When The World Ends With You was first released back in 2007 (on this very day), I wasn’t much of a JRPG fan. But nonetheless, when it was released in the west in 2008, I picked it up on something of a whim at GAME in one of those clunky, transparent UK DS game cases. And I’m glad I did — it quickly became one of my favorite games, both for its innovative mechanics and its narrative themes of isolation and connection.
The World Ends With You begins with a standard JRPG trope — the amnesiac protagonist. In this case, our hero is Neku Sakuraba, a kid who walks around with huge headphones on to keep people from interacting with him. Neku quickly learns that he’s dead and is moving through the Shibuya shopping district of Tokyo as a kind of ghost, unable to interact with its living inhabitants except to defeat “Noise,” creatures which are attracted to negative feelings. Paired up with various allies who come and go throughout the game, Neku learns to connect and work with other people in order to win the Reapers’ Game, a competition with the prize of returning to life or ascending to a higher form of existence.
Designed specifically for the DS hardware, TWEWY‘s combat system perfectly fits the game’s theme of connection. The player controls Neku on the touch screen and his partner for the week on the top screen. Battles involve synchronizing actions across the two characters, a concept that seems overly-complicated but in practice is a lot of fun to play around with. In the place of traditional weapons are various pins that characters can equip to gain access to different attacks deployed via touch screen motions. Each partner character also has their own mechanics you have to learn, further emphasizing the importance (and difficulty) of getting along with other people.
There’s just so much packed into TWEWY — it’s full of clever ideas, like the Bravery mechanic for wearing more daring and fashion-forward outfits that grant extra stats; the “Active Encounter” system whereby keeping the console in sleep mode and/or encountering other players in the wild gives bonus XP; and the way that “fashion trends” affect stat bonuses for pins and clothing. The narrative, too, is engrossing, featuring mysterious supernatural elements while still being a lot more down-to-earth than the typical JRPG, dealing as it does with feelings of loneliness in a contemporary setting. Of course, this is a JRPG by the creators of Kingdom Hearts, so it’s also about killing god.
TWEWY was re-released on iOS and Android in 2012 and 2014, respectively. It was later ported to the Switch in 2018 as The World Ends With You: Final Remix. These versions had to adapt the original’s gameplay for devices with a single screen, and they lose a little in the translation, so the original is still the optimal way to play it. Square Enix also released a sequel last year called Neo: The World Ends With You, which was well-received but didn’t reach the same level of critical acclaim or sales as the original. I’m not sure if it’d hit the same as it did back in 2008, but I might hunt down a used copy for the DS and find out.