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‘NEO: The World Ends With You’ Review: Shibuya Style Meets Nu-Metal Noise

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‘NEO: The World Ends With You’ Review: Shibuya Style Meets Nu-Metal Noise

NEO: The World Ends With You has ruined penguins for me. Before, I'd be able to watch a nature documentary, or Happy Feet, and smile kindly at the seabirds, wobbling their way across the ice before diving into the glittering ocean. Now, thanks to their inclusion in NEO's enemy ranks of the Noise, I can't so much as glimpse the colourful crest of a rockhopper without reaching for a controller in my mind and setting the flightless foe ablaze with a dazzling combo. Burn, bird, burn.

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The Noise take many forms - penguins, rhinos, wolves, scorpions, bears, dinosaurs, jellyfish that can replicate themselves (so annoying - watch for the telltale flash and take down the original), and more - and represent the most abundant enemy in NEO. But they're not the most dangerous. For the most part, the Noise are cannon fodder, XP-grinding target practise, the means to an end. The real antagonists in NEO are the Reapers - and if you're coming into this sequel to 2007's Nintendo DS classic The World Ends With You having played its predecessor, you know all about these macabre game masters and their propensity for bending the rules.

Watch the animated introduction to NEO: The World Ends With You

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But let's say that NEO is your first blush with The World Ends With You - a series of sorts, now, that covers the dual-screen gameplay of the original, this follow-up, an anime adaptation, and a pair of altered versions of the first game for mobile and Nintendo Switch, Solo Remix and Final Remix. What you play is actually a game within a game, as NEO's protagonists find themselves trapped in a between-worlds limbo of physical contests, brain-teasing puzzles and large-scale turf wars. This is the Reapers' Game, a week-long set of challenges overseen by mysterious adjudicators where the recently deceased (or, are they?) must compete against each other to avoid their souls being wholly wiped from existence. Finish last on day seven and it's game over; finish first and you either escape or, as is the case with NEO's de facto frontrunners the Ruinbringers, you request to go around again.

If you're already lost, apologies, but this is the nature of NEO: it throws everything at you in its opening hours, leaving absolute beginners to its rules and rulers wholly bewildered and scrambling (natch) to catch up with what the heck is going on. To cut through its noise, lower-case n, a little more: you play as Rindo and his friend Fret, who show up on day one of a new Reapers' Game with no memory of how they got there or what to do next, before strange messages and missions start appearing on their smartphones. Oh, and they've got these special pin badges that give them amazing, otherworldly powers; and further pins activate other incredible moves that could never exist in the real world. But then, this isn't the real world, at all.

NEO: The World Ends With You / Credit: Square Enix
NEO: The World Ends With You / Credit: Square Enix
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The Reapers' Game plays out in the UG - the Underground - which appears on the same physical plane as the real-world Realground, so all around you are buildings and streets, people and cars. But the humans of the RG aren't aware of you being in their midst - for the most part - and the game's setting of Shibuya, Tokyo is only semi-open to players in the UG. Certain food and shopping outlets are marked by the Reapers as available to UG residents, and visiting these will provide both permanent and temporary stat boosts - essential for evolving Rindo and company across several days of play. And at the end of the day there's no hometime, no opportunity for rest - participants are snapped immediately to the next morning, where fresh missions await.

There is so much to be said about the journey NEO takes you on, the characters you meet as Rindo and Fret (and Nagi, who you meet a few days in and who becomes your third member of the Wicked Twisters team), the NPCs you form friendship bonds with, the relationships to be forged with other Reapers' Game players. But this is a review, not a wiki, so what you need to know is that there's substantial depth to proceedings here to match the singular style, all the colour and chaos bouncing around the screen being the brainchild of Kingdom Hearts creative force Tetsuya Nomura. Just as the 2007 game stuck out like a blazing neon beacon of a sore thumb compared to what passed for (J)RPGs at the time, so too does this sequel.

NEO: The World Ends With You / Credit: Square Enix
NEO: The World Ends With You / Credit: Square Enix
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No other game looked or sounded like The World Ends With You - until NEO's arrival, that is. These games are so loud of character design and soundtrack selection that it's easy to imagine some players simply never connecting with them. But to bounce off NEO's uniquely tailored threads and perpetual OST of pop-punk, nu-metal and rousing rock - with a lil splash of hardcore to tickle the Revelation Records crowd - is to fail to rise to the Reapers' demands, and erasure awaits. Like the Persona series - and if there was an alternative parallel to draw, I would, but let's not deny the similarities, however slight - NEO is confidently stylish, its comic-book panels and animated sequences telling a wild story through the voices and very specific vernacular of youth cultures. Go with its flow and you'll be fine; actively resist the lingo, bristle at the colloquial turns and the slang, and you'll be washed away like last-place losers come the week's end.

Driving the story forward is the combat against the Noise and, not infrequently, other players in the Reapers' Game. Whereas the DS game was a tricky customer to get to grips with, its twin-screen battles requiring you to use stylus and buttons on two fronts to triumph (unless you set your top-screen companion to automatically go through their motions), NEO's encounters are so much smoother. Indeed, it's never a chore to have to grind for XP, money, or to complete specified Reaper tasks, as battling in NEO can often be an explosive extravaganza that sets all senses sparking.

