The World Ends With You launched in 2007 on Nintendo DS and quickly gained a cult following despite that year being packed with a seemingly endless supply of classics. Designed by Kingdom Hearts director Tetsuya Nomura, it was a darker variant of the usual Square Enix RPG formula. Taking a modern setting, a prescient focus on memetic culture, and satisfying touch-based combat, it remains an undersung classic of the genre. A Final Remix version made it onto Switch in 2018, followed by an anime adaptation last year.
It’s a shame, then, that some PlayStation owners will lack a lot of the context needed for NEO: The World Ends With You. New characters are driving this instalment, but it does function as a follow-up and runs the risk of alienating newcomers. Another downside is its arrival at the tail end of a generation, looking like it’s two generations old. The artwork is gorgeous and Nomura’s designs are like a warm blanket, but this is by no means a visual showcase.
With those caveats aside, NEO still manages to be a fun action RPG with effortless style and charm.
Kicking off with the untimely death of teenagers Rin and Fret, the story thrusts us into the deadly Reapers Game. A series of challenges undertaken by teams of the recently departed, this game takes place in an alternate plane of reality called the UG (underground). Our heroes find themselves surrounded by reapers — previous champions — and a never-ending onslaught of monsters called ‘noise’.
Given this is a Square Enix RPG produced by Nomura, this entire review could be taken up by plot synopsis, so let’s not bother. Suffice to say that as our intrepid pair gather friends and enemies along their journey, dangers and revelations wait around every corner.
NEO’s world is an engaging, often thought-provoking mixture of philosophical ideas and treatise on technologically-assisted human connection. The denizens of the UG live in a hyper-stylised world, exploiting the thoughts of the living and literally battling their own demons. The themes and fashions might have changed in the past 15 years, but the core ideas first established by Tatsuya Kando and his team remain relevant. Everyone is obsessed with designer gear and the latest trends, fan culture is practically a religion. When out of combat, your party grows its social network by reading and influencing the minds of the living world. It would be easy for this sort of content to come off as cynical, but the writing is often heart-warming.
Stylistically, NEO shares a lot of DNA with Kingdom Hearts and Persona 5. Combat and characters crib straight from the former, while the slick UI aesthetic and urban setting owes a lot to the latter. The music also recalls Persona, with a decent selection of infectious tunes repeating throughout the various locales. The design goes a long way to mitigate the dated visuals and the fact that it feels like the game's true home is on handheld.
Characters fill traditional archetypal roles for the genre, but they are likable and don’t outstay their welcome. Fret, resident sidekick and comic relief, grates initially, but soon grows into his role as the team's carefree foil to Rin’s soul-searching seriousness. Then there's Nagi, a self-proclaimed edgelord and fangirl who gets the funniest lines and choice banter with the younger male members of the group. And Sho is by default the coolest because he speaks in mathematical slang and looks like a member of Organisation XIII.
After their initial Reaper’s Game induction, Rin and Fret begin day-to-day missions that make up the main flow of the game. Running around the streets of Shibuya, solving riddles, and recruiting new team members. They obtain the ability to scan the area and view the thoughts of the populace, also revealing pesky Noise that zero in on them to trigger battles.
The fighting is where things get interesting. Throughout the UG, your party will collect hundreds of pin badges that, when equipped, assign an ability to the wearer. Each ability also has a specific button assignment. After pulling off a successful combo with one attack type, the enemy goes into a staggered state and the game urges you to ‘drop the beat’. Hitting the staggered enemy with another party member's attack builds a power meter that, when full, massively boosts the whole party's stats.
Pins offer everything from melee and ranged magic attacks, to healing and summons. They also level up and evolve with use, adding higher stats or new attacks. Experimenting with the perfect party build is an addictive process. It’s easy to learn but difficult to master; you’ll often get used to one build before a new enemy type is introduced that throws you completely off balance. It’s tempting to give Rin the biggest toys, but there's value in having him whittle away with a melee and swoop in with another fighter to nuke the staggered enemy. Party health is shared, so it never really feels like you are looking after individual members.
The sheer variety of pins available means that fights seldom feel repetitive. New pins can be bought from the many shops scattered across Shibuya, or dropped from enemies in battle.
While the fights never really lose their luster, the same can’t be said of the other aspects of the UG tournament. Running around the same areas on fetch quests, or growing your social media network by invading the brains of NPCs, does grow stale after a while.
In the opening hours, there's a steady stream of new abilities to add variety to the overworld traversal. Jogging memories, Influencing people's thoughts with keywords (Inception-style), battling NPCs' inner noise — these methods ultimately just serve to trigger the next bit of story. It never feels as dynamic as a truly free-roaming adventure would.
The most interesting non-combat mechanic is Rin’s time travel. Certain puzzles require jumping back in time and fulfilling a certain set of criteria to create a new timeline in which the characters can progress. While it only really offers another variation on the same core mission progression, any reminder of PS2 classic Shadow of Memories is a welcome one.
There are some notable quality of life features that distract from the grind. Difficulty can be modified on the fly, along with player level. The overall effect of this is the quality of pin drops in battle. This means you can either breeze through the story, or stop occasionally to ramp the difficulty and grab some rare and powerful attack possibilities.
Elsewhere there's a level replay feature that allows you to jump back to previous days with all your stats and gear, mop up side quests, and pick up social links for your network. The downside to this is that you will have to follow the flow of the story to gain access to the areas you need. Even with a fast-forward feature added to dialogue screens, this can be a chore. You're going to want to pick up all social links because pumping friend points into them unlocks everything from enemy health bars to uber pin (extra powerful abilities) equip slots. Gating the acquisition of these things behind a lengthy backtracking mechanic makes the whole experience feel sluggish.
NEO’s biggest problem is that it’s stuck between two worlds. The combat is fast and exciting and designed for frequent experimentation, yet the puzzles and exploration can feel crushingly bland and repetitive. In many ways, it feels like the creators took key (pun intended) aspects from Kingdom Hearts, but they didn’t quite go far enough to emulate the brevity of that series' side content.
All gripes aside, if you’re a fan of JRPGs in general, particularly the urban sprawl and social checklists of Persona, you will absolutely love NEO: The World Ends With You. This property deserves a series as expansive as its Disney-sponsored big brother, and hopefully, this sequel and the connected anime series will justify a true current-gen instalment at some point in the future.