It is difficult for me to accurately remember the person I was 14 years ago. The actual length of time is a factor, sure, but I think the overriding reason is that so many things have changed about both me and my life in the intervening decade-plus that just crowd out what was on my mind at 20 years-old. While playing NEO: The World Ends with You, I frequently kept thinking back to the thoughts and feelings I had back then, playing The World Ends with You on my Nintendo DS, trying to work out whether I really remembered the events of my life at the time accurately or if I only remembered the emotions of it. As credits rolled on NEO: The Worlds Ends with You, I walked away from the sequel to the cult classic original realizing that it doesn’t know where the old game ends and it begins either.
The World Ends with You is, in retrospect, one of those games that probably never really needed a new entry. This isn’t to say I didn’t want one — I remember once, upon signing up for Twitter, trying to contact the president of Square Enix to ask for one. The original was one of those rare games that felt unique, from its controls to its style to its story, and its uniqueness ironically compelled fans to demand more games that would by definition make it less unique. A Switch port added some new content to open up the story again; it felt then, and feels now, a lot like cracking open a tomb to gawk at the long-buried inhabitants within.
This is one of several senses in which NEO: The World Ends with You feels confused about its existence. It cannot be easy to design a sequel to a finished, isolated story that took particular advantage of a control and screen setup that is not well-replicated on any modern platforms. So when you decide to go down that path, you have to go fresh and try to bridge the gap between what people liked about the original to a new story and mechanics.
And NEO: The World Ends with You does just that! Until it doesn’t.
The beginning cast of NEO is doe-eyed and interesting as they come to understand the true nature of the Reapers’ Game they find themselves in. For people who have played the original game, there will be a lot of assumptions about how the meta game-inside-the-game works, but the characters themselves are still discovering its foundations and, along with the player, the new twists from the partner-based competition in The World Ends with You. At first, this more anthological focus begs for connective tissue to the first game, but as I got to know the new characters, I felt no need to relitigate the dangling threads of The World Ends with You: Final Remix’s new content. I just wanted to see how the new characters of Rindo, Fret, and Nagi navigated the new trials and tribulations they found themselves in.
At some point in NEO, the story becomes less about its own original characters and more about tying up loose ends from the previous title rather than giving its new cast their actual due. As a fan of the original, some part of me appreciated this, but it leaves the newcomers feeling incomplete at the end of the day. Emotional arcs are given single days or even scenes to make good on their setups when they should have been given both more weight and more time. Characters are left minutes before the credits to say —out loud — what lessons they learned or more likely didn’t between larger and more important story beats getting resolved.
And this is particularly frustrating because the back half of the game is so much better than the first half in terms of gameplay and pacing. Rindo’s ability to travel back in time is given a headlining appearance among individual superpowers but all its most interesting and fun uses are late in the game. The most tedious examples, which are both boring and frustrating, take place the first few times he goes on a time-fixing adventure to get a better result for the day. Rindo somehow has the most fascinating ability from both a narrative and pacing perspective and his initial adventures with it are utterly torturous. These bits represent how much more comfortable the game feels in its own skin as it progresses.
I suspect that opinions on NEO will be kind of mixed because the game itself does not seem to really understand what it wants to be. Is it a fresh story about the Reapers’ game? What about a continuation of The World Ends with You? What about something for people who played the Switch port, or maybe those who watched the anime, or perhaps none of the above? NEO seems to try to be all these things and doesn’t quite gel as a cohesive package.
In that sense, I’m really not sure to whom I would actually recommend NEO: The World Ends with You. I think diehard fans would get a kick out of it, but that set probably does not need convincing. Anyone possessing anything short of absolute faith, though, should perhaps consider what they want from the game. It is still a quality title, though obviously budget-constrained, containing a large number of fantastic music tracks. The new characters are fun, the returning ones still interesting, and the revamped battle system constantly feels like it is pushing you to exploit it or make it harder on yourself.
There was a time where all I wanted from The World Ends with You was a direct sequel that continued its story. I think, sitting on the other side of NEO, I realize what I really wanted was to invoke the same feelings the first game did with a new cast to move the world forward more than just its characters. Regardless of what I wanted, NEO doesn’t quite do any one path completely successfully and every road it goes down comes with an opportunity cost to do something more interesting. The sequel gets very close to getting there, but doesn’t quite clear the self-imposed gap.