The World Ends with You is an, uh, RPG? from Square-Enix. Honestly, I’m not sure which pigeonhole to stick it in: in particular, I’m pretty sure that the main reason why my brain leapt toward the RPG category is its publisher, because it varies significantly from traditional RPG design. You return to the same areas over and over, there are (almost) no dungeons, the town and overworld are one and the same, fighting is interactive, no character classes (sort of), very untraditional leveling up. Maybe it’s an action game? But fighting happens on a separate screen. Action RPG, I guess?

My confusion as to how to label it is all to the good: I’ve been known to enjoy the occasional traditional JRPG, but that’s unquestionably a genre that has gone stale, indeed whose shelf life expired quite a few years ago. And the innovation doesn’t stop with its boundary-blurring nature: in particular, the most noticeable aspect of the game is that you fight on both screens at once, controlling the bottom screen with the stylus and the top screen with the D-pad.

Which I found somewhat less confusing than I expected, actually. The game will control the top character for you, if you wish, and I left that setting at its default value (computer takes over if you don’t do anything for three seconds) the whole way through the game. The computer-controlled actions aren’t all that great, and in particular it’s quite hard to build up the combo meter that way, but I didn’t find it all that difficult to pay enough attention to the top screen to build up the combo meter while tapping and slashing enough on the bottom screen to do a fair amount of damage.

Not that I would want this sort of gameplay to be the norm, or indeed something other than a rare gimmicky exception. In particular, while I could attack reasonably well on both screens at once, I gave up almost completely on the idea of defending. I think my brain and fingers did a reasonable job of keeping on track of two of the four tasks of attacking bottom, attacking top, defending bottom, and defending top, but doing more than that was almost completely impossible. So there’s some amount of potential richness in the fighting system that I just didn’t have access to, which was a pity. Also, each of your partners (there are three, you have a different one each week) has a slightly different mechanic, and the third partner’s mechanic was frustrating in that, if you let him autoplay, he may well take actions that actively work against setting up your combo meter. I did end up fighting enemies in the game somewhat more than was necessary, which at the least is a sign that I thought the fighting mechanic was intriguing, and probably enjoyable.

A lot of the buzz for the game has been around its style; it’s certainly nice to see a game set in (a variant of) modern Shinjuku instead of a fantasy or SF setting, and I liked the art design. (I do hope a future Vintage Game Club round can revisit Jet Grind Radio…) I didn’t like the music, however, and the drawing of your first partner was pretty creepy: a not-all-that-old teenage girl with a broad hips, a wasp waist, low-cut pants, and practically an arrow drawn on her saying “this is her crotch”. Ick.

For collectors, there are a lot of badges and clothes to accumulate. I didn’t spend too much time on clotches, and it didn’t hurt me very much; badges are more important, but you’ll get enough of the important fighting badges through the normal course of the game as long as you don’t go out of your way to avoid battles, so there’s no need to obsess about collecting if you don’t want to. To make matters a bit more interesting, you can lower your level when fighting battles: this increases your chance of getting badges while allowing you to have a bit of a challenge even when fighting monsters that you would otherwise far outclass.

There’s an unusual variety of leveling up mechanisms: you can level up your character, you can level up your badges, and you can even do this while you’re not playing the game. Which I thought was pretty neat when I started playing the game, but as the game went on, it didn’t work as well for me. At first, you only have a few badges, and you can level them up reasonably quickly when playing against the first monsters in the game. Pretty soon, you have access to a much larger number of badges, so you have to actively choose which ones you want to level up; that’s not so unreasonable, that’s part of shaping your character in an RPG. But, as the game progresses, it takes longer and longer to level up a badge, and you start getting new badges with the same mechanic as older badges but with more power; as this goes on, leveling up your badges stops being a particularly, important mechanic, replaced by just making sure that you’re using the most powerful badges whose attack mechanic you don’t mind too much.

Damage doesn’t last from battle to battle: like Puzzle Quest, you start each battle with a fresh slate. Unfortunately, TWEWY could have learned something else from Puzzle Quest: in the latter game, if you lose a battle, the game simply dumps you back out on the overworld, letting you fight the battle again. TWEWY, however, puts you at a “game over” screen when that happens. Once you get a few days into the game, you have the option of retrying the last battle at that screen, possibly at easy difficulty level, but that isn’t good enough: you may want to change the experience level that you’re playing at and/or your badge selection, and you don’t have the option of doing either of those at the game over screen. So the upshot is that you want to save your game before almost every battle, or indeed before almost every screen transition or after every lengthy bit of dialogue, which is a pain, and a completely unnecessary one.

At least you can save anywhere, though. Or at least almost anywhere: during the sequence of final bosses, you don’t have that option. You can adjust your badges between battles (and you’ll presumably be sensible enough to be fighting them at full strength), but woe be it to you if you enter one of those battles with an inappropriate set of badges. (Which, fortunately, didn’t happen to me.) In general, I wasn’t impressed by the final boss sequences: rather than having those battles be a capstone of what you’d learned before, they significantly changed the playing mechanics at a couple of points in those battles, forcing you to fight without your partner or without your badges.

I’m glad I played the game: it has several new ideas, some of which I genuinely enjoyed. I’m not sure exactly what specific ideas I want other games to learn from it, however. And it was a bit longer than I’d liked: about halfway through the second week, I felt (correctly) that I’d learned pretty much what I was going to learn from the game, and battles were starting to turn into a chore at times. But they did a reasonable job of not dragging out any individual part of the game, and I enjoyed it enough to be happy that I saw the game through to the end.

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