heart 2 heart unreal entry (√-IX)/3 — “The World Ends With You”
This is the… ith? entry in a series I’m writing about playing through every Kingdom Hearts game for the first time. You can find links to the rest of the articles, which are actually about Kingdom Hearts, here. This article contains spoilers for The World Ends With You, and might contain spoilers for the Kingdom Hearts series up through Re:coded? I actually don’t remember.
I’ve heard that the cast of The World Ends with You shows up in Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance, soooooo, I figured that if I wanted to have the context necessary to really discuss that game, I needed to play this one first.
I mean, sure, granted, I’ve never played more than about an hour of any Final Fantasy game, and I’ve never seen several of the Disney movies the series has referenced. And, okay, yes, I’ve never actually felt all that lost or confused, because the references are either laid out super explicitly or else aren’t really important. And I don’t really have any particular reason to think the TWEWY references in DDD will be all that different, but, see, the thing is…
Okay, listen. This game has been sitting unopened on my bookshelf for like a fuckin’ decade. I got it as a Christmas gift a few years after it came out, and for some reason or another I just… never got around to it? I don’t remember why. I’ve been telling myself for years that I really need to play it, but I never actually have. People are all the time talkin’ about how much of an underappreciated gem this game is, and I’ve always been curious to try it, but, I guess, just barely not curious enough to actually follow through and check it out. So, I figured that as long as I’m playing every other game by this development team I may as well finally scratch The World Ends with You off of my to-do list.
Please don’t tell me about any other games made by the Kingdom Hearts team. Please. Please.
Look, more than anything, I’ve exclusively been playing Kingdom Hearts games for over a month straight now. I’ve played so much goddamned Kingdom Hearts. I need a break.
For some reason I’m sitting here feeling like this needs more justification or preamble, but, honestly, I got nothin’. This is a game I’ve wanted to play for a while, and this excuse seemed good enough. It’s my dang article series I’ll include an ith entry if I want to!!
“Shouldn’t you at least have done this after KHII since that’s when this game came out chronologically” shouldn’t you, have, shut up???!
Okay, okay, that was mean. I’m sorry. I… am going to stop having an awkward anxious fit on my own blog and talk about The World Ends With You now.
The Art Direction Is So Fucking Rad
The art direction has been the single strongest part of the Kingdom Hearts series so far. From the very beginning, it’s been phenomonal. The World Ends with You continues that trend. Every character looks cool as hell, the monsters are all visually interesting even though they’re all pretty much just animals, and the game is stuffed to bursting with stylish logos and graphics.
But where the game really shines visually is in the ways that it makes use of the Nintendo DS.
For one, they went with a 2D art style. I think this was a really smart move, because honestly, even though the DS could do 3D, it kinda looked like shit. There’s a lot of beautiful DS games, but they’re all 2D or predominantly 2D. I can’t think of a single 3D DS game that looks better than “fine, I guess.”
All of the sprite art in this game is fantastic, in particular the character portraits. They use a style that was oddly popular on the DS, with thick black outlines and heavy shadows. I’m not sure why so many games on the system used this style. Off the top of my head, Ghost Trick, Touch Detective, and Elite Beat Agents all had a similar thing going on. The actual art in those games is pretty varied, but they all have these chunky outlines and black shadows that, honestly, I fuckin’ love. Bring this trend back, it rules.
The background art also has a really cool thing going on where all of the buildings and streets are skewed to an extreme degree, and the degree of skew changes as you walk around in this ersatz parallax effect. It’s like you’re seeing the background reflected in a mirrored ball, but even that’s not quite accurate, because the angles never add up quite right, making all the ordinary city streets feel surreal and strange. This effect is one of the few points where the game butts up against the hardware limitations of the DS, and it loses a little bit of its power from how things can look kind of muddy and aliased, but it’s still a really great concept, and when it works, it works wonderfully.
More than that though, TWEWY is consistently clever with how it uses the DS’ two screens. Between the DS and the 3DS, we’ve had about 15 years to get used to the whole “two screen” thing, but honestly, it’s a fuckin’ weird idea, and early on, developers had to do a lot of work and experimentation to figure out how to justify the second screen. The World Ends with You is a fantastic example of that in just about every regard, including its visuals.
