NEO: The World Ends With You (Switch) Review
About 30 hours into the story of NEO: The World Ends With You, a sudden wave of realisation roll over me: this is it. This is the game for which I’ve waited almost fifteen years. It probably shouldn’t exist, and it’s a miracle that a sequel to a cult classic DS game that sold kinda poorly even got made in the first place. But it did, and it’s here, and frankly, it’s everything I ever wanted it to be. The fact that I spent 30 hours in-game before stepping back to think about where it sits within the world should tell you just how engaging an experience it’s been — fourteen years after the fact, the world, characters, gameplay, and music of TWEWY are as exciting and interesting as they’ve ever been… maybe even more so.
A little more than three years after Neku saved Shibuya from destruction, the city’s changed. It’s a brighter, more welcoming place. In Shibuya, you can be whoever or whatever you want, there’s hopes and dreams in spades, and anything is possible. Some things have stayed the same, of course — there’s no denying the city’s obsession with fashion and appearances. But it’s a bustling, friendly city nonetheless, a step removed from the cold, isolating home of Neku in his heyday. It’s here, in this new and improved Shibuya, that we meet our first two heroes: Rindo Kanade, an indecisive, but genuinely caring young man with little thought for what lies in the future, and Tosai “Fret” Furesawa, a foolhardy extrovert with more energy than sense and a tendency to rush head-first into any given situation without giving it much thought. You get the feeling that he’d probably get on pretty well with Beat.
We open on the two enjoying a day out in the city, with Rindo playing a Pokemon GO-style game and chatting to friends on his phone, and Fret goofing around, as Fret does. It’s the kind of empty-headed “just hanging” you get when you’ve been friends with somebody a long time: there’s no expectations, no purpose, just being there, in the presence of a friend, for the sake of being with a friend. Unfortunately, that empty-headedness leads to a tragic accident involving a truck, resulting in the untimely deaths of both Rindo and Fret. Time seemed to move so slowly, almost backwards for just a moment, but the result is the same — as the boys find out very quickly, they’re dead, and like many more before them, are now trapped in the Underground, the UG, and forced to play the Reaper’s Game for a chance to win a second breath of life.
There’s a new Game Master and a whole new crew of Reapers calling the shots this time around, and the rules have changed a bit since the last Reaper’s Game. Instead of pairing off in groups of two, Players are encouraged to compete in teams of just about any size, and there’s a lot of teams already established and ready to take the others’ down, leaving Rindo and Fret to scramble (no pun intended) to find some teammates just to survive. With the help of otaku college student Nagi Usui and former Reaper/secondary antagonist/maths dork Sho Minamimoto, a new team enters the fray: The Wicked Twisters. Together, they fight to survive against teams like the valiant Purehearts, the fashion-focused Variabeauties, and the formidable and unbeaten champions, the Ruinbringers, lest they fall into last place and face erasure from existence.
You’ll have to forgive me for being a little more descriptive here, I would normally try to avoid going into too much detail when it can be avoided… but in this case, I think it’s important to set the stage as we walk through the game’s story. NEO’s decision to start its focus primarily on a friendly duo than a lone introvert is a refreshing change of pace, and brings with it an implied history between these characters, as well as a much higher set of stakes. Neku was a compelling character largely because of his growth over the three weeks of his Reaper’s Game, during which he learned to open up and make human connections with others. He was a bitter, lonely hermit who didn’t give a damn about anything or anyone. Rindo is different — he cares deeply about his friends, and is probably even a little too trusting of new faces, always trying to see the best in others, even if there’s little good to see in the first place. What makes Rindo compelling is how the relationship he has with his friends and teammates contrasts against the relationship he has with himself. He knows his friends, he trusts his teammates entirely and will always do anything to help them, but when it comes to making a decision for himself, any decision at all, he starts to crack. In a situation like the Reaper’s Game, where every small decision could mean the difference between surviving another day and permanent erasure, that’s not a great trait to have.
Expanding that story focus out onto a larger cast is an interesting, and ultimately sound, decision too. The group dynamics in NEO are extraordinarily well-written, with each character written in such a way that their disposition to any other given character is clear, sensible, and engaging; when a new character is introduced or a big event happens, it’s easy to predict how a character would react to that, and 99% of the time, that prediction is right on the money. That’s not to say that characters are predictable exactly, there’s plenty they do that shocks and surprises, but they are logically and emotionally consistent, which is incredibly important when you’ve got as large a cast as NEO does. The game’s willingness to shift those group dynamics, by introducing and removing given characters throughout the story and letting the rest of the cast adapt to that, also pays off handsomely, especially when those changes happen both within the Wicked Twisters, and outside amongst the other teams. And focusing primarily on new characters, while sprinkling in some old favourites here and there, helps lift NEO to a point where it feels simultaneously very familiar and also very much its own thing. It’s not trying to step on TWEWY’s toes or lean too far into its legacy, it’s first and foremost the Wicked Twisters’ story, while still offering a point of reference and engagement for players of its predecessor. I would, however, recommend that anybody interested in NEO pick up the first game before getting stuck into this one, or at least watching the anime for it. It’s not exactly required, but it helps a lot with understanding some of the more interesting moments in the game… that’s all I’ll say for now.
