Monday, August 17, 2009

Game Review - The World Ends With You

The World Ends With You, a role-playing game for the Nintendo DS, was released in the US about a year ago. The first time I played through it, not long after its release, I thought that it was a good game--but not especially amazing. Having picked it up again this summer, I am on my second playthrough. Perhaps it's more a reflection of how I have changed in the past year than of the game itself, but this time I have been absolutely awestruck by how brilliant the game is. The sheer scope of content and the quality of it all is quite mind-boggling. The World Ends With You is fun, intellectually stimulating and takes you through quite a compelling narrative.

Though many modern RPGs are heavily based on a medieval fantasy setting with some sort of cookie-cutter tale of good versus evil, The World Ends With You completely breaks free from such clich├Ęd elements. Instead, it is unflinchingly modern in nearly every way conceivable. The entire game takes place in the Shibuya district of Tokyo and many of the in-game locations are modeled after real locations and shops in Shibuya. As you visit new places, encounter various characters, see the way people dress and find out what sort of things are sold in various shops, you catch a glimpse of many aspects of modern Japanese culture. Several of the notable locations are emphasized as characters in the game actually tell you about their real-world significance. The genius of using a real-world location is that it actually piques interest in the location itself and can inspire players to learn more Shibuya itself and contemporary culture in Japan.

Another profound aspect of the game is the modern narrative structure. Rather than a lengthy page of text or an intricate action sequence, the game begins almost immediately with no formal introduction. Much of the narrative is driven forward by use of the erotetic method. The player is continually presented with pieces of seemingly unconnected information and given very little explanantion for any of them up front. The story revolves around Neku Sakuruba, who finds himself waking up in Shibuya with no memory of anything at all. Why is he there? Where is he? Why can he hear people's thoughts? During the course of three weeks, the tale becomes increasingly clearer and yet more convoluted with every new bit of information. The more that you understand the more you realize you don't yet know. As it weaves its intricate tale, the plot integrates many different modern ideologies and touches on numerous philosophical topics. For a person who is philosophically inclined, the morally-ambiguous characters, the ethical dilemmas, the ontological questions of meaning and purpose, the various models of social interaction, the possibilities for transcendence, and the multiple planes of existence all provide copious amounts of intellectual stimulation.

The entire art direction of the game is unmistakably modern, as well. You won't see a single piece of traditional art or hear a single piece of classical music. The soundtrack is written and presented in a way that bears much resemblance to modern radio stations and our 21st-century iPod generation. The tunes are played semi-randomly and do not attach to specific locations, activities or events. There is no battle theme or overworld theme, instead just a playlist for both that may vary from day-to-day much like radio stations change their rotation of songs from week to week or like individuals who listen to different sorts of music on different days, based on their current mood. Likewise, many of the clothing and fashion designs are modern, youthful and trendy rather than classic and conservative. In fact, fashion trends actually are used as a game mechanic and as a player, you will benefit from following trends, setting new trends and avoiding unfashionable items; the pins used in battle are directly impacted by local trends. In addition to the fashion items and the contemporary soundtrack, there is a lot of urban art and contemporary abstract design used in the game. One mysterious fictional popular artist in the game actually plays a central role in the story, and several of his works are featured prominently.

However, setting and trappings are hardly the most important part of a game. Gameplay is one of the most important and compelling aspects of a great game. The World Ends With You utilizes a lot of various elements. Though the plot progresses in a linear fashion, beyond the plot, the way you play is very freeform. The battle system is intricate and exceedingly complex. Though it is fairly simple to learn the basics of battle, there are so many elements that even masters of the game will find themselves challenged to fully utilize every feature. Since battles occur on two screens, with two different independently controlled characters whose attacks, moves and stats are customizable, just controlling both characters requires a lot of work. Given that scores are given based on speed, consistency of damage and achieving special conditions, there is a certain amount of pressure to fight as fast, powerfully and efficiently as possible. Throw in fusion attacks, partner synchronicity, the power puck and dodging enemy attacks, and players are presented with an overwhelming amount of information. Though some people view such complexity as a negative thing, I think that having such a complicated battle system is one of the best features of the game. With most games, simply by playing enough you will soon find that you've virtually mastered the art of battle and can fight maximally well most of the time. With this game, since there are so many elements intertwined and since scoring well in battles requires well-customized characters, the ability to simultaneously process several thread of information and split-second reflexes to execute and dodge attacks, there is always room for improvement. But, rather than forcing you to master the complicated battle system, The World Ends With You allows you to completely choose your own ideal level of challenge. Apart from a few required battles, most battles are self-instigated and completely optional. You can choose when to fight, where to fight, which enemies to fight, and how difficult your battles should be. If you're having too much trouble processing so much information, play the game on Easy and you'll never find yourself in much danger. If fighting skillfully comes easily to you, then crank the difficulty up to Ultimate and you'll be forced to bring your best to every battle.

This existential, flexible way of playing extends beyond the battle system. With nearly everything you can choose to capitalize on it or ignore it completely. You can choose how much or how little to shop. Fashion trends can be followed or ignored. Collecting and mastering various battle pins can be done as much or as little as desired. If there are some pins that you really love, you can stay with them for as long as you like. Alternately, you can constantly acquire and fight with new pins. There are enough that you will never run out of new pins to try. You can rush through the story or take it at a leisurely pace and try to acquire everything you can at each location. Eating various foods and trying to find the best stat-boosting foods is a lot of fun, but you could also choose to ignore cuisine and not worry about powering up your character's attributes. Likewise, even once you've beat the game, there is countless more to do, find and collect. There are plenty of extra boss fights, new foods, sources of backstory information and battle pins to go back and acquire, if you want.

In summary, The World Ends With You is a fresh, unique, and groundbreakingly modern role-playing game. The gameplay is fun, complex and endlessly challenging. Utilizing a potent narrative method, the story is creative, compelling and thought-provoking as it continually raises questions in your mind and touches on deeper philosophical and social issues. Additionally, the ability to customize your characters and choose how you want to experience the game makes it more flexible and adaptable than most role-playing games. One thing that I found surprising is the replayability of the game. With most games I play through once and then don't touch it much again. However, with The World Ends With You, I have found that the second playthrough is even richer and better than the first ever was. Quite simply, it is a creative and thoroughly enjoyable masterpiece. It is a work of art!

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