TWEWY treats the screens of the DS like the pages of a comic book. The cutscenes fill the screens with panels that convey the action of the scene, and do a really great job of creating a sense of movement and energy without all that much actual animation. The contents of the two screens are related, but they’re only rarely two halves of a single image. Instead, the game takes advantage of the fact that it can display multiple images at once to create interesting visual juxtapositions.
This isn’t necessarily anything all that profound. It can be something as simple as showing a character walking through a crowd on the bottom screen while displaying the text of their inner monologue on the top screen. Or showing the same scene from two different angles to show two contrasting perspectives. In most cutscenes, one screen will display a pretty standard visual novel-esque layout, with character portrats on either side of the screen and dialogue appearing in word bubbles between them. Meanwhile, the other screen shows static images related to what they’re talking about or what’s happening around them. It’s simple, but it’s effective, and it’s a novel form of presentation that was only possible with the dual-screen set-up.
Anyway. I love everything about how this game looks and I could probably gush about it forever, but that’s probably enough? There’s a lot of other stuff to talk about.
The Combat System Is Super Interesting
The combat is where The World Ends with You makes the most use of the DS’ oddball feature set. At all times throughout the game, you have a party of two characters, and when you enter a combat encounter, each one enters a separate instance of the combat on each screen. Every enemy exists on both screens, and hurting one on one screen equally damages its counterpart on the other. Likewise, both of your characters share a single healthbar that stretches across both screens.
On the bottom, you control the main character, Neku, with the stylus. You can tap and drag him to move him around, and swipe him to make him dodge. Neku fights using equippable pins that you collect throughout the game that have a wide variety of different effects and input methods. Some let you swipe enemies to slash them with a sword-like attack, while others let you draw circles to summon things like lightning bolts and meteors. I even found one where you shout into the mic to damage enemies, with damage proportional to how loud you yell.
Meanwhile, on the top screen, you control Neku’s partner with either the D-pad or the face buttons, depending on which hand you’re holding the stylus in. You can press left or right to attack enemies in that direction, and keep pressing that direction to do a combo. As you attack, you navigate a “combo branch,” and can hit up or down at certain moments to jump to different branching paths. Each path has a unique card at the end, and hitting the right cards in the right order fills up a meter that lets you use super moves. The specifics of this works varies depending on which partner you’re currently playing with, which keeps this feeling fresh throughout the game. The partner characters also have jump and block buttons to add a little more depth to their gameplay.
This is all a little overwhelming, so the game has an additional mechanic that helps you to focus your attention. When you successfully deal enough damage or finish a combo on either screen, the character on that screen will pass a “puck” of energy to their partner. When a character is holding the puck, their attacks deal extra damage, and as soon as they finish out a series of attacks, they pass it back to the other screen. At the end of each battle the game evaluates your performance, and one of the things it rewards you for is maintaining a long “rally” of the puck. The idea then is that you can focus most of your attention on whoever’s holding the puck, while doing defensive actions with the other character.
This system is really cool, and I really appreciate the game’s experimental approach to making full use of the DS. It also ties in perfectly with the themes of the game: the combat is about two fundamentally different people, literally occupying two similar but different worlds, and doing well means figuring out how to overcome the differences between them and make them fight in sync.
Only problem is, after probably more than 20 hours playing this game, I was still fucking awful at it.
A lot of the touch screen commands were frustrating and didn’t work great. Getting Neku to dodge reliably was kind of a crapshoot, and any pin that required circle-drawing was functionally useless with how inconsistent it was. I never got a pin that required you to “scratch” the screen to work right.
More than that, I just couldn’t ever totally wrap my head around managing both screens. Like I said before, the game evaluates your performance after every fight, and I was squeaking by with E and D ranks right through the final boss. My top-screen character was constantly getting knocked out of their combo, and I frequently ended up winning fights with only a sliver of health left after just sort of frantically scribbling all over the touchscreen and mashing the D-pad. I got better at the game as I went, but not enough to keep pace with its difficulty curve. It just sort of overloaded my brain.
