Preview: Hands on with NEO: The World Ends with You
What a wild ride it’s been for fans of The World Ends With You. We’ve endured hyped-up countdowns that led to an underwhelming mobile port. We’ve endured our beloved cult classic being brought back as a rough port on the Switch. We’ve endured sequel tease after sequel tease, building up to SOMETHING but never actually moving things forward. And then, when all hope seemed lost, we actually received confirmation a sequel was happening, after all this time! People have had years to craft theories and speculate over what a new game could involve, and it feels like no game could ever be good enough to live up to the hype that has built up over the years. But I will say, after playing the opening hours of NEO: The World Ends With You, I feel confident it’s on the right track.
The original TWEWY was such a unique experience. It oozed style, from the bopping soundtrack to the trendy character designs. It had one of the most unique combat systems I’ve ever seen, with players controlling two different characters on each screen of the DS that also had their own control schemes and gimmicks. This was an element that was lost in subsequent re-releases of the game, turning the combat into more of a typical action RPG system but with gimmicky controls. By far the biggest fear I had for NEO was that the combat would either lose all its uniqueness from being made for traditional consoles, or Square-Enix would try so hard to recreate that lightning in a bottle experience that we’d end up with a messy system that was brought down by its gimmicks. That fear was quickly put to rest, as NEO’s battle system manages to replicate the hectic multitasking of the original game — even if the combat is a bit simpler. In NEO, you and your teammates compete in a contest across Shibuya called the Reaper’s Game. As you wander around a hyper-stylised Japan completing challenges, you’ll come into contact with aggressive creatures called Noise. Coming into contact with one warps your party into a battle arena where you’ll need to eliminate all the Noise in order to escape.
Combat happens in real-time and requires a bit of micromanagement of your party members. Each party member has a ‘pin’ that grants them a special ability with a different input method. Some require mashing a button, others require you to keep a button held down, and others require you to hold a button to charge and then release it to attack. I was unlocking new pins throughout the demo, which I could equip to each character so long as there wasn’t already a pin with that input method in the party. Control shifts to the character whose pin you last used, allowing you to move them around. Characters have some autonomy in moving and dodging enemy attacks, but to get them in the exact position you want, you’ll need to take direct control.
You can’t just mash every attack at once either, for a few reasons. First, pins have cooldowns, so once their charges are depleted, you’ll need to wait for them to power back up. Secondly, the timing of your attacks is important. Each pin can open up enemies for a combo attack in certain circumstances, like a flame pin that opens them up for follow-ups while they’re alight. When enemies get opened up this way, you have a short period to hit them with another attack, and the sooner you do so, the more Groove points you’ll get. Maxing out your Groove points will allow you to perform a team attack that deals heaps of damage to your opponents. So there’s a lot of factors to be aware of during battles, and I was glad that they managed to find a new system that captures the frenetic vibes and multitasking of the original game.
The Reaper’s Game is a concept carried over from the first game’s story. Players are locked inside another plane of existence inside the Shibuya ward of Tokyo. Over the course of a week, contestants have to complete a series of challenges to earn points, and the team with the most points will be granted a wish. It’s almost like a big scavenger hunt across the city. Failing to complete the tasks (or falling victim to the Noise) will result in the losers being erased from existence. This is all scripted as part of the story, though; you don’t have to worry about rushing through to earn actual points. The tasks I had to complete over the first two days weren’t too hard, but if the first game is anything to go off, then they’re more just excuses to get you to traverse the city and to put the characters under pressure so we learn more about them. The original game spiced these sections up with minigames and adventure game-style segments, and it seems like it’ll be the same this time around. It’s implied each party member will have a unique skill to unlock that will help you solve puzzles, and the one I got to toy with was Fret’s ‘Remind’ ability. Occasionally the trail towards your goal would hit a dead end, but after a short minigame, Fret would be able to push an image into people’s minds to see if it would jog their memories and give you a new clue.
