Game series returning from the dead is something of a weird occurrence in the video game industry. NEO: The World Ends With You is the sequel to a Nintendo DS game titled The World Ends With You, which was an impressive cult classic game for a handheld system. Sporting a unique control scheme, distinct visuals, and an incredibly varied soundtrack featuring a variety of vocals, The World Ends With You was well-received, though Square Enix didn’t do much with the property for 14 long years beyond porting the DS game to iOS, Android, and the Nintendo Switch platforms. NEO: The World Ends With You takes all the style and substance of the original and presents it to players in 2021. Is it too little too late, or is NEO: The World Ends With You right on time? Let’s find out.
The original The World Ends With You had a pretty interesting story for a JRPG- you controlled the protagonist, Neku, along with different party members during three different weeks of a death game set in Shibuya, Japan. Without spoiling the story of this game or the original, NEO gives players control of Rindo, Fret, as well as some other characters they meet along their way to escaping a death game set up by a Machiavellian game master who forces the protagonists to battle against Noise and Reapers. The story is a major highlight of the game, so not a lot can be said without a deluge of spoilers, but NEO does a phenomenal job of tying up loose ends from the original The World Ends With You (though playing the first isn’t a requirement, it would help you understand nods, references, and rules of NEO’s story), and expands the universe substantially without feeling trite or hackneyed.
The first The World Ends With You game had a pretty complicated combat system, where the player would equip pins that had different activation methods- pressing the stylus on an enemy to burn them with fire, or swiping across them to slash with a sword, etc.. All movement of Neku was performed on the bottom screen of the Nintendo DS using the stylus, while the partner character would be on the top screen, and you’d have to use the face buttons or dpad (depending on if you’re right-handed or a lefty) to attack and dodge with them- and both characters shared health. More elements were included, such as a light puck, special attacks, and more, as the player progressed in the game. The World Ends With You: Solo Remix and Final Remix incorporated elements of the unique dual screen combat system as well as they could for single-screened devices, but were met with mixed results.
The combat system in NEO is completely new for this entry, and captures a lot of the multi-tasking elements that made the first game great without utilizing an absurd control scheme. Each character can equip a different pin of a distinct input, so for example, most rapid fire bullet pins use the Y button input, slashing is X, charging attacks typically take the L and R buttons, while hold actions are on ZL and ZR (generally speaking). Pins have limited uses before needing to recharge, so you can’t just spam your way to victory, or the pin will need to reboot so you can use it again; pins also slowly recharge when not in use.
So, for the most part when starting the game, you’ll spam X and Y, then dodge when appropriate so you don’t take damage. Your active character is generally the one you last used a pin with, but if you’re using multiple pins at once you can be hit by one attack and take several times the damage (say, using a hold, charge, and rapid fire pin simultaneously for a combo. Getting hit while using three characters at once means triple the damage in a lot of cases, for example). So, generally speaking, you need to be mindful of where your characters are, who you’re controlling and when you’re controlling them, and what your free opportunities to attack are.
There’s also the Groove meter that you unlock as you progress in the game that you can spend to deal splashy special attacks that have special effects. You fill the Groove meter by performing Beatdrops, which are blue circles that appear over enemies for a limited time when you perform special actions, dependent on the pins used. Some bullet and sword pins do Beatdrops by simply finishing their combo, making them easy to use to fill out your combos. Other pins will trigger a Beatdrop when you launch an enemy, others when you slam an enemy into the ground (smells like synergy~), that sort of thing. Performing Beatdrops to build Groove and then unleash special attacks is the core of NEO’s combat, and it only gets more fun when you can build the gauge up to 300% and perform a devastating Killer Remix that deals substantial damage and triples the drop rate of items from enemies.
The rewards for battle are as involved and layered as the combat system itself, as the player effectively controls the drop rate, too. Every single enemy, at each difficulty level, as a pin that they drop which players can use. Some pins can only be sold for money, and some can only be exchanged for even rarer pins or clothing (called threads in game. Isn’t it charming?), but the lion’s share of pins in the game are attacks that the player can use to dispatch enemies, giving your active incentive to boost your drop rate as high as you can on each difficulty level. Players can reduce their level to boost the drop rate of rare pins, as well as chain multiple battles in a row with increasing difficulty- doing a 10 reduction chain of battles at level 1 may be difficult, but a new pin that shoots arrows that explode and freezes all enemies around is so worth it.
NEO: The World Ends With You doesn’t stop at de-leveling to boost your drop rate, though. Leveling only increases your health, but your stats like Attack and Defense are improved by equipping powerful threads and by eating at the best restaurants Shibuya has to offer. Each clothing item in the game also has a special effect that you can only unlock by having a high enough Style stat to pull off the threads- so if you want a bonus that boosts your X attacks, or light attacks, then you need to eat enough to have a high enough Style stat to wear the threads properly! Of course, after eating your fill, you’ve got to battle Noise to work up an appetite again, which works well into the general flow of the game since your pins level up and evolve into even more powerful attacks, too.
Everything in NEO: The World Ends With You is stylish to an almost painful degree. Enemies are called Noise, the clothing you equip your characters with like armor in other JRPGs are all called threads, etc.. Back in 2007, when the first game released, some of the terms in these games were on their way out the door, but NEO brings them back shamelessly and it’s honestly all the better for it. The way the buildings of Shibuya twist and veer over the horizon gives an incredible feeling of how insignificant your characters are as you venture back and forth from each location, and the cel-shaded graphics look excellent, especially when in docked mode of the Switch.
The music knocks it out of the park, yet again. There are loads of pop, punk, and even nu-metal style tracks throughout the OST of NEO, with lots of returning, iconic songs that have been remixed for a new generation. There’s nothing better than starting a chain of 20 battles and hearing the sound of Breaking Free fill your speakers while you mercilessly launch wolf noise into the air with towering stalagmites. NEO also has a substantial amount of voice acting with dual audio, to boot, so you don’t have to use the dub voices if that’s not your preference. The English cast does a pretty solid job, though, though some of the lines were unconvincing and one actor, in particular, was a strange casting.
Overall, NEO: The World Ends With You is a sequel and revisit to a world I never thought I’d see Square-Enix make again. The combat has the same elements of multi-tasking as the original but utilized in entirely new, inventive ways, and the story hits all of the same high notes as the DS title and in several ways actually exceeds the climax of the first game, in my opinion. The soundtrack is incredible, the graphics are serviceable, and NEO is considerably longer than the first The World Ends With You game (it’s at least twice as long; if the first took around 20-25 hours, NEO will take you around 50-55).
If you’re a fan of JRPGs or played the first The World Ends With You game and somehow missed that NEO released because of a lack of advertising, this game is absolutely worth your time. If you don’t like JRPGs, vocal-boasting soundtracks, or anime art styles and themes, then you’d probably do well to stay away from NEO: The World Ends With You, though if that were the case then you likely already closed the tab with this review. In any event, NEO is an absolute delight if you can enjoy its themes, and is a very strong competitor in a year with phenomenal JRPGs.