Almost without exception, the changes to the standard JRPG formula in The World Ends With You improve the gameplay and provide a startlingly fresh take on the role-playing experience.
Changing a successful formula is risky business. If it ain't broke...well, you know. Evidently, somebody forgot to tell the developers at Jupiter and Square Enix who made The World Ends With You. Their new game turns just about everything you think you know about JRPGs upside down and inside out. We hear it too often, but this time it's really true: you have never played a game like this before. And for the most part, that is very good news.
Of course, by itself, change is an indifferent thing. Significant revisions to proven successes can be a good thing (Metroid Prime), a bad thing (Super Monkey Ball Adventure), or a mixture of both (Burnout Paradise). Almost without exception, the changes rung on the standard JRPG formula in The World Ends With You improve the gameplay and provide a startlingly fresh take on the role-playing experience.
It all begins with the hero, 15-year-old Neku Sakuraba. An hour into the game, you would be forgiven if you mistook this taciturn, cynical kid for yet another post-Final Fantasy VII Cloud-derivative emo protagonist. He certainly starts out that way, accompanied by the predictable female sidekick who tries desperately to help him stop hating the world.
But by the time you reach Neku's seventh day in Shibuyu (the game is divided into chapters, each lasting seven days), you begin to understand the bitter but necessary journey Neku has embarked on, and his true nature slowly begins to emerge. Gradually, Neku's agonizing coming of age story achieves a poignant dimension that many other Square Enix games have strived for but failed to reach. Every great story involves self-discovery. The trick is to make us care about that journey and, in the best stories, find something recognizable in ourselves along the way. The World Ends With You achieves this surprisingly well and in ways you may not expect after only a few hours of play.
Aside from its novel hero, the game presents a fresh, stylized and cliché-free world set in a mash-up of modern Shibuyu Tokyo tweaked with manga visuals and hip-hop/electronica vocal music. It all looks terrific, which actually matters in the grand scheme of the game because fashion plays a vital role. Wear the wrong clothes in the wrong part of town, and your stats go down. Observe the trends -- or better yet, start your own -- and you get a stat boost. In between missions you can shop for clothes, music, and food, all of which can be configured in your inventory. If this all sounds a bit like a teenage shopping mall simulator, don't worry. It all makes sense in the context of the game, and each of these elements has a direct bearing on the status of the characters. You will become a clothes hound, and you will likely enjoy it.
The problems created by the game's dual-screen combat system are harder to overcome, unfortunately. The player controls Neku with the stylus on the bottom screen while also controlling his fighting partner on the top screen with the D-pad. Both characters share the same health bar, and it is frustratingly easy to become fully engaged fighting a bottom screen full of creatures while your partner succumbs to her own separate menagerie of creatures above. Some with nimbler fingers or sharper reflexes may find battling simultaneously on two screens rewarding fun. I found it annoyingly difficult. Fortunately, the game provides an auto-battle setting which controls the top screen fighting for you. Many players may prefer this option, though it clearly diminishes one of the game's thematic premises: you must work together with your partner to survive in this world.
The World Ends With You presents a gallery of indelible characters (designed by Tetsuya Nomura), nearly all of whom defy the standard JRPG conventions. Each is driven by natural, identifiable objectives, and the obstacles they face exist as natural extensions of the world they inhabit. Their insecurities and fears stem from the mistakes they have made and the painful lives they have led. It is a tribute to the writers and designers of this game that all these things feel real, not contrived "angsty" banalities.
Of all video game genres, RPGs would seem the most conducive to powerful storytelling. All too often, they are not. JRPGs, in particular, have become mired in threadbare plot mechanics and recycled characters. The World Ends With You is different. No grinding. No random battles. No interminable cutscenes. The game even rewards you with a stat boost for turning off the system and taking a few days off.
But it's the storytelling that matters most -- the unique modern setting, the vivid characters, the memorable plot full of surprises that serve the narrative, rather than merely jolting it. Just when it seemed the genre had gone completely moribund, along comes a game that reminds us why we love role-playing games in the first place. Here's hoping this is the start of a JRPG renaissance.