I’m tempted to call this a failed experiment, an interesting idea that didn’t really work, because juggling everything is just too hard. But, I’ve looked at some YouTube playthroughs of the game, and it’s clearly possible to master this combat system. There’s people who can elegantly and efficiently smash through every single encounter, often without taking so much as a single hit. For at least some players, this system can follow through on the promises it makes, and it doesn’t exactly feel fair to knock it just because I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. I’m just bad at this video game.
Luckily, TWEWY is fantastically designed, so I was still able to have a blast playing it.
What a Good-Ass Game
Aside from the complicated combat, every other aspect of The World Ends with You was designed to be as smooth and player-friendly as possible, which I found a bit surprising, considering how often I’ve been frustrated by design decisions in Kingdom Hearts.
For starters, the game is broken up into relatively short episodes. This gives it lots of natural stopping points that inherently encourage you to take breaks. I got a lot less frustrated with the combat than I might have otherwise as a result.
For the most part, you also get to engage with the combat on your own terms. You’re never randomly thrown into battle. Instead, you open up a special view of the area you’re in, which shows you symbols representing all the enemy encounters in the area, and lets you choose when and if to fight them. The different symbols clue you in to the difficulty of each fight, giving you a lot of control over your experience.
You’re still gonna have to do a good number of these fights, in large part because the game will gate your progress behind things killing a certain number of enemies, or collecting items that enemies drop. But you get to do it at your own pace, which feels so much better than how just about every other RPG I’ve ever played handles it. You even heal up to full HP after every encounter, which does a ton to make things feel less frustrating. Plus, honestly, the combat is so tricky and difficult that I never really felt bored when the game forced me to farm to progress. For me at least the game just wasn’t capable of feeling mindless.
TWEWY is also incredibly smart about how it handles difficulty. Pretty early in, you unlock Easy Mode, which you can switch to at any time. This is something a lot of games do, and it’s such a no-brainer that it’s bizarre that any game with multiple difficulties doesn’t offer this choice. Even so, it was a really pleasant surprise to see it crop up here, when Kingdom Hearts games lock you in to one difficulty from the beginning.
Not only does TWEWY allow you to change the difficulty on the fly, it actively encourages you to. The difficulty you’re playing on affects which enemies show up, and also affects drop rates for items. Progressing through the game occasionally requires you to bump down to Easy in order to find the right things to clear a given challenge. You also unlock a Hard Mode eventually, but the game maybe makes you use it once? It’s mostly there to make it easier to get rare stuff.
You eventually even unlock the ability to restart a battle on Easy if you die. I wish they’d given you this sooner, but it’s a super smart design decision. I needed to turn the difficulty down for nearly every boss fight, and having it as a quick option on the Game Over screen was something I deeply appreciated.
The drop rate for rare items can also be affected by things other than just the game difficulty. At any time, you can decrease your player level as far as you want, and the drop rate increases for every level below your max that you go. Leveling down 2–3 levels doesn’t have that much of an impact on your combat ability, and it gives you a pretty major bonus to finding cool stuff. You can also “chain” enemies together by selecting more than one to fight at a time. This’ll put you in back-to-back encounters that you can’t heal between, but every additional fight in the chain boosts the drop rate for the entire encounter.
There’s still an overall difficulty curve that rises steadily throughout the campaign, but between these three settings, TWEWY gives you a massive degree of control in deciding just how steep that curve is. It might be the most player-friendly RPG I’ve ever played. It does everything it can to get the hell out of its own way and let the combat system and story speak for themselves.
And since I’ve already explained my thoughts on the combat, I guess that means it’s time to talk about
Y’know I really don’t know why I decided 6 weeks ago that the story section of these articles always has to be labeled as “THE STORY.” It seems kinda dumb to me now? But if I stopped at this point it’d feel like I was breaking the pattern I’ve set up in a way that irritates me more than the heading itself does. I guess I don’t really have a better idea for what to call the part where I summarize the plot of a video game.
The World Ends with You is about Neku Sakuraba, a misanthropic teenager who hates being around other people and seeks to alienate himself from others as much as possible. For reasons unknown to him, he’s been drawn into something called “The Reaper’s Game.” He’s become invisible to everyone other than fellow players of the game, and he’s constantly attacked by static monsters called Noise. He’s received a text from the “Reapers” that tell him to get to a certain address in a certain time limit, or else he’ll be erased from existence.
