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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Criminally Overlooked Games: The World Ends With You

JRPGs are funny things. Copy the same swords-and-sorcery template laid down by Final Fantasy, and you risk having your game completely mocked by critics and ignored by gamers. Stray too far from the template, and you risk critical adulation but a tepid response from gamers. JRPG designers almost can't win.

So what's a dev to do? Jupiter, the designers of The World Ends With You, decided to just blow away the whole Dragon Quest / Final Fantasy template completely and make something completely out of the ordinary.

How did it turn out? In a word, amazing.

The World Ends With You ditches a typical fantasy-land RPG setting for modern day Tokyo, specifically the Shibuya shopping district. This gives it an incredibly unique sense of place that's completely different from any other RPGs. When I first played it, I was shocked by how real Shibuya felt, not knowing that it was a real place. Once I found out that it really existed with some of the same landmarks as used in the game, it all made perfect sense.

However, a lot of games use real-world locales for their game. None of them end up feeling as real as Shibuya feels in The World Ends With You. When most designers set their game in a place like Paris, they play up the Paris-ness of the city, exaggerating character accents and giving you constant views of the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, as if to scream, "YES THIS IS PARIS! LOOK LOOK LOOK!"

Shibuya, on the other hand, is a backdrop with some interesting characteristics, but The World Ends With You doesn't constantly remind you that you're in Shibuya. It's definitely a game rooted in Japanese culture and the culture of Shibuya, but it's not screaming at you constantly to focus on that.

The protagonist is a lone-wolf youth named Neku. Neku is a withdrawn jerk who prefers listening to music instead of having anything approaching human interaction. He's suddenly dragged into a bizarre game where he's invisible to everyone and must fight for his existence, his newfound friends, and Shibuya itself.

The characters are extremely well-done. A lesser JRPG would have tried to make Neku's transformation from jerk to nice guy a little more dramatic, or handled it a little less artfully. As it is, Neku feels pretty organic. Even if he becomes a better person by the end, he still doesn't entirely trust people, he's still cynical, and he's still flawed enough to feel real.

The other characters are all exceptional as well. You'll partner up with a few different ones, and all of them have their own motivations and interests. One of the signs of a good character is if you could that person out of the story and still have them be interesting in their own adventure. You could make that argument for everyone in The World Ends With You.

Where The World Ends With You really starts to diverge from the standard JRPG format is in its battles. Gone are turn-based battles, replaced instead with a system based on stylus gestures and passing a light puck back and forth between you and the other character. I could try and explain it, but it's a little complicated. Therein lies its only real flaw. I played through the entire game and never felt like I had mastered the battle system.

Fortunately, if you want to see how the story concludes but can't beat an encounter, you can always retry the encounter at a lower difficulty level. You won't get as many experience points or currency, but at least you can continue to play through the intriguing story.

The World Ends With You did moderately well at retail, but certainly not enough to merit a sequel. That's a shame, since I would have loved to revisit Neku and his friends down the line. A great game, ignored at retail and largely forgotten about today? It sounds to me like The World Ends With You fits the bill of a Criminally Overlooked Game.