otherwise.”

This shift in cultural consciousness meant the localization team could focus on capturing what lead English translator Matt Furda calls the series’ emotional core, which makes the series a set of “human treatises on the ways in which we communicate and connect with one another.”

At the heart of that treatise is NEO: The World Ends With You’s trio of protagonists: Rindo, the noncommittal hero; Fret, the trendy one; and Nagi, who lives entirely within the context of her niche fandoms. The team adopted a multifaceted approach to making these characters feel real and relatable, with one of the top priorities being to become as closely acquainted with the original The World Ends With You world as possible. That included the game, of course, but Furda also visited the district of Shibuya often and even studied the characters’ voiced lines in Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance to become deeply familiar with their minds and lifestyles.

It was crucial to carefully consider how these characters’ attitudes would influence even the smallest of linguistic habits. Take Nagi, for example. Furda says Nagi struggles with relating to things outside her norm, which is confined almost exclusively to fandoms. As a result, she distances herself from others by using unusually florid language and comparing everything to her special interests. Fret, Rindo’s trendy best friend, has trouble dealing with serious situations and communication. Furda says this is why Rindo uses slang more often and gives people lighthearted nicknames.

Furda meshed these character studies with guidance from the game’s scenario writer into a style guide, while also looking to his own real-life conversations for inspiration.

“I spent a lot of time analyzing conversations I would have with friends — thinking about how we shift our tone to convey a certain nuance, or how we parrot a turn of phrase to show engagement or perhaps a bit of sass, and so on,” he says. “In a work of fiction like this, all of the dialogue is inherently artificial, but we tried to insert some level of verisimilitude into how the characters speak to one another while still maintaining enough color to keep the text fun and engaging.”

Sometimes, this approach led to unexpected problems. Ellerhorst recounts how an incident involving one word from Nagi turned into a significant obstacle for them. Nagi calls Kanon, another player in the Reaper’s game that Fret develops a crush on, his “bias.” The original script uses the term “oshi,” which is a niche, Japanese fandom term that refers to one’s favorite character or idol. While this isn’t a difficult concept to convey, there’s no English equivalent. As a result, the team settled on the K-pop term “bias,” which refers to someone’s favorite band member. Ellerhorst says that while this particular fandom is a loose fit for Nagi’s interests, the choice worked because Fret wasn’t supposed to understand what she meant.

Christopher Orr, another English translator, encountered a similar problem in the Hog Fang shopkeeper’s dialogue. The Japanese script has the merchant rapping while speaking, but this style wouldn’t work in English since Japanese rapping often doesn’t rhyme. He turned it into a joke instead, with the shopkeeper saying, “Tryin’ to come up with a rap, but it always ends up…crap.”

Some fans didn’t take kindly to the style and tone Furda and his team used, however. They claimed the tone was “too online,” and entire threads on Reddit and GameFAQs criticized characters’ attitudes, tone, and even individual word choice. Ellerhorst believes this misses the point of NEO: The World Ends With You’s message, though.

“There is a noticeable trend in modern western writing, particularly in localization of Japanese popular media, of over-reliance on internet-isms and meme-speak,” Ellerhorst says. “That being said, having an overtly online tone suits the world and characters of NEO: The World Ends With You to the extent that I think it would be more unnatural if they didn’t speak the way they do. Rindo is constantly glued to his phone and parrots things he sees online, and Nagi is deeply involved in online fandom communities. The internet, and all its fast-changing culture and language, is central to their lives and their personalities. NEO: The World Ends With You’s Shibuya isn’t meant to be timeless — it’s meant to be current, which is why I believe the tone we went with was appropriate.”

For Furda, the song “Breaking Free” from NEO: The World Ends With You’s soundtrack summarizes the game’s core and power. Since he was previously an orchestral clarinetist before becoming a writer, Square Enix asked him to write lyrics for the soundtrack. He thought it was the perfect opportunity, but fell into a spiral of self-doubt and depression when he struggled to come up with adequate lyrics.

“It is from that foray into the depths of depression and back again that ‘Breaking Free’ was born,” he says. The song is almost a snapshot of NEO: The World Ends With You’s themes. One stanza reads:

Oh, take a look at me
I know I’m not the perfect boy you want me to be
All I really need is room to breathe
Because this pressure’s killing me
but fell into a spiral of self-doubt and depression

The response he received from fans helped reinforce why the game and his team’s work on it was so important.

“A lot of folks reached out to me and spoke about how that song has really resonated with them, which is really touching,” he says. “It feels quite fitting that the music of The World Ends With You — a series about human connection — is bringing people together like that.”