Also, he’s spontaneously learned how to read minds. He’s havin’ a real weird one!
Eventually, he runs into Shiki, a fellow player, who seems to have at least marginally more of an idea about what’s going on. She convinces him to form a “pact” with her, which empowers both of them to fight against the Noise. The two of them make it to the assigned address in time, only to immediately black out and wake up a day later, with new instructions and a new time limit.
At first, Neku is a real obnoxious little shithead toward Shiki, but as they work together to make it through each daily mission, he gradually starts letting his guard down and befriends her. This is in part thanks to the advice of a man they meet named Hanekoma, a barista who’s clearly way more involved with The Reapers than he lets on. He tells Neku that the only way he can survive the game is to trust his partner, and that he needs to live in the moment and not withdraw so deeply into himself.
Along the way, Neku and Shiki come to know another pair of players, Beat and Rhyme. Rhyme and Shiki are eager to have their two teams partner up, but Neku and Beat are both assholes and the whole thing never really comes together.
Eventually, Neku learns the truth: The Reapers are literally grim reapers; he’s been dead the whole time. The Reaper’s Game is a contest that gives the recently deceased an opportunity to win back their life before their soul is destroyed, and he’s lost his memory because they take what’s most precious to each contestant as an “entry fee.” Since Neku is so self-absorbed, the thing most precious to him is his own identity, hence the amnesia.
During the fourth mission, the Reapers lay a trap that ends up with Rhyme being erased by Noise. Beat is devastated, and what’s more, without his partner he’s powerless to fight. Hanekoma rescues him and takes him back to his cafe, but in the end, he runs off and decides to become a Reaper.
Around this time, Neku learns about Shiki’s entry fee. In life, she was deeply jealous of a friend of hers, an aspiring fashion designer. Her envy and low self-esteem paradoxically formed into a deep-seated form of egotism, so what the Reapers took from her was her own body; she’s been playing the entire game as her friend’s doppelgänger. Neku begins to slowly open up to her, and helps her come to terms with herself and her self-hatred.
The two fight their way through the last few days of the game and claim a decisive victory. However, the Reapers abuse several loopholes to prevent them from coming back to life, claiming Shiki as Neku’s entry fee to force him into another round of the Game. Before Neku can even get his bearings in the second round, a strange kid named Joshua forcibly partners up with him.
Everything about Joshua seems suspicious, but Neku has no choice but to cooperate with him to survive the game. Joshua keeps trying to sidetrack them with a plan to locate the lair of the Composer, the boss of the Reapers. The Composer has a massive amount of influence over the collective unconscious, which Joshua wants to claim for himself. He finds the lair, but it’s sealed off with no apparent way to get inside. Neku and Joshua make it to the final day, and Joshua ultimately sacrifices himself to secure a win for Neku, a bizarrely out-of-character move for him.
Once again, the Reapers exploit a loophole to deny Neku his victory. He’s entered into the game again, but this will be his last opportunity to come back to life.
In the third and final game, the Reapers have dropped all pretense of playing fair. Neku is the only player, which means he can’t form a pact, which means he can’t fight, which means he’s doomed to lose on day one. However, Beat decides to switch sides yet again and joins up with Neku after the Reapers failed to give him what he wants: a way to bring back his sister Rhyme.
Neku realizes that no matter how many times he wins, the Reapers will always find a way to cheat him, and he decides that the only real path to victory is to help Beat hunt down and defeat the Composer.
It turns out that actually, Joshua was the Composer all along. The past several weeks have been a wager between him and his right-hand man, the Conductor. Joshua believes that Shibuya is culturally poisoned, and that people have become… well, too much like Neku was at the start of the game. Selfish and closed off. He intends to completely destroy the city to keep it from psychically poisoning the rest of the world.
The Conductor is horrified by this prospect, and wagers his life that he can make Shibuya a better place in less than a month. From the beginning of the game, he’s been using his influence to gradually mind-control the entire population of the city, forcibly breaking down the walls between people and giving them all a single, unified purpose toward building a better world.
