The RPG crunch continues on Switch, but it’s looking like you should add it to the heap.
Author's note: A day one patch did clean up some of the technical issues mentioned below, so we were able to issue a score on August 2, 2021. Original text follows.
To say that I was shocked when Square Enix announced an actual, honest to goodness sequel to The World Ends With You is like calling World War II a minor skirmish. It had been teased for years, but it never seemed that the systems that used every aspect of the DS down to the original StreetPass could be adapted to a single screen. I reviewed the most recent attempt in 2018 in the form of the “Final Remix” version and it basically won our Biggest Disappointment that year by acclamation. Thankfully, we’ve had the chance to go through several days of NEO The World Ends With You, and it’s looking to be worth the wait.
As with the original, NEO takes place in the heart of Tokyo, specifically in and around the Shibuya district. The starting characters are a pair of young men named Rindo and Fret, who dodge a car one day in Shibuya yet still manage to end up playing the “Reaper’s Game,” which has returned after a seeming three-year hiatus. The rules of the game are simple: Complete a series of tasks in a seven day period or “face erasure.” Unlike the original which limited the party size to two, NEO rolls with a four person party for most of the game by adding the neurotic fangirl Nagi and Sho Minamimoto, a powerhouse who was a boss in the original game and whose propensity for speaking in math puns made him a fan favorite. The final slot is a rotating one, and you can probably guess who takes off eventually, but it generally keeps someone with experience—and more importantly, better stats—on the team. Since only the last place team is erased at the end of the week, it seemingly sets up a four-act structure, but most of the promised 50 hours of main story is likely tied up in the final four days of a week, so I wouldn’t be shocked if it all ended at the third week.
Due to the multiplatform release of NEO, the “rub your stomach and pat your head” battle system of the 2008 DS was going to be off the table. Instead, this battle system puts the entire party on the battlefield at once and the “pins” that control attacks are assigned to a combination of the shoulder, X, and Y buttons. By default, pins cannot be assigned to the same button, but an ability can be unlocked to override this later on. Each pin has a certain number of uses represented by an action bar, and when the bar is drained there’s a few seconds of cooldown before it can be used again. Certain attacks when used pop up a “Drop The Beat” sign, and attacking successfully when that is active adds an amount to a “Groove” meter: filling the meter to a round percentage unlocks a super move (controlled by the A button) that deals massive damage. Since B is used on an optional “quick rise” ability, using a combo of the shoulder buttons and X/Y made for some pretty unusual finger dances, especially since I couldn’t get a pack together that I liked just using the shoulders. I could see a scenario where a fight stick is used for the battles here because it almost felt like combo dialing in Tekken at times.
The RPG quality of life is in full effect here; forced battles are the exception, and the player controls their level grinding to an absurd extent. In addition to unlockable easy and hard modes, the encounters with “Noise” can either be ignored entirely or chained for added drops and experience—if you can survive it. A new feature allows you to even lower your experience level to increase difficulty and reward quality (I might be level 20 right now, but what if I said I wanted to do this fight at level 15?). Even Easy difficulty is no cakewalk though; the Noise might be easy, but there’s more fights against other “players” than the original ever had, and the players are way more durable. At one point I had to grind to get almost, but not quite to, a level-up because I was forced into three player fights in a row, and the only way I could heal and do enough damage to win was to trigger a level increase midway through the second fight and get the health refill. It’s also really easy to fall behind in stats: the only thing increased at a level up is HP, and the other stats (Attack, Defense and “style,” which affects armor abilities) are gained by eating in an unintentional nod to River City Ransom.
It can be difficult to create an interesting world when you’re basically confined to about 15 square kilometres, but there’s enough variety in Shibuya that each part of the city has its own standout spots. Some classic techniques for affecting the world outside the Reaper’s Game are present, such as “imprinting” words onto people in the environment, but three party members have ways to affect the environment: Fret can unscramble hidden images to “remind” people of something, Rindo can travel back in time every couple of days, and Nagi can dive into the minds of others to trigger a series of challenge fights that also affect their emotions. Of the three, Fret’s is the most finicky: the directions on screen seem to suggest you should rotate the sticks, but it’s actually a matter of holding them in a particular direction until the image forms. This took way too long to figure out in the portion covered by the demo. Rindo’s time travel is easy to use once you realize that you can’t actually leave the area you’re in. A “social networking” system unlocks after the demo period which is where a lot of the game modifiers are, and the chart gets filled in by a combination of plot, sidequests, and buying a lot of stuff at the shops and restaurants around the city. It’s a cool system, and the time travel gives an easy plot out for replaying a day if you missed some sidequests.
There was a lot of worry in the run-up to the launch that the Switch version would be a technical mess—so far, this hasn’t borne out. There are some flashier attacks or particularly large crowds that can cause frame hits, and the load times are a little longer than I’d like in docked mode and annoyingly long in portable. I did have a single “crash to desktop” in my play so far, though reports from other players who obtained early copies were suggesting crashes became more frequent toward the endgame. If this is true, we’ll have to see how things go after a day 1 patch—which is part of the reason we don’t have a score yet for the review. Unlike the original where only the people with thoughts weren’t blobs, or other games set in the area where everyone’s monochromatic, crowd scenes do give distinguishable faces and outfits to most of the people in the crowd.
I don’t have access to a disc drive in my apartment, so I’m not just asking for NEO’s soundtrack to be put up for paid download; I'm demanding it. The World Ends With You is a top 3 soundtrack of all time for me, and NEO might be better than it? In addition to new remixes of old songs—the new version of “Transformation” being a personal highlight—the soundtrack hits its beats perfectly with new songs, too. Hearing “Breaking Free” in-context for the first time in an end-of-day boss fight as I’m trying to fight off other players just made a song I was already looping even better.
2021 is quickly turning into an argument for the Switch being a top 3 RPG console ever, and we’re only at the end of #JRPGJuly. NEO: The World Ends With You is living up to the hype I was feeling when it was announced and then some as it took everything I already loved about the original and made it work on a single screen in the modern day. Don’t miss it.