Eleven years ago, Square Enix and Jupiter released the most important Nintendo DS game ever. The ground-breaking Nintendo handheld introduced the world to dual-screen gameplay and lit the fire of touchscreen experiences that continues to burn brightly in each of our pockets today. For as much of a game-changer as the console itself was, only a small few of the games released on it truly felt changed.
Then, in the Summer of 2007, Square Enix released The World Ends With You.
While plenty of DS games felt like they could live on any other console, The World Ends With You was meticulously designed to take advantage of and justify the unique hardware it called home. A stylish JRPG oozing with Japanese street culture and sharp teen angst, The World Ends With You was a love letter to misunderstood youths and cravers of Japanese culture alike, forming a hefty Venn diagram of appeal that made it the best selling DS game in North America the week of its release.
While fans have clamored for a sequel endlessly since the original release, Square Enix has coyly teased such plans and briefly revisited the world of Underground Shibuya a handful of times in the last decade. Bringing the game to Nintendo Switch is the latest of these teases, but depending on your relationship to the franchise, this may not be the return you were hoping for.
For the unfamiliar, The World Ends With You is a 2D JRPG where you play as Neku Sakuraba, an amnesiac teen who wakes up in Shibuya to find himself part of a strange week-long death game called the Reapers’ Game. He reluctantly forms a partnership with a girl named Shiki, and proceeds to run into a number of other unique allies and bizarre antagonists as he pieces together who he is and what he’s doing here.
It’s often recommended to fans of the Kingdom Hearts series, and not just because it’s produced by those games’ actual creators. The World Ends With You has a long, sweeping narrative involving mysterious factions, arcane rules, and otherworldly entities that strike a similar note to the hefty world-building antics of the Kingdom Hearts franchise. Wrapped up in all of that bizarre mischief, though, is a character-driven story about forming bonds and opening up to the people around you.
This game is about making connections and working together, and those core themes resonate equally in the gameplay as they do in the story. At least, they did in the original Nintendo DS release. In that game, you controlled individual characters on both screens of your system. The bottom character was manipulated with touch controls, while the top character acted by using your face buttons. It was a system that challenged all of your senses, but it also perfectly reflected the themes of cooperation and synergy that stood at the heart of the game. The Nintendo Switch release of The World Ends With You has two different control schemes, but neither of them ends up quite as successful as the original.
If you play in handheld mode, the entire game is controlled with the touchscreen. Combat in all versions of the game revolves around unlockable pins that give you a variety of different attacks and abilities employed with different touch inputs. You’ll need to tap enemies, or slash across them, or even draw circles to attack them. Instead of controlling two characters, your partner is now an additional equipped pin, who you call upon by tapping enemies on the screen when the partner pin is charged up.
When I first tried this handheld method, I was entirely unimpressed. Combat in The World Ends With You requires sharp reactions and even sharper accuracy, and I found it impossible to have either of those abilities with the sluggish precision of my fingers. Furthermore, navigating menus and walking through the world can only be done with screen taps, despite an early on-screen message telling me I can walk around with the left-stick. With the heft of the Switch and the size of its screen, it’s less than comfortable holding it in any way that permits accurate touch-screen play for extended periods.
I was ready to resign myself to calling this method of control a bust, but then I had a thought. I dug through my bag and pulled out a capacitive stylus like you might use for a smartphone or tablet. I dove back into the game with my tablet in hand, and I could instantly feel the difference. I suddenly had the same pinpoint accuracy I had on the original DS version, and combat soon became satisfying, natural, and fun as hell. While downgrading your partner to a pin attack ruins the narrative impact of these partnerships existing in the first place, gameplay in handheld mode hardly suffers as long as you have a stylus on hand.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a stylus in the world that can redeem the docked control scheme.
When your Switch is docked and you’re playing on the TV, you control the game with a single Joy-Con and an on-screen pointer like you would a Wii game. Navigating the game world and various menus uses a combination of pointer-control, left stick movement, and face buttons in a way that felt far more natural than the touch-only method of handheld mode. I was pleasantly surprised by what I was experiencing…and then I got into a battle.
In battle, all of your touch-screen commands must be done with a combination of Joy-Con motions and arbitrary button taps. A simple slashing attack took me entire minutes to figure out how to perform due to the precise method in which you have to tap, hold, and then release a face button while performing swiping motions. Any idea of precision or accuracy is lost with this method of control, and combat became something to suffer through rather than enjoy.
While the way you play the game has seen some controversial alterations, every other part of the package has seen nothing but improvement. The World Ends With You is a game absolutely drenched in style, from graffiti-blanketed street corners to fashion-forward characters. All of these gorgeous visuals have been upgraded from pixelated DS sprites to fully realized, hand-drawn illustrations. Music makes up a huge part of The World Ends With You, and all of the original tunes are in the highest quality they’ve ever been. A new Remix soundtrack can be swapped in at any time to change up the pace and bring some new emotion to certain parts of the game.
While a lot of the Final Remix package is focused on minor updates for a 2018 release, there is a significant new piece of story content to dive into. The New Day scenario, on top of the Another Day scenario from the iOS port, serves as an epilogue to the main story. This storyline packs three chapters of content set in a remixed version of Shibuya that’s littered with entirely different enemy variants. While the new story doesn’t wrap up every loose end from the main game, it gives you some more time with your favourite street-slick delinquents, and also serves to further tease the sequel that Nomura so desperately wants to make a reality.
Despite the subtitle Final Remix, it’s hard to call this version of the game definitive. The new music is wonderful, the additional stories are engaging, and the updated visuals make it hard to return to the pixelated appearance of the original DS release. Still, despite these obvious improvements and extra pieces of content, there’s a downside to the update. Some people, especially newcomers, won’t find issue with the new control scheme, but for many long-time fans the dual-character combat of the original is a huge part of what made it a game worth remastering. I’m positive that there’s a way to adapt the combat of the original game to the Switch faithfully. In failing to properly tackle that design challenge, though, Square Enix has put out a good version of a classic JRPG, but certainly not the definitive version.