Plenty of good games come along, but it's only every now and then that you find something really special.
The World Ends With You, developed by Square-Enix for the Nintendo DS, is just that kind of special. This is a game that has been thought about, and carefully, and which makes going one-better its quiet religion. It's not as immediately visceral as Devil May Cry or as jaw-droppingly spectacular as Gears of War but it is a game with a masterful and brilliant plan which it executes flawlessly.
You play as Neku, a modern-day teenager with an attitude problem and some intimacy issues. The game begins with Neku waking up in the midst of Tokyo's Shibuya shopping district with no memories and a mysterious black pin. He soon finds that he's invisible to most people, and has been enlisted to fight in something called the Reaper's Game. Played over seven days, the Game offers miraculous rewards to those who win, but the losers are erased from existence.
The game is played in pairs; to complete the missions and fight the vicious "Noise" which stalk Shibuya's streets, competitors must form a "pact" with another player. That's no easy ask for Neku, what with his trust issues, and the dilemma of enforced teamwork is the thematic spine of the game.
The game takes place over the terrain of real-life Shibuya. The world is divided into a couple of dozen areas, each themed around a major Shibuya landmark, and you can walk back and forth across it more or less at will. The narrative of the game is divided into "days"; on any given day only certain portions of the Shibuya are accessible, but luckily after you beat the game you can revisit the days in any order at will.
The black pin that Neku receives at the start of the game gives him the power to "scan" areas, which firstly allows you to read the minds of nearby citizens for hints, backstory, and amusing anecdotes. Scanning also reveals the presence of the aforementioned "Noise", animal-themed monsters intent on erasing players from the Game.
Tapping on Noise initiates combat, which is handled by a separate screen. Noise have to be simultaneously defeated in two different "zones", which equate to the top and the bottom screens. Neku fights on the bottom screen, and attacks using "psyches" granted to him by pins that you collect throughout the game. Each psyche corresponds to a specific stylus gesture, such as drawing a line through an enemy, tapping empty space, or energetically rubbing the entire screen. Successfully activating a psyche can result in anything from meteors raining from the heavens through to a flurry of devastating melee attacks.
At the same time as Neku is scrapping on the bottom screen, your partner will be under attack on the top screen. You control your partner by means of the D-pad. Each directional press deals damage to an enemy, and by navigating through a "combo tree" using a series of these presses you can unleash a powerful finishing move.
Fighting on both screens at once can be initially confusing, but like most games it's a skill you can acquire over time and ends up being quite satisfying once you've mastered it. To help you out, the game by default will take control of your partner if you get distracted, and can in fact completely run the top screen to a fairly adequate standard. Also, on the default difficulty, battles are almost laughably easy, so pretty much any player should be able to make it through to the end.
Actually, the game's difficulty settings are an important part of the core gameplay. The basic settings make most fights a pushover, and give you full use of your abilities, but you can choose to deliberately up the difficulty and/or take a handicap to your health bar in order to make battles yield rarer and more valuable loot. I played through most of the game at the "hard" difficulty with about a 50% level handicap and found that to be pretty much ideal; your individual comfort zone may vary. You can adjust this difficulty at any time during combat, and if you do happen to lose a fight you can instantly retry the fight at either the same difficulty or with your characters made practically invincible.
The dual-screen combat is quite clever from a story perspective. Noise can only be fought in pairs; if you don't have a partner, you're completely helpless. Considering that the narrative thrust of the game is about Neku's relationship with other people, it's a stroke of genius.
A major part of the game is fashion; other than your pins, the only equippable items in the game are clothes, which must be purchased from one of a range of major fashion labels throughout Shibuya. Different clothes have different benefits; by and large one set of threads isn't better than another, only different, so the fashion system is more about customisation than it is about power-levelling. Each area of Shibuya keeps a table showing which brands are hot and which brands are not; simply by wearing a brand onto the streets you'll raise its cool-factor, which is important as psyche-pins from unfashionable brands are significantly gimped in combat.
Theoretically, any character can wear any clothing, and there's benefits to be gained from engaging in a little gender-bending when it comes to your equipment. However, every character has a "Bravery" stat, which is pretty slow to increase, and each piece of clothing has a minimum Bravery required before you can wear it. Female characters tend to start with more Bravery and women's clothing has a higher Bravery requirement.
All that dressing-up might put some people off, but don't be fooled - this isn't just an attempt to cash in on a new demographic. The whole fashion component weaves masterfully into the game's plot and theme. It's hard to say how without giving out spoilers, but the fashion system is one of the most brilliant examples of game mechanics supporting narrative ever to appear in a video game. It's absolutely inspired. The World Ends With You absolutely could not be the game it is without the fashion system, and it turns out to have something really worth saying on the subject.
The soundtrack to the game is phenomenal, consisting mostly of J-Pop, techno and Japanese hip-hop, and the DS speakers don't do it justice. You'll want to spend some time listening to the tunes over the headphones - they're that good.
Also noteworthy is the translation. This is the best translation of a Japanese game I have ever seen - it's a work of minor literary genius in itself. This was obviously going to be an issue for such a Tokyo-centric game, but the dialogue retains the flavour and culture of Shibuya perfectly, including a bunch of sly gaming references and satires of otaku culture. The end product is perfectly understandable and palatable to a Western audience, but still feels savvy and doesn't for a moment allow itself to be dumbed down.
The World Ends With You is great as a game. It's also an amazing piece of fantasy tourism; I defy you to play without wanting to visit the real Shibuya. But beyond all of that, it's an excellent story, with powerfully realised characters, and the whole thing's wrapped within layer after layer of stunningly insightful teen-angst metaphor.
There's a hundred hours of gameplay in this thing easily, and if you're like me the first couple of hours may not make the strongest impression on you. But stick with it, because this is easily the best game of the year so far, and may well be one of the best JRPGs ever developed.