I used to play a lot of DS games. It was my primary gaming platform before I got a laptop capable of playing games, and my other consoles were occupied by my younger brother. But I feel like there’s a lot of DS games that went a bit under the radar and I wanted to highlight them more. The World Ends With You (or TWEWY, not to be confused with that awful abomination of a show The Only Way Is Essex or TOWIE) was a game that received a lot of praise and reviewed very well, and yet it’s one of those games which gets treated as more of a cult classic than a widespread one. When people think of the DS, you might think of Pokemon or Professor Layton or Nintendogs or Brain Training, but not TWEWY. In fact, I wonder how many of you have even heard of the game. I went and looked up sales figures and in the EU, it is absolutely pitiful. No wonder none of my friends who have DS’s ever played this game, apparently it sold only about 10k copies. Yeah, 10k in the whole of Europe! To put that into perspective, High School Musical 3 on the DS sold 7 times that amount, and it’s clearly not for its quality. I don’t know if it was just hard to find or badly advertised or something, but this game deserves to be a staple of the DS and it’s just not (at least in Europe, the sales were more promising in North America although still abysmal). So for all of those who have no idea what game I’m talking about, you’re really missing out on this wonderful, quirky and unique RPG which has fantastic gameplay combined with a truly immersive and stunning story, with a fantastic visual style and an absolutely sublime soundtrack (a rare feature in games, in my opinion, which really sets this game apart).
The game is set in modern day Tokyo, specifically in the Shibuya district. The choice of setting is so inspired, allowing the artists on this game to create some really striking costumes and designs for characters and buildings. This game just oozes fashionable. It’s the kind of fashion which is sort of near-future, all sharp angles and bold colours with predominant whites and metallics, but it’s still realistic enough to invoke the feel of cutting-edge present day fashion. But to be fair, this isn’t exactly Shibuya as we know it. The game takes place in an alternate dimension version of Shibuya, one where certain dead people from the Realground are taken to the Underground and asked to participate in a week-long game. Oh, how fun, you might think! Well, you’re wrong, because these games are brutal and the competition is fierce. Each Game is overseen by a mysterious chosen person called the Composer, who employs Reapers to help him affect the game in his own manner. Only one of the dead people can be the winner, and the winner gets the ultimate prize: either to be resurrected back in the Realground or to ascend and become a spirit, like the Composer or the Reapers. Trust me, the story is way more complex than what I’ve described here, but to go into detail would spoil it. This is not a game you want spoiled for you, as a large part of the entertainment value in this game is watching the story unfold in unexpected ways, and learning more and more about the sinister world of the Underground.
At the start, you play as Neku, who is your rather typical mopey long spikey-haired teenager of the J-RPG genre. He’s apathetic and misanthropic, but he lightens up a bit as the events of the game progress. Neku is, of course, dead and has been chosen to take part in the Game in the Underground. Now, as part of the Game, everyone has to pair up with someone, and Neku is so bewildered by all of this that he is essentially forced into a partnership with the bright and perky Shiki. Shiki is an aspiring fashion designer, who carries around a black teddy bear everywhere she goes. She’s cheerful in contrast to Neku’s sullen disposition, and watching these two interact feels very much like some kind of black comedy. Over the course of the Game, you’ll meet other interesting characters such as Beat and Rhyme who are brothers with their own agendas or Sho Minamimoto who is the Games Master or a humble and helpful café owner called Hanekoma. You later discover that everyone had to pay a price as an entry fee into the game, and your entry fee was your memories which explains your amnesia at the start of the game (I know, amnesia is a bit cheap, but it works surprisingly well as a plot device and doesn’t feel too cheesy). The entry fee is a topic of great discussion in this game, but I won’t spoil it, as the reveals for what different character’s entry fees are is an integral part of the story. All I will say is that the entry fee is something precious, and it is this that people are also trying to recover by winning the game.
But enough about the interesting setting and the story, what is the gameplay actually like? It’s quite hard to describe because there is literally nothing else in the market like it. You have a special pin (or badges, as they’re more commonly known where I’m from), which you can use to scan your surroundings, and it tells you the thoughts of people in the Realground (who you can see but can’t interact with) and that can help advance the story. But as well as these thought bubbles, you can also see floating symbols, often tribal-looking, which you’ll discover represent monsters of the world. Clicking on these will initiate a fight, and the combat system is absolutely bananas.