But a big focus is always going to be on the combat, and each day of the game I played led up to climactic boss fights. The first one was more like a stronger enemy, but the second one got much more creative. Upon reaching the marked destination, a giant gorilla Noise climbs the 104 Building like King Kong and launches itself at the party, starting a boss fight. The original TWEWY gave its boss fights gimmicks that spread over the two screens and required you to accomplish things on one screen to benefit the other. This fight didn’t quite reach these highs, but it did show some creativity that elevated it above being just a more challenging fight. The boss had different areas that I could shift my targeting between, just like if there were multiple enemies in the fight, and if I dealt enough damage to some of its body parts, I could stop it from using certain moves for a while. Then, at intervals during the fight, it would leap back up to the top of the skyscraper in the background, making the camera pull some cool perspective tricks, and then leap back down with a devastating shockwave attack that dealt a lot of damage if you didn’t dodge it correctly.
NEO’s plot wasn’t as immediately engaging as the first TWEWY’s, but the character dynamics are fresh and interesting. Neku was a loner who hated people and had to reluctantly team up with others to try and get his memory back. His amnesia allowed him to be an effective audience surrogate, as he didn’t remember anything about the Reaper’s Game or how he ended up there. Things are totally different this time around, and it makes things gripping in new ways, especially for those with knowledge of the first game’s plot. Newcomer Rindo starts the game with a group of friends, and while he’s still quite reserved, he’s a much softer presence than Neku was. We spend a day in the life of Rindo, and his friend Fret before they get conscripted into the Reaper’s Game, getting a feel for them and their friendship. But what’s really interesting is that we don’t see the moment they enter the game despite following them this whole time. They seem just as lost as Neku was at the beginning of the game, which raises a lot of questions as to what’s going on behind the scenes this time around. It’s these differences that really grabbed my attention. There were very few direct links to the first game’s plot and no sign of what the heck happened in the time between games that have resulted in the new status quo. Yet, at the same time, there’s enough teases and hints to start getting me theorising. I’ve been thinking about the implications of some aspects of the plot constantly since playing the demo.
The thing that stood out to me most with my time with NEO was how much it felt just like a TWEWY sequel. I know that probably sounds like such a dumb and obvious comment, but it would have been so easy to lose parts of what made that first game, in the transition from 2D to 3D and the transition from a dual-screen console to a single-screen one, special. But the second I took control of Rindo, and I was looking up at the hyper-saturated cityscape with that signature distorted perspective, it felt like I was coming home. That feeling of being lost in a discomforting mass of skyscrapers and blank-faced pedestrians is still there and has received enhancements like ambient NPC conversations that play out automatically as you walk past. The city has been fleshed out some more too, thanks to the addition of a third dimension. There was a moment where I had an objective at the 104 Building, and one of the characters remarked they’ll have to climb up to a higher level. I was a bit confused for a second, and then I realised there were stairs. I could climb up them to a higher balcony, with the camera swirling around to greet me. It may seem silly to get excited about something so small, but jumping from the 2D original to 3D and seeing it offer more than just a new coat of paint was exciting to see.
At this point, I only have two concerns that stood out to me in the demo. The first is that battles were relatively easy. Some enemies were capable of really damaging attacks, but once I got the hang of dodging and hammering enemies with group attacks, I didn’t struggle too much. It’s hard to gauge this now because it was early on in the game, and I hadn’t unlocked extra difficulty modes yet. A returning feature is the ability to tweak the difficulty mode and the player’s level on the fly to boost your loot drop chances, but this wasn’t unlocked yet. The other concern is that of loading times. The loading times weren’t long by any means, but they were surprisingly frequent. There’s a quick splash screen when you move between areas, announcing where you’re moving to, that feels like it’s loading things. And when you initiate a battle, your party appears on-screen and lets out a battle cry while a loading wheel appears in the bottom-right corner of the screen. You get pumped up, ready to fight… and then it remains there. Not for a while, but it feels like it’s there just a second or two too long and messes with the pacing a bit. Again, they weren’t bad, just common, but my bigger concern is that I was playing the PS4 version, and so it’s possible that on the Switch, they go from mildly annoying to frustrating. So that’s something to be wary of.
NEO: The World Ends With You was ticking all the right boxes in the short time I had with it, and did a good job of assuaging my biggest concerns. While it would have been nice to have gotten another game featuring the iconic dual-screen combat of the original, we’ve moved past those platforms, and the team seems to have kept the spirit of that system intact with its reinvented combat system. Everything outside of that is classic TWEWY, and so I’m excited to finally find out what awaits this world and its characters all these years later.
The PlayStation 4 version of the game was played for the purpose of this preview.