As for the story overall, I found it to be a wonderful little tale, packed with intrigue and action. TWEWY was utterly foundational in shaping who I am as a person, so I had some perhaps unfair expectations going into NEO. I’m really pleased to say that, for the most part, it absolutely met and exceeded those expectations. As a fan of TWEWY, there were plenty of callback moments and character returns that had me inadvertently saying “oh damn” aloud, but even the moments that were totally unique and fresh to NEO were exciting. It’s a slow-burn story, with glimpses of things to come scattered throughout each chapter, and clues and hints about the greater story slowly teased into the player’s hands through dialogue, story events, cutscenes, and even the environment. Some people will find that slow-burn frustrating, and I can sympathise with those people, but I found that it worked really well. The downtime in-between big story moments is where a lot of that solid characterisation comes into play, and it makes those big moments all the more impactful when they’re surrounded by smaller, more intimate moments. The pacing does suffer slightly from the frequency of certain combat encounters, particularly in the mid-game where the game seems really intent on making sure you’re a high enough level to start taking on some of the more serious bosses. It seemed like just about every conversation was interrupted or bookended by a fight, which is, you know, fine, because the combat is great, but when you’re really interested in what’s about to happen next, it can wear you down pretty quickly.
So let’s talk about that combat for a moment, because god damn, what a glow up. Like TWEWY, NEO’s combat is focused around Pins, which are equippable, upgradeable attacks that you can equip to each of your party members. TWEWY was famous for its creative use of the DS’s lower touchscreen, with each Pin having its own gesture of taps or swipes that encouraged experimentation and combos. Then, with the Switch’s Final Remix of the game, it was rather infamous for the same combat scheme, because it simply did not adapt particularly well to traditional controls — sure, you could play on the Switch’s touchscreen and that was mostly fine, but trying to play while docked was an exercise in frustration, with each of the gestures tied to inaccurate and frustrating joy-con motion waggling. NEO, thankfully, does not have that problem, with a control scheme that is crafted for traditional controls from the ground up while still retaining the same feel of those inventive controls on the DS, all those years ago. And goodness me, is it fun.
Instead of gestures and swipes and taps, NEO’s Pins are instead controlled and defined by two attributes: button, and input method. Each Pin is assigned both of these attributes, with the button attribute offering six different options (in the Switch’s case, X, Y, L, ZL, R, and ZR), and a host of different input methods. One Pin might, for example, be assigned to the X button while using a rapid tap input method; to activate that Pin you’d have to rapidly tap the X button. Another might have the attributes of ZR and charge, requiring you to hold the ZR button to charge up the attack, and release to unleash it. In addition to that, not every Pin with the same attributes will behave identically, each with their own range, combos, and effects, and with over 300 Pins on offer, the possibilities are almost limitless. Early on, you won’t be able to equip two Pins of the same button type, but that option will become available eventually, opening up even more options. For example, at one stage in the game, I was struggling to stay alive in a particular boss fight and found that one of my Pins wasn’t particularly effective against it. After bashing my head against it for quite some time with no success, I swapped the ineffective Pin out for a healing Pin that had the same input button and method as a Pin that was effective against the boss. That way, every time I attacked I would heal up a bit, and every time I healed, I would do some damage too. There is a cooldown on Pins, with timers ranging anywhere from just a couple seconds, up to 45 seconds or more — or rarely, a risky final gambit Pin that you can only use once. Picking and choosing your Pins to offset their cooldowns and complement is a game of strategy that you could spend months digging into, but it’s often better to just feel out what works and goes with that. There’s a million and one options, and no two players are going to pick the same sets.
Another fascinating addition to NEO’s combat is the Groove meter. Each Pin has an associated “Groove activator” of sorts, like finishing a combo, burning an enemy, or healing a certain amount, and when that activator condition is met, a small countdown bar appears on the currently targeted enemy. Hit that enemy with another party member’s Pin, and you’ll get a little bit of Groove, expressed as a percentage. That percentage will go down over time if you’re not chaining Grooves together, but if you manage to get that sucker to 100%, you’ll be able to unleash an absolutely devastating AOE attack based on the element of the Pin that was last used to build Groove. It sounds pretty basic, but as you get further into the game, with more team members and more options to chain together, it becomes yet another layer of strategy to keep you engaged in battle. Perhaps more exciting for me, however, is the similarities the system has to the first game’s Light Puck, which had you passing a puck back and forth between your two characters to deal more damage. When you really get into the groove of the Groove system, you can rack up points like you were born to do it, and it feels a lot like an expanded, infinite, and incredibly engaging Light Puck, in absolutely the best way. The muscle memory builds up quickly as you learn the strengths and weaknesses of your Pins, and you end up feeling like a badass with every combo you pull off.