Which is, you know, awful, and really not that much better than killing everyone.
Neku defeats the Conductor, unwittingly winning the game for Joshua and dooming the entire city. But seeing Neku’s growth from a self-obsessed asshole to a kind and compassionate person convinces Joshua to stay his hand, revive Neku and his friends, and work to subtly guide Shibuya toward a better path.
After beating the game, you can replay each chapter to unlock a Kingdom Hearts-style Secret Report. These things dump a lot of lore on you, detailing the way the multiverse of TWEWY works and a whole bunch of other things. But in plot terms, the important revelation is that Hanekoma is an angel, and spent the entire game sabotaging the bet between Joshua and the Conductor in order to create the circumstances that led to the game’s happy ending.
This Is Like, 90% Of the Way to Being Amazing
When I was 3–4 hours away from the ending of this game, I was ready to call it my favorite JRPG story of all time.
Unlike Kingdom Hearts, you really don’t have to do any work to tease out just what The World Ends with You is trying to say. It doesn’t obfuscate its themes behind complicated mythology and frustrating word choices. It’s all pretty surface-level, to the point where the messages of the game are explicitly stated by characters at multiple points throughout the story. “People grow by working to understand each other.” “Withdrawing into yourself isn’t healthy.” “Art is a form of communication, and it should be inspiring and empowering.”
In general, I think the game does a really great job exploring these themes. It’s a story about depressed, self-absorbed teens trapped in supernatural circumstances that force them to grow beyond what they used to be and learn to love both each other and themselves. This all takes place in a setting that’s completely saturated in trends driven by corporate brands, and the characters have to learn how to express themselves openly and honestly in a world that’s trying to market off-the-shelf identities.
The Conductor’s plan to “save” Shibuya is an extreme version of the same marketing trends that are present throughout the game. He tries to subtly manipulate the tastes and interests of the entire city in order to lull them into falling under his thrall. His overall goal is… ostensibly well-intentioned, but he makes use of the same awful techniques that make Joshua so disgusted with the city in the first place.
As much as I like where TWEWY’s head is at, I don’t think it quite manages to follow through on everything in the ending. The whole thing just sort of… stops. The Conductor brainwashes the entire city, Neku and Beat fight their way through a gauntlet of Reapers, it looks like Joshua’s gonna destroy the town, then… psych, everything’s fine, Joshua changed his mind, roll credits.
At first, I thought that ending was alright. Neku’s emotional journey reached a satisfying endpoint, and while the game doesn’t spell out Joshua’s reasoning for sparing everyone, it’s not hard to connect some dots and figure it out for yourself. The ending is abrupt, but on that level, it works well enough. The problem is that there are other themes running through the game that I think the final act does a real disservice to.
The World Ends with You spends a lot of time showing the politics and bureaucracy of the Reapers. On its face, it’s an organization with a clear hierarchy, concrete rules and laws, and a unified goal that its membership all shares. But the more we’re shown, the more clear it becomes that this isn’t actually the case. Just about every Reaper has their own personal goals and motivations, and often stand at cross-purposes with their colleagues. They’re even frequently willing to kill each other, with a major part of the plot revolving around one of the high-ranking Reapers trying to assassinate Joshua.
It’s reminiscent of the way Organization XIII is depicted in Kingdom Hearts, and suggests that the people behind these games are really interested in how stereotypical “evil organizations” actually function. But they do something a little different with the Reapers than KH did with the Organization.
Throughout the game, Neku is harrassed and threatened by two low-ranking Reapers, Koki and Uzuki. By the end of the game, they’ve more or less become friends with the heroes, as it becomes increasingly clear that their bosses are willing to sacrifice anyone and anything to win the game against Neku.
Both Reapers love their jobs, but become fed up with the way they’re exploited by the organization they serve. Toward the end of the game, they even have a conversation that sounds like they’re planning to unionize or something. It’s kind of awesome.
But then… they get brainwashed along with everyone else and don’t get any more dialogue for the rest of the game. This is frustrating, not just because their subplot got cut short, but because that subplot tied in to themes that run throughout the entire story about power and hierarchy.
