14 years is a long time between sequels, and if video game history has taught us anything, a long wait like this can very easily lead to disappointment. Thankfully, once the opening to NEO: The World Ends with You kicked in, I knew this was exactly what I’d been waiting for. Think about everything you’ve ever wanted from a sequel to that incredible Nintendo DS RPG – NEO: The World Ends with You delivers on all of that and more.
If you’re fuzzy on story details or, more likely, if you’ve never even played or heard of the original game, don’t stress. NEO: The World Ends with You is told from the perspective of a brand new set of characters who are just as oblivious to the events of the previous game as you are, if you’re a fresh face to the series. While plenty of important narrative threads and characters return in this direct sequel and diehard fans will appreciate all of it, there’s no need to catch up on anything to enjoy it. Much like the original game, this semi-standalone adventure is a hyper-stylish love letter to Japanese street culture and underground music that anyone can dive into and appreciate.
Our new hero Rindo and his best friend Fret are hanging out in the bustling Japanese city of Shibuya when they’re suddenly flung into a not-quite-right version of the city, located somewhere known as the UG. There are monsters called Noise roaming the streets of this alternate Shibuya, and regular people equipped with pin-buttons can harness special powers to fight the Noise, or each other. It’s all part of the mysterious seven-day Game that Rindo and Fret find themselves in the middle of, but there’s so much more than that boiling under the surface.
The characters are absolutely one of the best parts of the experience. Rindo isn’t just a silent emo JRPG protagonist, he’s got a lot of layers, a head in the clouds, and his eyes glued to his phone – a little too relatable, but that makes his journey so much more engaging. His BFF Fret, meanwhile, is one of the most genuinely endearing and hilarious video game characters I’ve ever met. He oozes charisma and confidence, but also has the IQ of a peanut.. Anime-boy obsessed college girl Nagi and mysterious math wiz Minamimoto, your other two party members, are just as much of a delight. The four bounce off each other so well and their personalities shine whether you’re playing with Japanese or English audio. Both versions deliver voices and acting that blew me away – these aren’t just JRPG voice actors going through the motions, but rather delivering performances that genuinely fit the casual street-kid tone of our protagonists.
There are dozens of other unforgettable characters to meet, but I would argue that the most important character in the gamel is the city of Shibuya. You’ll travel across segmented regions of the cultural mecca as you progress through the game, but much like the small-yet-significant setting of Yakuza games, Shibuya is a living, breathing place. Every section of the city is littered with walking and talking pedestrians, whose thoughts you can read with the Scan ability. A lot of it is cute, meaningless fluff, but you’ll regularly be diving into these non-players minds to complete your missions.
Each character even has latent abilities they can use to manipulate these thoughts. Fret can send a reminder-blast through the whole city of a particular idea, Nagi can dive into troubled minds to defeat the Noise within, and Rindo can even time travel in order to relive moments of a chapter and make different choices. You’ve got so many different ways to interact with the people around you, and it makes every inch of the city feel so much more alive.
Eventually, it’ll be time to stop thinking and start fighting. One of the big things people rave about with the original The World Ends with You is the combat – a unique and addictive dual-screen action system that could only ever work on the Nintendo DS. It’s hard to follow up on the innovation and enjoyability of that gameplay, but NEO: The World Ends with You absolutely nails it. At first, combat is a bit button-mashy when you only have Fret and Rindo at your disposal. Once your party is filled out and enemies begin baring their teeth, though, the real depth of the combat system starts to show itself. Each character has their own pin, and a pin attack triggers a Groove timer – have another character land an attack within that timer, and you build your Groove meter while also setting up another timer for the next character to capitalise on. You’ll have to learn how best to best time your button presses in order to keep this rhythm going – some badges have you mashing a face button, while others require you to charge it up with a shoulder button.
Here’s one scenario: Rindo has a pin attack that immediately slashes at the enemy as you mash the square button, while Fret has a similar button-masher that launches bolts of lightning from afar. Nagi, meanwhile, can charge up a pin that launches a chainlink fence at an enemy to pin them down, while Minamimoto has a charge-pin that lets him slam a boulder down onto the enemy. If you just mash these buttons willy-nilly, you’re gonna get nowhere fast. Instead, you launch lightning-bolts as Fret while charging Nagi’s fence, then throw her fence when the Groove timer pops up, followed by using Rindo’s mash-attack at the same time as you charge up and, finally, cap the combo off with Minamimoto’s boulder.
There’s an insane amount of depth and strategy to explore with the combat in this game, and as you progress you’ll unlock new mechanics, pin slots, and hundreds of pins to further beef up your arsenal. It may not be the dual-screen bonanza of the original game, but the combat in this sequel is easily some of the most unique and rewarding action gameplay I’ve ever experienced.
You’ll earn experience in fights, but that only changes your max health. To develop your stats, you gotta eat. Constantly. Visiting eateries in-between battles is key for making your crew stronger, so long as you you pick the food everyone likes best and don’t overdo it. One of the stats all of these cheeseburgers and parfaits boosts is Style, which you need in order to unlock the special abilities that all of the clothing and accessories you buy come with.
Oh, and on top of all that there’s the Social Network System, a sprawling web of every character you meet in the game. Once you uncover a common relationship thread, the chain grows and you’re able to fulfill certain conditions to unlock new features or items from each character via Friendship Points. You know Fret, who knows the burger-shop worker, who knows a Reaper, who knows another Reaper, and so on. The unlockables you get from this, like bonus difficulty settings or additional gameplay abilities, are great, but I also love how it helps make the city and everyone who inhabits it feel that much more real.
There’s love and care put into every inch of NEO: The World Ends with You, and any cracks in the foundation are minor at best. Sure, there’s some difficulty spikes, and maybe the UI and menus aren’t as stylish as the rest of the game, but like I said, they’re minor cracks. The bottom line is this: NEO: The World Ends with You is just as effortlessly cool as the first one was 14 years ago, and Square Enix genuinely has one of the best action RPGs of the generation on their hands with this release. It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to visit the UG and hang out at the Shibuya 104, but the wait was most definitely worth it.