There's always something to be said about a game that does something wholly unique. It's the developers are trying to step out of the sometimes restricting box that is game design, and make a big splash with giving gamers something... well, different. The problem, however, is that when developers try something "new and unique", it tends to be less than perfect. Perhaps the gameplay didn't pan out, or the idea itself didn't mesh well with the setting it was in, or maybe the idea with just a bad one from the get-go. Regardless of the reason, though, games that are dubbed "unique" and "different" tend to carry the stigma of being... well, not always great as a video game itself, but more an interesting piece to ogle and marvel at. At its best, a piece to remember in the annals of gaming history as the stepping stone to a new genre or way of thinking within the industry; at its worst, it is nothing more than a forgotten title that will squander in obscurity.
That being said, there's little better than a unique, interesting title that manages to hit all of its high notes wonderfully; a game that both oozes originally and is still a solid, enjoyable game. A package so completely new and refreshing that even the most jaded gamer can appreciate it... and that is precisely what The World Ends With You is.
The World Ends With You stars Neku, a somewhat socially inept teenager that is in a game for his life and very existence. See, he and the other participants have died, but if they survive the Reaper's Game, they are revived and allowed to continue their lives. Surviving this game isn't all that easy, though; since the Noise (the typical mob enemies of the game) exists in two different "zones" at the same time, so the only way to fight back is to make a pact with another participant in order to fight the Noise in both zones at once. This is all wrapped around a plot involving the Reapers themselves and their motives, and the players that fight in order to live on.
This short synopsis might make it seem like the game's story is obtuse and hard to grasp, but it's really presented in a easy to digest manner. The World Ends With You focuses on the characters first, and the overarching plot of the Reaper's Game second. The main character might be a bit cliched--Neku is an asocial moody teenager, Shiki has confidence and image issues, Beat and Rhyme have a typical example of a broken home--but they are still relatable and interesting enough to keep from getting stale. A lot of this comes from the plot device of the Reaper's Game entrance fee. This involuntary fee is whatever the player holds most dear, and the revelations and mysteries surrounding what the characters have lost to play this game is really quite intriguing. As you learn about the players' past and what was taken from them, it's all the more painful when you realize that only one player can win the Reaper's Game.
The overall plot involving the Reaper's Game itself is pretty interesting as well, but it takes a bit of a back seat until late- and post-game. Even so, the reason for the Reaper's Game and the politics behind it all is arguably the most interesting part of the game. In addition, while all of the pertinent details of the game involving Neku and the others are revealed by the end of the tale, you can learn more by obtaining Secret Reports. These Secret Reports are obtained by replaying through the various days and achieving certain tasks within each day. These reports offer a lot of information on the Reaper's Game and the reasons behind it, and offers a way for a curious player to learn more, while not bogging down those that only wanted the main plot.
It's clear to see that The World Ends With You's story holds up well, but how about the gameplay? TWEWY is an RPG, but its battle system is wholly unique from other games of the genre. As stated in the story, you'll have to deal with Noise to survive the game, and the Noise exists in two zones at the same time. Therefore, Neku has to team up with another player in order for them to effectively fight the Noise. So, during battles, you control both Neku and you partner at the same time. Neku is on the bottom screen, and you use the stylus and (generally) tapping the various pins you have equipped to attack. Your partner, however, stays stationary, and you use the D-pad (or buttons, if you're left handed) to attack the enemies. Also, how your partner attacks depends on the partner themselves, so as the game progresses you'll have to learn how to handle your new partners and use them effectively in battle so you won't fail. Partners share a health bar as well, so if either character gets hit too often, it's game over for both characters (and for you).
As such, it becomes a battle of making Neku dodge attacks on the lower screen, and having your partner counter Noise on the upper screen before they get to attack. This is enforced by the "sync puck"; basically whoever has the puck is the one that can attack, and after an attack they pass it off to the other player. It sounds very hectic, and at first it is; thankfully the game makes your first partner very easy to control, so you have time to learn how to multitask and deal with the Noise before it launches its full force at you. Eventually, the partners you control will be that much more complicated, and the enemies harder to manage and counter. The World Ends With You manages to provide a good challenge throughout, so gamers aren't likely to be bored when they get to a boss battle.
Another big part of the game involves the various pins you collect throughout the game. These pins are what you equip to Neku for his various attacks, as well as the items used for the Pin Slammer mini-game. Of course, different pins have different attacks, and they also level up and evolve when you use them. How they level up depends on the pin itself: Some level up from battle, others from Pin Slammer, and some even level up by other means. While sometimes it's difficult to tell how exactly to level the pins up, it keeps them viable throughout most of the game, where the "best pin" depends more on your favored play style than on a specific pin. Granted, there still are ultimate pins, but getting them is by no means required to finish the title.
Even in the visuals department, The World Ends With You is a winner. Graphically, TWEWY was stylish before Personas 3 and 4 made it cool to do so, and with good reason. The setting of TWEWY is Shibuya, Tokyo, one of the biggest shopping/fashion centers in Japan. As such, this game's stylish nature is a bit of a love letter to the area it's representing, giving the game the unique energy that the real-world Shibuya gives off. In fact, TWEWY takes this one step further with its equipment system; you don't really buy armor as much as you buy new outfits, but every outfit needs a certain amount of courage to wear. It makes sense, considering that Shibuya is where fashion statements are made... and some statements are louder and harder to pull off than others. It's really a small thing (much like how many games restrict equipment by levels), but just the little details help bring make the title that much more refined and polished.
Then, there's the music. You've probably heard some of TWEWY's tunes before; most of the tracks are techno-y, J-pop-y, sometimes rap-py conglomerations that are upbeat and interesting. It's not really for everyone, but given the setting, the music is a perfect final touch for this game. The tracks are very catchy, and sound exactly what would be blasting out the various Shibuya fashion storefronts day and night. This might sound worse than it is, considering the... somewhat unusual choices youths make in terms of popular music, but there's no worries here: The World Ends With You's tracks are all solid, more like a hand picked "best of" album than a mountain of the popular songs of the week.
It's almost criminal that The World Ends With You is not more popular. The title did achieve some mild success when released on the DS in 2008, and has gained a cult following, but the RPG has since, for the most part, been forgotten. There was an iOS port released in 2012 that brought the title back in the spotlight for a bit (mainly because of the secret ending that hints at a sequel), and Neku making a cameo in Kingdom Hearts III, but TWEWY is mainly ignored when discussions of RPGs or DS games are brought up. It's a bit of a shame, really, that such a unique RPG is left in the dust when it should be a beacon for gamers that are tired of the 'typical' RPG; while The World Ends With You may still use a few genre tropes, it is such a wholly different experience that every gamer should try out.