Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The World Ends With You - Dust Forms Words Game Of The Year 2008

The World Ends With You is the game that everyone should have played last year, and for what it's worth I'm giving it my Game of the Year.

I've already said a lot about TWEWY, so before I talk about why it gets the trophy, I'll say a little about why the other contenders don't.

Braid was a hell of a game. It was this year's undisputed poster-child for "games as art", and despite my unfortunate discovery of its misguided "alternate ending" it remains a very special and enduring experience. It excels musically, visually, narratively, and through its plethora of fascinating time-based mechanics. But it's limited in scope. Last year, when I described why I gave Mass Effect the thumbs up over Portal, I talked about ambition and how an "almost" on the grand scale could be greater than perfection in miniature. Without in any way criticising Braid, I'm passing it over simply because TWEWY does something bigger and more expansive.

Prince of Persia I haven't reviewed yet, but I have finished, and I am a huge fan. I love the punishment-free gameplay, I love the art style, I love the character interaction, and I love the controversial ending. This is how I want my games to be. And it's tempting to slam it for the epically misconceived coloured plate sections, which in the context of an otherwise perfect game are like drawing a penis on the Mona Lisa, but really I'm passing it over because it's not actually innovative. Everything in PoP is something we've seen before, and while there's an artistry in arranging the familiar to new and excellent effect, it's less an evolution of gaming than it is merely a refinement.

I loved Mirror's Edge, although the world seems to be against me on this, and I seriously considered it for Game of the Year. I think it's a deeper and more clever game than people have realised yet (although obviously not in its storytelling, which blows goats) and given time people are going to start coming back to this with new and more appreciative eyes. But, you know, it wasn't that good, and loud complaints about its combat, plotline, and uneven difficulty are not entirely without foundation.

Smash Bros Brawl and Rock Band were only 2008 releases because they took so damned long to get to Australia, and, while I enjoyed them both, neither was a revelation. Brawl was merely iterative upon the excellent Melee, and Rock Band let an uneven song selection and a host of peripheral and user interface issues stop it from being the definitive rhythmn game that it wanted to be.

No More Heroes got a golf clap and an A for effort. Keep doing what you're doing, Goichi Suda, I love that you're out there doing it, and feel free to wake me up when you get it right.

Left 4 Dead was a fantastic experience while it lasted but in the absence of more content it's not really in my Game of the Year contemplation.

You all apparently loved Fable 2; I hated it, as I do all Peter Molyneux's misbegotten works. Enough said on that topic.

Far Cry 2, Grand Theft Auto IV, Saints Row 2, Dead Space, Metal Gear Solid 4, LittleBigPlanet and Fallout 3 are all contenders that I just didn't get around to playing this year. I had a brief experience with Dead Space that satisfies me it was unlikely to take the crown, and while I look forward to enjoying Saints Row 2 I'm pretty sure that a game that so happily wallows in its own juvenilia was probably not going to be my pick for the year. Likewise, my past apathy towards user content suggests that LittleBigPlanet was probably not going to change my world.

Far Cry 2 and GTA 4 are more problematic; both showed promise of being the open-world game "all growed up". Although experiences with the PSP Grand Theft Auto games left me feeling weary about the entire genre, there's every chance that one or both of these titles would have won me back. I can only say that one person simply can't play every top-shelf title released during the year, and if I'm doing these titles a disservice then I can at least be comfortable that they certainly haven't been overlooked or under-recognised by the world at large.

Metal Gear Solid 4 and Fallout 3 are the two missed titles that trouble me most. They are both new and epic iterations of franchises that I love, made by developers that I trust. It is highly likely either game could have found a place on my list of the greatest games of all time. But again, it's simply impossible to play games as fast as they're released, and both games have been adequately covered in other venues.

So that brings me back to The World Ends With You, which is, I feel, a title as underappreciated as it is wholeheartedly excellent. On its face it is a full-length JRPG, a genre famous for its staidness and adherence to formula, and yet it innovates in every single game mechanic. It's hard to find any aspect of the TWEWY experience which has been done before.

The game difficulty is not only fully customisable along multiple axes, but is also seamlessly integrated into the overall gameplay. Equippable items tie into a "fashion" system, which is influenced by player activity and deliberately underlines and supports the key themes of the story. The entire game operates simultaneously on a literal level and several metaphorical levels, from the "noise" enemies through to the player being invisible to the teeming crowds around him. The game accurately and interestingly uses the real-world location of Shibuya as its backdrop, to non-trivial narrative effect, and when you finally finish the main plotline the game offers significant replayability that goes above and beyond the traditional "new game plus" option.

Any one of the points above would have made The World Ends With You a special and noteworthy release; finding them in combination is breathtaking. Add to that an art style which is unquestionably perfect for the subject matter and an urban-groove soundtrack that you can listen to all day long and you end up with a game that feels years ahead of its time.

There is more genius in The World Ends With You than in every other game I have played this year put together. I have no qualms about naming it the Dust Forms Words Game of the Year 2008, and if you haven't yet played it, grab your DS and find a copy immediately.


Grant said...

I would be inclined to like Mirror's Edge more if it's gameplay wasn't completely broken by the sorts of run-jump-die trial and error gameplay that should've been abandoned after the original Prince of Persia.

Greg Tannahill said...

I, personally, didn't find the running and jumping that onerous. Checkpoints are liberal and load times are short (with the exception of those elevators). It was really the combat sections that made me scream every time I failed out.

But there's no question that Mirror's Edge is, ultimately, a niche market. That sense of hard-edged challenge does not appeal to everyone, and nor should it. I'd merely suggest that if the trial and error of the jumping portions as opposed to any other part is what put you off, then it may be more a matter of personal taste than of bad design on the part of the game.

Grant said...

Let's take today's little example: I need to run along the side of a wall, grab a railing, swing off it and run along a gantry - while some guy is shooting me with a machine gun.

Now I am by my own admission not the world's most dextrous videogamer, but even I should be able to get past one 10 second brick wall in the middle of the game.

When the game lets you run with it, it's brilliant. The sense of movement and physicality of it is fantastic. But it's such a stop-start experience, and the difficulty level is wildly uneven. I'm constantly torn between loving it and screaming it at.

I'd love to see a Mirror's Edge 2, where they even out the difficulty spikes a little and give the gameplay a lot more room to flourish.

Greg Tannahill said...

Amen to that.

Anonymous said...

"Let's take today's little example: I need to run along the side of a wall, grab a railing, swing off it and run along a gantry - while some guy is shooting me with a machine gun."

I and my friends all got stuck on that part. A guide eventually informed me that it is necessary to eliminate the guards before attempting that escape.
A game where combat is an after-thought should never make it necessary.

Greg Tannahill said...

Your guide was wrong. You can go from beginning to end without dropping a single enemy other than the bosses. That's one of the things I love about the game. If you can't do it with inspired running, you're running it wrong.

Although it's often EASIER to take out the guards.

If this is the bit in the second half of the game that I'm thinking of (in a... mall? office? there's some rooms under construction) you can definitely do it without taking the baddies out, and in fact the optimum route relies on the machine gun guy being alive to shoot out some glass panels for you.