A little-known but well-loved entry in Square Enix's JRPG pantheon, The World Ends With You is a unique experience with gorgeous art from Kingdom Hearts director Tetsuyo Nomura. The game looked at concepts like social media influence and memetic learning way before those things were as pervasive as they are today. Nomura's designs, alongside the surprisingly deep stylus-driven combat, cemented it as a cult classic. Now, 14 years after its Nintendo DS debut, original director Tatsuya Kando’s sequel comes to PS4.
Our hands-on of NEO: The World Ends With You covers the first couple of hours, putting us in the shoes of moody teen Rindo as he sulks through the bustling streets of Shibuya. With his head buried in chat apps and mobile games, the mundane thoughts of faceless (literally) Tokyo denizens float around him. Before you can say "look both ways", Rin and his friend Fret are hit by traffic and find themselves in another reality, one in which they are competitors of the mysterious Reaper’s Game. It's a series of challenges that incorporate riddles and battles, the prize and ultimate purpose unknown to our newly-deceased protagonists. Alongside fellow competitors and previous winners, known as Reapers, the UG (short for Underground) is overrun with enemies called ‘Noise’.
Anyone familiar with the flashy aesthetic of Persona 5 will feel immediately at home with NEO. It’s all stylised UI, funky music, and explosive dialogue windows. The overarching theme of youth vs. society is there and the dialogue is rife with slang. If a talking cat transformed into a van, you wouldn't even bat an eye.
After Rin and Fret find themselves in the UG and start to read and influence the minds of the general public, things start to get interesting. Our heroes can’t directly interact with the living, but they can see their thoughts and engage in some light inception by planting ideas in people's heads. It’s a fun mechanic; reading the hopes and dreams of the general population makes up for the somewhat bland locations of the Shibuya 103 starting area.
Scanning the environment reveals these public musings, but also the aforementioned Noise. Combat, which was a highlight of the 2007 original, has shifted perspective from 2D top-down to third person 3D. The fights have taken on a distinctly Kingdom Hearts vibe, with Rin and friends leaping into the air and zipping around the arena to home in on enemies.
Each character equips a pin badge, which maps a specific ability to one of the face or shoulder buttons. These abilities run the gamut from melee and ranged spells, to burst fire and area-of-effect. Finishing one set of attacks will stagger an enemy, prompting the gang to "drop the beat". Hitting an enemy in this state with a different attack does more damage and fills a combo meter, which in turn allows your team to chain combos faster when triggered.
The combat takes a bit of getting used to, but flows well once it clicks. Pins drop from enemies regularly, so experimenting with different types of abilities is encouraged. Our playthrough took us up to the first major boss, a giant ape that grabs party members and holds them. This forces the other fighters to target the ape's hand, freeing the captor and adding their attack back into the ability pool. It’s a tantalising fight that teases more complex battles yet to come.
It’s great to see this world on PlayStation, an under-appreciated entry in the Final Fantasy-dominated Square canon. Veterans will welcome Nomura’s signature design, the painfully infectious music, and pin-based combat. Rin’s story should be able to ease newcomers into the dense lore established by the original game and its anime adaptation. Now if we can just get the newly ported original game on PS4, that would be great too.