Tested: The World Ends With You
The world is great, but ends badly.
Sometimes I think developers have a running joke where they can put anything they damn well please into a game as long as it occurs past the 20-hour mark, knowing no reviewer will ever get there. I wonder how many of the 10/10 reviewers of GTA IV ever got to Alderney, for example, and experienced the stale characters and repetitive mission fatigue.
I also wonder what to say about a game that is generally a thrill, with a number of innovative gameplay elements, a refreshingly non-cliched story and setting, and yet with an ending boss battle so frustrating that I’ll never get through it and find out how the story ends. Should I say this is a good game, since you’ll get many hours of enjoyment out of it, or condemn it for wasting your time by hooking you on a story that you’ll never get to finish without at least an hour of mindless repetition?
First, what it does right. As I’ve mentioned before, the setting is the modern day Shibuya district of Tokyo, albeit a strange alternate-reality version in which people who have died must play a brutal game to try and win their lives back. The characters aren’t far out of the JRPG norm, and neither is the dialogue. But the gradual unfolding of revelations about how the game works keep you involved in what is essentially a mystery narrative.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the game is that not only is the story about games, the gameplay incorporates the central thrusts of the story. Since Shibuya is fashion-obsessed, power-imbued ‘pins’ replace the weapons and abilities you’d normally have in an RPG. These pins have brands, and some brands are trendy in some areas, meaning they have enhanced power, or weakened in others. And if your characters wear a certain brand a lot, they will make it more popular in that area.
The combat itself is so different as to be nearly bat shit insane. You control two characters at once, in real time: one with the touchscreen at the bottom, and the other character on the top screen, controlled by simple sequences of d-pad presses. (You can let the upper character get auto-controlled, or you can just spam the forward button, but it’s eventually in your best interests to frantically glance up top and try to control what’s going on.) It’s crazy, but it speaks to a central theme – the need for protagonist Neku to overcome his isolation and learn to work with others.
What else? You buy food, and feed it to your characters; when they ‘digest’ it, they improve some stat or another (depending on the food, of course). You can adjust the difficulty at almost any time in a couple different ways: one is a slider that lowers your character’s level, but leads to more item drops; The other is a simple toggle between normal, easy and hard. If you fail a fight, you get an option to ‘replay on easy.’ The music and art are excellent samplings of J-pop and anime vs. graffiti, respectively. There’s an excellent minigame that uses your pins in a boardgame context, revealing new powers. And yeah – your pins will level up not only based on combat experience, but also how long you spend away from the game.
Thinking back, though, the problems with the final battle are foreshadowed early in the game. The ‘replay’ and ‘replay on easy’ options after a failed battle are only introduced partway through the game; before this happens, if you die in battle, it’s game over, go reload a save. Unfortunately, you can’t save during battle, nor can you skip over the cut-out ‘dialogue’ segments, and at more than one occasion this meant I had to replay not only the battle but an increasingly tedious dialogue exchange that landed on the wrong side of a save point.
The final battle – and I’ll describe this without story spoilers – warns you ahead of time that you better well save. That’s fine, okay. But then you slog through a few screens of real estate, run up against many a dialogue segment, and fight one or two bosses before you get to the real uber-boss, who is exponentially harder than any other boss you have faced.
Okay, you might think, that’s cause you suck at the game, D. Maybe so. Through most of the game I had my slider set to make me a lower level so I’d get more items – I love me some items! However, I’d frequently get killed during boss fights, and as I’m not playing to impress anyone here, I’d replay on easy. And I never had to retry more than once. It was that easy, on easy.
During this final fight, I did so, and proceeded to retry the battle on easy over and over again for an hour, then again for half an hour the next morning, and again later in the day, until my DS’ battery finally gave out, as did the battery that provides power to my patience. Now, if I wanted to go back and retry it with a more complementary selection of pins, say, I’d have to replay all of the boss fights and unskippable dialogue since the last possible save to do so.
There are (what I might propose as) two cardinal rules of gaming that have been broken here: watch the difficulty curve, and don’t create false difficulty through the withholding of save points.
So, where does that leave us? I’ll leave it up to you. If you can deal with either an awesome, incomplete game or a flawed, complete one, then this game is for you. I’m happy to have entered such a world, but ticked off that it ended so badly.