It is, by far, the most hectic combat system I’ve ever had to deal with and that’s because it utilises both screens to the maximum capacity. You control Neku on the bottom screen, and must use the stylus to perform certain actions like slashes or draw circles in order to use your pins which are basically special abilities. On the top screen, you control Shiki and you control her by pressing the arrow keys and playing a kind of mini-game where you must press the right sequence of keys to lead to the right symbol to match cards on the top. Sounds complicated? It is. It’s a crazy combat system which has a steep learning curve. The game does a really good job of explaining how to do it all, but perfecting the system is going to take time. This isn’t some relaxed turn-based RPG, this is full on action in every combat situation. You have to track what you’re doing on both screens, as there is a light puck which passes between them and allows you to synergise well with each other. In fact, do well enough and you can unleash a special fusion attack which usually completely decimates the enemy characters. Enemies range from wolves to huge artillery machines, and each fight is totally different to the last. The enemies move around, they switch from top to bottom screen, they fire bullets at you…it is hectic, frantic stuff. Once you get a hang of it though, it’s an incredibly satisfying and entertaining combat system. I find that combat in RPGs tends to be the least well polished mechanic and is dwarfed by good stories, but the combat in TWEWY is fantastic. When you really master it, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to try your hardest at some of the most wild boss fights and powered up monsters that the game world can throw at you. It is this unique and innovative combat system which is a huge draw to the game and it’s why I think it should be a staple of the DS. Never have I seen a game utilise the split screen mechanic in such a clever and engaging way, that doesn’t feel gimmicky, but feels incredibly nuanced and powerful. I loved the combat in TWEWY, though I can totally understand if you feel incredibly confused by it. Even watching videos of it, you won’t be able to appreciate the full breadth of action that you must take to execute the perfect combos. So I suggest you buy the game and play it yourself, because it’s the sort of thing that sounds bonkers if you try to describe it, but you’ll find it comes fairly naturally to you as you play the game.
Another aspect of the gameplay is the quests in this game. Now, RPGs can be let down by abysmally boring quests as well, but TWEWY has some incredibly interesting quests which all seem totally plausible and part of the game world. There’s no immersion-breaking “Kill 10 wolves for me” NPC quests in TWEWY. All of the quests involve resolving issues of the game world, interacting with the other players of the Game, getting past the Reapers and ultimately winning the game itself.
Outside of combat, there is a huge scope for exploration and customisation. You can find and buy new pins which give you different powers in combat. But pins will also have a kind of experience system, where by using them in battles, they can level up and evolve into more powerful versions of themselves. You can earn exp or pin points, by other means as well. You get them naturally just by not playing, which seems odd, but it’s a nice reward when you’ve been gone for a while and boot up the game to see that your pins have evolved. You can also get them by leaving on your DS to search for other DS players. Of course, I live in Europe and when I played this game, I lived in a tiny village in the south-east of England, and I never ever found another player. But the game compensates for this by giving you somewhat random amounts if you can’t find anyone. It’s quite cool to have TWEWY open on the DS in sleep mode in your bag as you travel and I think it gives you pin points when it detects wifi signals. Don’t quote me on that, but that’s what it seemed to be for me.
Anyway, there’s also a mini-game called Tin Pins which is quite fun and very different. You put your pins on a round arena against other pins and basically flick them against each other and try to knock them off. The arenas have different designs including ones with holes in the middle and with walls and mazes, plus different pins have different attributes and abilities (for example, one could have a heavy and slow pin or a super light but fast and powerful one). It’s a really addicting side-game which also leads to in-game prizes like a new pin.
The other major aspect of the game is your clothing. After all, why not take advantage of the fashionable Shibuya district and treat yourself to some badass clothes? Buying clothes, like in most RPGs, affect your stats in battle but you won’t be buying heavy plate armour or steel weapons in this game. No, you’ll be buying maid’s outfits and baseball caps and leather jackets and plaid skirts. All items of clothing have a bravery stat which is a minimum requirement for wearing that item of clothing. I thought it was rather ingenious to call the stat bravery, because you sure have to be brave as Neku to be able to pull off the cheerleader outfit! Of course, it’s also a way of limiting your stat increases early in the game, so you can’t just buy a super overpowered item before you’re ‘brave’ enough to wear it. It’s a very clever way of integrating a standard RPG mechanic in an immersive way. The only disappointment is that there’s no aesthetic change to your character for equipping different clothes.
But it doesn’t matter, because this is one hell of a stylish game to make up for it. The art designer for the characters is Tetsuya Nomura, who most of you know from Kingdom Hearts, and that style definitely carries through in TWEWY. The combat can be hectic, but it is beautiful in the way that fireworks are, with huge explosions of colour and lines. Oh, and the soundtrack is just stunning, easily one of the best gaming soundtracks of all time. It’s a kind of techno-electro hip-hop kind of mix, but don’t quote me on that because I’m pretty bad at identifying music outside of indie-folk stuff and classical pieces. Whatever genre you’d describe it as, it’s catchy as hell and really ramps up the excitement you get in the game, whether you’re fighting a horrible demented wolf or whether you’re just buying ramen at one of the Shibuya shops.
If you own a DS or 3DS, you really ought to pick up this game. I promise it will be one of the best purchases for your console that you’ll ever make. But even if you don’t and you own an iOS device, you can actually get it now for iOS in a special enhanced edition (for £12.99, it’s steep for an iOS game but you’re actually buying a DS game so really you’re getting a fantastic deal). I believe the iOS version changes the combat slightly (obviously because it’s not dual-screen) but keeps the spirit of the two-partnered assaults. It’s definitely worth a look into it at least.
In summary: Graphics? Beautiful. Sound? Sublime. Story? Captivating. Gameplay? Solid. This game is a masterpiece of portable console gaming. It has pretty much redefined the J-RPG genre for me, and I really hope more of this kind of innovation comes out. As much as I enjoy Final Fantasy, they are heavily flawed and I just hope Square Enix (who published TWEWY) and other publishers will take on risks like this again and produce some spectacular, mind-blowing RPGs in the future.