Every so often there comes along a game that just gets so many things right. Even if it's not perfect, its flaws are so inconsequential or so minimal that's easy to look right past them and almost forget that they're even there. The right story, the right gameplay, the right look, the right feel, the perfect music, the perfect battle system, that every little detail fits not just the game, but the system it's being played on. For me, that game is The World Ends with You.
The World Ends with You is an action-JRPG for Nintendo DS that came out in 2007 in Japan and 2008 in the West from Square Enix. It's about a boy named Neku who wakes up in the middle of Shibuya with no memories only to learn that he is dead, and trapped in a purgatory-like version of his home neighborhood called the UG. He has a second chance at life, but only if he survives the 7 day 'Reaper's Game' with his partner Shiki.
On the surface, it seems like it takes a lot of tropes from classic JRPG elements. Amnesia, teen heroes and an angsty male protagonist. But the both the game and the story soon subverts most of these cliches. Neku may be a bit broody, but he's more sarcastic than angsty, even reminding himself to not dwell too much because he can't stand Emos. Shiki may come off as a 'do your best' cheerful female sidekick, but she's hardly just sugar and spice. And after the first week you learn the simple 'play the game and come back to life' concept is actually a lie and there is far more beyond the surface. And then the story explodes, especially with the introduction of your second sidekick Joshua. The twists and turns of the stories keep you going with a gripping, powerful ending. I don't want to spoil the game, but I've never played a game where the main villain *isn't* the final boss.
In addition to the story are the characters. Besides Neku and Shiki you run into a loveable lunk named Beat with his partner Rhyme, a math fetishist Reaper named Sho as well as various other NPCs whose stories end up intersecting with Neku's. And oh my god, Joshua. That effeminate, condescending snarky little asshole is my favorite character in the game. It is very difficult to not love him and hate him equally all at the same time.
What also makes this game work so well is the look of the game. The character designs and art direction were handled by main Final Fantasy designer Testuya Nomura. While many accuse him of having a zipper addiction, in this game his style just works. The artwork has a stylized street art and Japanese fashion feel to it, and cut scenes work like pages out of a comic book (there is actually minimal voice acting to the game, which is actually a major benefit) and monsters are largely influenced by popular tribal tattoos.
To help cement the real feel of modern day Shibuya with it writing and art style, The World Ends with You has an amazing soundtrack. Songs used as background music and fighting music are influenced everywhere from rock to rap to electronica.
Of course in a game none of this matters if the gameplay sucks. And suck it does not. This game makes you use every single damn feature the DS has. Touch screen, microphone, buttons and both screens. In battle you control two characters, your partner in the top screen and Neku with the touch screen bottom. In addition to pins that allow you to use various psychic powers, you can also make use of bicycles, cars and barriers that appear on the screen. Dividing your attention can be tricky, but the game has an automated AI that allows you to focus on saving Neku's hide while the partner takes care of him/herself. Armor is clothes bought at various shops, and the popularity of the brand and your relationship with merchants can affect your stats and ability in battles. There are no random encounters, you can save any time and adjust your level to increase your odds of getting better items and pins. It also has one of the most fun mini games this side of the Triple Triad. Additionally, when you complete the game, it unlocks a Game+ that not only has new missions, but a mini game with an entirely new story.
The combat can be a bit difficult, especially with some of the harder bosses and the fact that HP is shared, but these are all relatively minor issues. If an uncoordinated shlub like me can get through the entire game, experienced gamers should have only a few issues.
TWEWY is one of my favorite games not only for DS, or even of the previous generation, but probably one of my favorite games of all time. The look, the music and the game play just gelled so well, and reminds us that even with Square Enix's recent game and management fiascoes, the company still hires and manages genuine talent. If you can't track down the DS version there is an iOS version as well that has an HD visual upgrade and new mixes of songs. And I think anyone who is a JRPG fan should most certainly check it out.
*PS, the image in the header is actually one I drew.