The World Ends With You is an excellent example of Square Enix trying something new and different. Set in Tokyo's Shibuya district, you join protagonist Neku as he's forced to play a mysterious game, with the penalty for failure being erasure. The story that follows takes place over a period of three weeks, in which Neku and his newfound partners must learn to trust each other or die.
At first blush, TWEWY is a perfect storm of everything that critics have come to despise about Japanese RPGs. "Emo" is one descriptor that gets tossed around quite a bit, and in the early going at least it seems to fit Neku like a glove. Tetsuya Nomura's art style is also in full force throughout, and the soundtrack consists largely of Japanese pop. Superficially, this game looks about as shallow as it gets.
And yet, TWEWY ends up being just the opposite. It's one game that cannot be viewed superficially. To do so would be to not only miss out on some surprisingly poignant themes, but the breath of fresh air that is the gameplay, the story and the art direction. This is one game that's anything but derivative.
It helps that it's the perfect example of a game that could have only been made on the Nintendo DS. It makes extensive use of every one of the system's unique capabilities, requiring the stylus, both screens and sometimes even the microphone for its brand of combat. The DS's graphical and audio capabilities are also used well, making this one of the most attractive games to ever appear on the system.
The combat itself requires the collection of different forms of pins, all of which grant Neku a variety of powers. I've heard it compared to Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, but if that's the case, then TWEWY's battle system has been heavily modified, as the Game Boy Advance never allowed for features like simultaneous top screen combat. Similarities aside, TWEWY does a good job of forging its own identity while offering up some intense combat, particularly as the game progresses.
TWEWY also makes full use of its setting to offer a rather unique take on equipment, with Japanese fashion standing in for your usual suit of armour. Interestingly, while Neku and company can wear anything (and I mean anything), the selection is limited by their confidence rating. As his rating rises at a fairly regular rate over the course of the game, it ends up being a sort of roundabout indicator of Neku's development as a character. There are tons of little touches like this scattered throughout the game.
Happily, TWEWY gives you freedom to experience it all at pretty much your own pace, breaking the story down into days and chapters, but in the meantime allowing the freedom to roam Shibuya at will. Add that sense of freedom to the solid story, unique gameplay and overall stylishness of the game's aesthetic, and you have one of the most satisfying and unique RPGs ever.
I haven't felt the way I do for The World Ends With You since I first played the original Kingdom Hearts back in 2002. It completely blindsided me, hooking me early with its clever gameplay and overall sense of style. And despite the rather ham-fisted application of its overall themes near the end, I still wanted to stand up and applaud when the credits rolled.
This is simply one of the most worthwhile RPGs I've ever played, and certainly one of the best to ever come out on the Nintendo DS. Sadly, it looks like TWEWY will end up being one of a kind, since Square Enix is unlikely to make a sequel in the face of mediocre to poor domestic sales. Still, it is an admirable experiment by a publisher that has become increasingly known for milking Final Fantasy for all its worth. If we won't be seeing its kind again, that's all the more reason to experience The World Ends With You for yourself.