Tuesday, May 20, 2008

YOU WA SHOCK - The World Ends With You is good?!

At a glance, The World Ends With You looks like another one of those inane Square-Enix games with angry Tetsuya Nomura teenagers running around doing generic JRPG jibba-jabba. Actually playing it, though? That's when you realize that it's probably one of the best, most focused games they've ever made. It's also one of the best games available for the DS.

Unfortunately, a few people I know have been turned off by the game's aesthetics and storyline within the first 20 minutes, which is a bummer. Yes, the protagonist, Neku Sakuraba, is initially an angst-ridden amnesiac with character design by Tetsuya Nomura. He wakes up in Shibuya and finds that he's trapped, forced to compete in a bizarre Battle Royale for seven days, or die. The story works, surprisingly, because it's incredibly fast-paced, and Neku develops into a fairly likeable character within a couple of hours.

I'm going to resist talking about the story, though, because The World Ends With You is a landmark of RPG game design that will probably end up being ignored completely. It's absurd how many stupid, endemic RPG design problems this game fixes in one fell swoop, especially considering that the game's directors were all graphic designers from Kingdom Hearts II.

There are so many good ideas here. Combat is entirely voluntary in nearly all situations, which is an incredibly good decision considering the open-world feel of the game. The way it works is - there's an icon in the bottom right corner of the screen when you're running around Shibuya. Tap it, and you'll "scan" the area, allowing you to read the thoughts of the omnipresent passers-by, and see "noise," which are angry-looking grafitti symbols that represent groups of enemies.

The thoughts of others are represented by blue thought bubbles, which you can tap to get the equivalent of a generic villager's conversation in any other RPG. You don't get to be privy to the secret hatreds and fetishes of an entire city, unfortunately (or fortunately? man, whatever) but the developers still had some fun with the concept. The oddest thought that I've run into was one written entirely in Japanese, which serves as one of many examples of the localization team's gold-plated balls.

Similarly, tapping on any of the noise symbols floating around a general area will start battlin'. You have a roughly two second period to tap up to four noise symbols, which will create a multiple-battle chain. The more enemies you chain together, the higher the difficulty, experience and drop rate of each progressive battle will be. There's even an item you can buy in the post-game that lets you chain up to sixteen battles together, at which point the risk-reward ratio becomes positively insane.

There's more! At any time, you can go to the items/equipment/save menu and drag a little slider around to adjust your level. Even if you've accumulated 60 levels' worth of experience, you can drop yourself tp levels 1-59 just by dragging the slider around. What's the point of crippling yourself like that? Well, the lower your level, the higher the enemy drop rate becomes. The best way to get really insane loot drops is to play skillfully at a really low level, where death is but a moment away.

Orrrr you can fudge the numbers a little bit. The only thing level determines is your HP. You can improve all of your base stats permanently by ingesting any of a huge number of food items from shops scattered throughout Shibuya. And man, this part is fucking great, too! The way this works is, both Neku and his partners can eat 24 "bytes" of food per day in real time, which represent the process of digestion. Every battle you fight digests one byte of food. A soda only takes 2 bytes to run through your system, and will only slightly cure your hunger pangs (affinity with your partner, basically), while a bowl of the ultra-rare Shadow Steak Ramen will take a full 24 bytes to digest, and permanently raise your base drop rate a little bit once finished. There are also a plethora of drugs, herbal supplements, donuts, soups and salads, mexican hot dogs etc. which all have various effects on your system and a charming description to round everything out.

Right, so: how does combat work? It's nuts, is what it is, taking place on both screens of the DS simultaneously. Neku appears on the bottom screen, his partner (dictated by the story) appears on the top, the same enemy group appears on both screens, and you get to fight them simultaneously on both screens while they do the same to you.

You control your partner with the d-pad. Tapping left and right starts a combo attack against an enemy in the specified direction, pressing up jumps, and down either blocks or sidesteps enemy attack. Neku, in the meantime, uses a variety of stylus-based inputs to attack enemies. These come in the form of equippable "pins," of which there are several hundred, each granting a different attack (all pins can be levelled up and "mastered," as well, and some even evolve into new pins, so there's that, too). Some cause Neku to slash an enemy when you swipe an enemy with the stylus, some let you drop boulders or fire lightning bolts by tapping enemies, and there are even a few that let you blow or yell into the microphone to attack the entire area with a huge shockwave. The game's official page actually has a bunch of excellent videos showing the battle system in ation, and I emphatically advise you to check it out if this sounds interesting. Or confusing.

The whole thing verges very close to total chaos in terms of how much visual stimulus the game expects you to pay attention to (it's been pointed out by others that combat mirrors the info overload present in a dense urban center like Shibuya), but more smart design choices alleviate most of the initial frustration. You can set your partner to act automatically either after a set period of inactivity, or all the time. You can adjust the game's difficulty, too, and even retry a battle on the easiest difficulty setting after getting a game over if you'd like. It'll even return to the difficulty you were at originally once you finish the battle. How incredibly courteous!

The game is rife with little courtesies. Every time you turn the game on, your equipped pins gain experience equal to the amount of time elapsed since the last time you played. Turn the game off for a couple days, and you'll come back to find all of your pins either levelled up or mastered. The bestiary allows you to easily see the effects of reducing your level on item drop percentages, by toggling back and forth between "adjusted" and "default." There's a crazy mini-game called "Tin Pin Slammer" that lets you use all of the pins you've found to play what can only be described as a cross between pogs, Street Fighter II and Motos. You can play it with up to four players via wi-fi, even!

If you've tried The World Ends With You out and found yourself put off by the initially groan-inducing jRPG goofiness, you oughts to give it another shot. If you've never heard of this shit before, go check it out. It's the best game Square's made in nearly a decade.


8bitcity said...

You have convinced me to buy this game. I'm picking it up later this week, no questions.

Also, would you be interested in linking blogs? Mine is 8bitcity.blogspot.com, so check it out and let me know! Either way, still a great blog you've got going here!

Jason Moses said...

Thanks! I went ahead and added your site to the blog roll. Keep up the good work!

Jason Moses said...

Oh, and out of curiosity: how did you find my blog, originally?