NEO: The World Ends With You / Credit: Square Enix
NEO: The World Ends With You / Credit: Square Enix
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Rindo, Fret and Nagi will rarely have to go into battle just as a three, usually leading to four characters being simultaneously controlled by one pad on a single screen (and sharing a single health bar). Sounds like a fiddly formula, and perhaps at first it is; but with each character having one pin active, and that ability mapped to one button, what you end up with is a neat system of attack and defence, with cool-downs balanced against freshly readied abilities. Dodges are always available, and necessary if you want to come away with a high rating at combat's end, so if all participants are waiting for their powers to reactivate you can take evasive action for a few seconds.

Each enemy has its weaknesses, and if you set your pin loadout just right, you can absolutely rampage through any situation. Enemy encounters can be chained, to a maximum of five - so, five sets of foes, with no respite to recharge health or reposition pins - and the more you take on, the greater the rewards. So, when you've got the measure of a certain area of Shibuya, and understand what unravels its Noise, you can decimate every enemy on the map and come away with amazing spoils. The quicker you kill off the Noise, while taking the least damage, the better your results, ranging from a gold star performance down through A, B and C. (If there's any lower grade, I never saw it. Go, me?)

NEO: The World Ends With You / Credit: Square Enix
NEO: The World Ends With You / Credit: Square Enix

As your characters string together their attacks, so a Groove meter builds. Hit a maximum level of at least 100% and you can unleash a powerful group attack, elementally tied to a certain pin. Basic pin attacks can deal water and ice damage, stone and electricity, and so forth - and one even summons forth Shibuya's trash to be thrown at enemies. These attacks can be sustained on a shoulder trigger, sometimes for wide area damage; mapped to a shoulder button for charged-up blows; or tapped away at for a combination of strikes. Your own favourite loadout, on your own favourite layout, will quickly find a rhythm that cuts through even testing, storyline-essential bosses (especially if you've already built your party's level up through some Noise grinding).

Rindo, Fret and Nagi each have a special ability of their own, and these come into play naturally in the story. Fret can encourage people in the RG and UG to remember key pieces of information, crucial to progress. Nagi can dive into the minds of people possessed by the Noise and drive the infection out (note the suggested level on these, so you're not underprepared). And Rindo can time travel which... does feel sort of like cheating, but the Reapers will allow it. What they can't abide, however, is a non-team player interfering, and fans of the first game will delight in the appearances of (not quite) familiar faces at pivotal moments. Say no more there, because spoilers.

NEO: The World Ends With You / Credit: Square Enix
NEO: The World Ends With You / Credit: Square Enix

NEO isn't exactly an open-world game, but it still encourages and rewards exploration. Its Shibuya is presented as a series of hubs, each featuring unique enemies, eateries and stores, and a smattering of daily side-quests. Streets and alleys lead to new areas, and while this isn't the actual Shibuya recreated in perfect proportions, if you know your way around the Tokyo ward then the in-game version will feel familiar enough that you may not need the mini-map. Indeed, midway through week two of the game, it's easy to immediately know where a specified destination is, and what hubs you need to move through to get there. Tower Records and the department store Parco are in the game as they appear in Tokyo, so too the foliage-fronted Modi; but the 109 mall is called 104 in NEO. Elsewhere, the Spanish Slope is named Spain Hill (mind the 18th step, it's decidedly devilish), while the iconic scramble crossing is the iconic scramble crossing - and you can pay the lil dog statue a visit, if you like.

As with any game of this scale, there's a lot that's gone unsaid in these few words. How the friendship connections unlock new gear, new foods and so much more; how those connections also allow you to adjust the combat difficulty for more rewards; how the Reapers aren't all from the same area, and what that means for the place that isn't Shibuya; how chowing down on certain grub delivers a joyous 'tasty bonus'; and how the music, whether you enjoy it or not, will bounce around your brain for weeks to come. Oh, one thing that does need saying is how one song, which plays repeatedly during the game's opening hours, includes lyrics outlining an abusive relationship. In a game where most of the lyrics are pretty innocuous, this one has potential to blindside some players, so be aware of its presence. Words aside, it's still a much better jam than the discount Disturbed number that also plays during the early stages.

NEO: The World Ends With You / Credit: Square Enix
NEO: The World Ends With You / Credit: Square Enix

NEO: The World Ends With You is an enthralling, expansive adventure that anyone who loved its predecessor will click with immediately, and newcomers are encouraged to take their time with. Some of the English voice overs grate (week two, you know who you are), and the music can jar on occasions, and everything being So Loud, All The Time, can leave you feeling exhausted after a long play session. But be patient and let the game's flow snap into something that feels comfortable, through pin experimentation or just by reading a wiki to get some background on who all these people are (as NEO doesn't put its lore up front, instead trickling it out slowly across tens of hours), and you might just come to adore these complicated players, this fantastical Shibuya, and what is a very special original of exceptional character. Just be warned that you'll never look at Pingu in the same way again.

Pros: Twisting and turning storyline where every chapter ends on a cliffhanger; well-written characters you come to care about; enjoyable combat that makes XP grinding a delight

Cons: Pretty linear of structure, but you can revisit chapters to tick off tasks; some voice performances are an acquired taste; newcomers to TWEWY might simply bounce off NEO as it's definitely designed with existing fans in mind

For Fans Of: Persona 5 Royal, Kingdom Hearts III, Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward

8/10: Excellent

NEO: The World Ends With You is released for PlayStation 4 (version tested) and Nintendo Switch on July 27, 2021, with a PC version following later in 2021. Code provided by the publisher. Find a guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here.


Featured Image Credit: Square Enix

Topics: Review, Nintendo Switch, Square Enix, PlayStation 4

Mike Diver

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