In the fourteen years since since The World Ends with You first released on the Nintendo DS, the gaming industry has gone through a number of different cycles. There was an period of time in the intervening decade where a game as weird, meta, and unabashedly Japanese as the Shibuya-spanning Square Enix game would have been panned as being incredibly out of step with an increasingly international games industry. Somehow, for better or worse, The World Ends with You as a series slept through most of the tumultuous growing pains of Japanese development, and NEO: The World Ends with You might be better for it.
In our preview, we got to play the first two days of the new sequel, amounting to about two hours from the beginning of the game. It is immediately and obviously clear that NEO: The World Ends with You is aware of the task in front of it: how do you revive something that was a product of its time and still modernize it without alienating the initial fan base? The game expresses this consternation through the newest form of The Reaper’s Game, the in-game contest for the dead in Shibuya to win a chance at resurrection. In the sequel, the Reaper’s Game seems to modernize itself without losing the soul of what it was originally and it does so by adding twists and turns to an established formula, which would not surprise me to see heading the design document for NEO.
It is, in most ways, the same The World Ends with You that fans know already. It’s Shibuya and the Scramble Crossing once again. The reapers are back, the original soundtrack is there in both its original form and covers, though the value of the latter varies by song. The aesthetic feels like the same graffiti/manga style it was with the prior game. This does not feel like a situation where the developers of the sequel don’t know what made the original tick.
In the demo we played, it does not take Rindo and his best friend Fret long to find trouble. After witnessing other players in the Reaper’s Game fighting off enemy monsters called Noise, Rindo is forced to bear witness to Fret getting flattened by a truck in a freak accident. The young protagonist then somehow rewinds time, allowing the opportunity to warn Fret before the vehicle literally lands on top of him, and the two are drafted into the new Reaper’s Game with the not-very-creative team name of “Rindo’s Group.”
Both Fret and Rindo are a team together, but they frequently get help from Minamimoto, mysterious man in black who is no mystery to fans of the first game, though his motivations in this game certainly are. In battle, the three work as one cohesive unit, with each character wearing a different pin to give them powers in the arena-like Noise fights. Each pin corresponds to a different button, so a team of three has three buttons to worry about, and it quickly becomes clear that the key to battle is managing these buttons in equal parts.
Rindo, for example, may have a pin equipped that gives him a sword combo. Just mashing that would quickly exhaust the pin, leaving Rindo pointless until the pin recharges. Using it enough to throw the enemy off balance, then pressing buttons for Fret’s fireball attacks, creates a flow that charges up the team’s Groove meter. When that meter reaches 100%, the party can perform a super attack for major damage.
When you add a third character like Minamimoto into the fray, you can have him stand by and charge his kick by holding his button to both increase damage and time it perfectly to loop back around to Rindo for his sword attacks again.
It’s a little hard to parse at first, but getting a good combo on a boss is satisfying and makes a logical successor to The World Ends with You‘s combat. It’s not the same, it’s different because it has to be for control reasons, but it seems like the same parts of the brain are designed to engage with it as they did years prior. I imagine that as the game progresses, the encounter design will only get deeper, and hints in the menu suggest the battle system will get equally complicated later in the game.
After two in-game days, it feels like NEO: The World Ends with You still has a lot to live up to, but that it’s ready to try. The game is not the departure from the original game’s spirit that I expected and am eager to see if it can carry that momentum and that mentality all the way to the end.