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Saturday, July 31, 2021

NEO: The World Ends With You

The sequel to The World Ends With You, which came out thirteen years after the original and three years after the somewhat divisive Switch port of the original.  But does NEO prove to be a worthy sequel to a cult classic, or is this trip back to Shibuya not worth taking?

The World Ends With You quickly attracted a cult following after its initial release in 2008, being heavily acclaim for its inventive mechanics, amazing soundtrack and utilizing the DS's system features well in its design.  So of course, the fans wanted to see a sequel; despite it being teased several times with character cameos in Kingdom Hearts and the original game getting ports to mobile phones (and later the Nintendo Switch), it ultimately took a long time for the game to be put into production; largely because the developers' time was so heavily focused on the Kingdom Hearts franchise.

In 2021, though, our wishes were finally granted, and NEO: The World Ends With You was released.  This time as a full-3D console game rather than a handheld, though that didn't stop them from keeping the game's iconic graffiti/pop-art visual style.  The game also painstakingly recreates the real Shibuya, incorporating many elements that had changed in the thirteen years between games and even using some real-life names rather than fictionalized ones (Tower Records rather than Towa Records, etc).  As ever the soundtrack is fantastic, with a lot of familiar (albeit remixed) tunes and several great new ones to fully immerse you in the urban art feel of the game.

Gameplay is of course reworked for the sequel, though it's proof that more isn't necessarily better.  As in the original TWEWY, the central focus is on letting you build a deck of 'pins' that afford you attacks and can only be used so many times before requiring a short period to recharge and become usable again.  This time, though, rather than having a team of two, you get up to six character at a time, with each character using a single pin and being mapped to a single button, somewhat similar to games like Valkyrie Profile and Indivisible.  There's also a slightly more "fighting game" feel to the mechanics, since things like drawing lines to create chains, pressing to create fire, etc obviously wouldn't work on a controller; instead, you land a hit with one pin, then have a small window to land a followup attack and build meter; once it fills, you can press the Circle button to unleash a powerful super attack on your enemies.  However, your meter will also start to drain if you go a long time without setting up and landing a combo, so keeping the momentum going is important.  However, it's not always easy to do this - you often need to land numerous hits before the enemy is put into a stun state, and during that time there's no guarantee your attacks will lock them down, so they can easily wear down health on your other characters and kill you - moreso because the camera will only focus on the character(s) you're actively attacking with while the rest of the enemies will continue to attack the rest of your team - a touch problematic when all of you share the same health bar, and especially so when some enemies can pin down your characters and continuously damage them (the wolves in particular) or inflict them with poison, with no audio cues whatsoever to indicate you're taking damage elsewhere.

Some other familiar mechanics - fashion and food - remain mostly intact, though with some small tweaks applied.  The food system is still your primary means of gaining stats, though you now buy food in shops and eat it right away (gaining the stats as well), with each character having foods they like and dislike; foods they like will give slightly more of a benefit to them.  However, there is still a cap on how much you can eat at a time, indicated by the battery meter in the upper right; this will only decrease after you fight battles, though at a significantly faster clip than it did in the original game, making stat grinding less of a chore.  Fashion is also considerably less restrictive now - characters can equip items the moment they buy them, though each piece of gear also has an associate battle bonus which will only activate if that character has a high enough Style stat; so you can still get some of the benefit of new gear without having to spend a ton of time grinding Style, but it's still to your benefit to do so.

Another relatively new feature is the Social Network, which serves as a way to earn rewards like pins and clothing, as well as unlock some in-game features like alternate difficulty settings, enemy health bars, instantly converting money pins to cash, and so forth.  More features are unlocked as you meet more characters during the narrative and establish links with people you already know, and you can then spend Friend Points to earn their reward once that happens.  Friend Points are earned as part of the story for clearing key battles as well as for completing side missions.  One annoyance is that these are sometimes tied to timed battles, and taking too long to finish them will earn you a silver or bronze ranking and, with it, fewer rewards; you can replay previous days as many times as you wish to try again, though as this also entails redoing all of the events of the story it can get a touch tedious, even with the ability to fast-forward through cutscenes.  It may be a better idea in most cases to save before one of these battles and reload if you don't get the gold.

As in the original game, there are plenty of times where you have to stop and solve various puzzles - clearing combat challenges or searching out NPCs and getting keywords from them, then 'imprinting' them on other characters to have them take a separate course of action and, by extension, open a path for you.  That returns here, though it is also sadly worse for it.  This game's new gimmick is not just that you have to do this, but you have to do it numerous times in a row, travelling back and forth between various time periods to get words, then hopping forward/backward again to put them in their right place.  So what took maybe 5-10 minutes in the original is now an affair that can last well over an hour, and - guess what - really isn't any more fun or interesting for it.  They were already irritating in the original, but here these segments go on so long they become almost unbearable.  There are few things that kill my interest in games faster than prolonged, tedious scavenger hunts, so to see it in TWEWY is a particularly hard blow.

NEO: The World Ends With You very much follows the format of its predecessor, but it doesn't feel as well-polished and fun this time around.  While the game certainly looks the part with its pop-art colors and graffiti-inspired style, and even sounds the part with its soundtrack that fuses rock, rap and techno songs to great effect, the gameplay lacks the pop of the original.  Combat was chaotic in the original game, but here it's so fast-paced and frantic with the camera constantly shifting and enemies coming at 4-6 fully vulnerable targets at once that it becomes extremely difficult to stay on top of it all, let alone get high marks and gold medals.  The puzzles in the original game weren't particularly amazing, but at least had some cleverness to them and told a decent story along the way; here they're drawn out to the point where they completely stop being fun and just feel like the game is actively padding itself out to meet a publisher-mandated length quota.  The game even feels more grindy, with even expensive foods barely giving you anything in terms of stats and equipment seeming to barely make a dent in your combat abilities even if you spend the time to grind out the style bonuses.  It somehow moves too quickly and too slowly at the same time and, as a result, loses much of the energy the original TWEWY brought to the table.  Losing focus on the characters is a big mistake too; throwing in so many, so quickly gives none of them any chance to shine or even develop much personality, which makes the journey much less interesting to follow.  A lackluster followup to a great, original game.

Developer: h.a.n.d.
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Playstation 4, Switch
Released: 2021
Recommended version: I've tried the demos of both versions, and the Switch has the usual lower resolution and framerate of most multiplatform releases, but remains a serviceable version.  However, I prefer the PS4 for the same reason - a more consistent framerate keeps the frantic combat more manageable.  A PC port has been announced as well, though at the time of this writing it has not yet been released.