You can also alter the combat’s difficulty at any time, if you’re interested in doing so, though be warned: it comes with a few caveats. You might be tempted to just chuck the game into easy mode and breeze on through, but I have to warn you against doing that. Experience, Pins, and rewards gained are scaled to the difficulty setting, and speaking from experience, if you spend too much time on the easiest difficulty, you might find yourself falling very behind in levels, to the point that certain boss fights might not be possible at all, or at least extraordinarily difficult. It makes sense, in the Reaper’s Game there’s no such thing as an easy time, but thankfully the game isn’t particularly difficult on its default “Normal” difficulty once you’ve really gotten a grasp on the combat. I’d suggest sticking to Normal for most of your playthrough just to keep your levels at a reasonable pace, and then dip down or up to other difficulties if you’re finding a particular boss fight too difficult or the game too easy in general.
There’s a few interesting non-combat mechanics thrown in, too. The first is Fret’s Remind ability, which allows him to push keywords into peoples’ minds by using the analogue sticks to piece together a crudely drawn picture of the thing he’s trying to remind them of. It’s a cute little minigame-ish mechanic that really doesn’t amount to too much in the grand scheme of things, but I appreciate that the developers added a little bit of spice to what could have been a single button press. The next is Nagi’s Deep Dive ability, which is essentially a button press. Yeah, it’s a touch disappointing. It lets you dive into the minds of people afflicted by Noise (this universe’s monster analogue, and it’s weird that the word hasn’t come up before now) — but the people afflicted are largely scripted events, and diving in just initiates a combat encounter, the only difference from a normal combat encounter being that there’s a countdown timer that is incredibly generous anyway.
The final mechanic worth mentioning is Rindo’s Replay, a powerful ability that lets him turn back time to change the outcome of certain events. This is an entirely scripted occurence, you can’t just rewind willy-nilly (well, you can, technically, just go back and replay any chapter you like at any time, but it’s not quite the same thing), but it is deeply tied to the game’s story in a way that’s mostly satisfying. As Rindo explains to others, he can only really use Replay “when shit really hits the fan”, like when a character is about to be erased in the story or some big, terrible event happens. When rewinding time, you’ll be presented with a set of timeframes you can revisit, and while some of these sequences are as simple as going back, doing a small thing slightly differently, and then hopping back forwards, there are some interesting aspects to the mechanic. There are times where it becomes almost puzzle-like, trying to solve the right things in the right way, or say the right things to the right people to get to a desired outcome. I can’t be much more specific about this without getting into spoiler territory (and probably angering Square Enix), but these more puzzle-ish sections are some of the highlights of the game for me. I do wish it was utilised a little more often for that purpose, rather than just adding an extra bit of story and gameplay on, but the few sections where it does branch out a bit are interesting, at least.
TWEWY as a series — if you could call it that — has always been known for its comic book and manga-inspired art style, with heavy stylisation and warped perspectives, which I was worried would be lost in the transition to 3D. Thankfully, that could not be further from the truth, with NEO having a heavily stylised presentation, from its comic panel cutscenes to the twisted and warped buildings of Shibuya. It’s a remarkably endearing and beautiful art style, one that worked incredibly well in TWEWY and pulls just as much weight in NEO, too. In addition to that, the game’s soundtrack is as incredible as ever, with a healthy mix of high-energy, heavy rock remixes of music from the first game, and some brand new tracks that absolutely raise the roof and then some. It’s straight up bangers from start to finish, so even if you never play the game, you should absolutely listen to the soundtrack whenever and however you can.
In terms of the Switch experience, I really have very little to complain about. NEO runs solidly most of the time, with only a few frame drops in very busy battles or when using an attack with tonnes of particle effects. Outside of that, the game looks great — especially in handheld — plays great, sounds great, and is generally a very solid experience. Load times are quite short too, something that my colleague Josh flagged as a possible cause for concern in his early hands-on preview of the PS4 version of the game. Load screens are reasonably frequent, but they’re short enough that they rarely break up the action enough to take you out of the game. One thing I will flag, however, is that I did experience a few crashes throughout my 60-odd hours with the game. That said, the entirety of my playthrough was completed prior to the game’s day one patch becoming available, which may fix some of the issues I faced, and certainly fixes a few other bugs I butted heads with at certain points throughout the game. As such, my experience with the game on a technical and balancing level may not be indicative of the final experience. Just something to keep in mind.
I had high expectations for NEO: The World Ends With You, after its predecessor left such a big impact on me when it first released. Fourteen years later, TWEWY’s still got it, defying all expectations as an exciting, enthralling, and genuinely enjoyable follow-up worthy of the title it holds. It’s hard to imagine another game that would tick as many boxes as this one did for me, and much like the original, I’ll be playing, rewinding, and replaying some more for years to come.
+ Newly redesigned combat is an excellent translation of the original's uniqueness
+ Healthy mix of new and old characters, all of which are well-written
+ TWEWY's stylish visuals and soundtrack survive the transition to a new dimension
- Some field mechanics are a little boring and underutilised
- Mid-game pacing interrupted by annoying combat encounters
- Difficulty settings let you paint yourself into a corner if you're not careful