At first blush, the Reaper’s Game honestly seems pretty generous, since it gives the players a chance to come back from the dead (or, if you read the secret reports, a chance to ascend to the next plane of existence). But the entire system is corrupt and vindictive, and no matter how many times Neku wins, the Conductor refuses to let him go. And for as exploitative as the Conductor is, he’s also himself a victim of exploitation, forced into the role of a villain because it’s the only idea he has to stop the people above him from committing an unspeakable atrocity. The World Ends with You is a world that’s shaped like a pyramid, and if you’re not at the very top, then someone’s boot is on your neck.
TWEWY gives every appearance that it’s prepared to face that idea head-on. Everything in the final days of the game seems like it’s building to a revolution, with players fighting for their freedom allying with Reapers fighting for fair treatment and overthrowing the unjust systems that have been slowly crushing them. And then, parallel to that, you have a lot of running themes and sidestories about how corporate brands alienate people and hinder self expression. The game seems like it’s ready to fully bare its teeth at capitalism.
But then Joshua shows up, effortlessly defeats Neku, and the world is saved entirely by his whim. The revolution the game had been building up to never happens. Joshua is inspired to spare Shibuya, sure, but he shouldn’t be in a position to pass judgment on Shibuya in the first place. He might be a god, but he’s also a shitty, arrogant little brat who doesn’t display a shred of heavenly wisdom or grace. The World Ends with You concludes with the world still under the control of a callous, capricious child.
In and of itself, that might work as an ending. It’d be a pretty great hook for a sequel, even. But it doesn’t really… feel right. The final scene of the game is Neku monologuing about how he’s learned a lot and grown a lot, and even though he can’t forgive Joshua for deceiving him, he trusts him to do the right thing, since he clearly decided not to destroy Shibuya after all. There’s no real bittersweetness to the ending, no sense that there’s still a long-term goal that needs to be accomplished. The game’s anti-authoritarian streak completely dries up, and it pretends like the interpersonal relationship themes were the only things it was ever interested in discussing. It sucks!
The secret reports reveal that Hanekoma overstepped his bounds and rigged the game so that it would always end with Shibuya being spared, but that’s… really not any better. Hanekoma is more mature and compassionate than Joshua, but he’s still just one person who enforced his will on an entire city, one that was looking like it was gonna come together and save itself, if the writers had only allowed it to.
Even with this wet fart of an ending, I still really enjoyed the story. The characters were all a blast to spend time with, and most of the themes hit home really well. The main reason the ending annoys me so much is how interesting the story was shaping up until the last couple hours. It’s not definitively my favorite JRPG story ever, but even despite my problems with it it’s still solidly in the running.
Random Stray Thoughts
- I fuckin’ love the music in this game. I don’t really have anything all that interesting to say about it, but it’s a fantastic soundtrack.
- Every single time I tried to play Tin Pin Slam outside of the story, I lost. It seems so simple on paper how did I keep losing?!
- The fashion system, where different brands get buffs or debuffs depending on how popular they currently are, was a really cool mechanic that suited the game well in a lot of ways. I also… mostly ignored it, which prooooobably didn’t help with how difficult I found the game to be.
- I really like Shiki as a character, but it sucks that she’s just not in two thirds of the game. Her and Rhyme both get damseled in a way that establishes a real bummer of a pattern when you also think about how Kingdom Hearts treats Kairi. This team has a spotty record at best when it comes to their female characters.
- There’s something about the way the game used slang that felt kinda corny and inauthentic. I just, couldn’t really take it seriously anytime someone said something like “aight,” especially if they usually spoke with fully proper grammar and syntax.
- That aside though, the overall quality of the writing was really strong. I imagine it’s a lot easier to write good-sounding dialogue when you don’t have to worry about matching the lip-flaps of a performance that happened in another language.
- “Be twewy twewy quiet, I’m hunting wabbits.” This is a dumb joke that means nothing but I keep saying it to myself.
- I thought about playing the Switch version for this, but that looks… bad. Instead of adapting the controls to work with a gamepad, it makes you use the gyroscope in one of the JoyCons to move a cursor around the screen and simulate touch controls. Nooooo thank you.
I really enjoyed The World Ends with You. The gameplay is experimental and engaging, it’s a delightful game to look at and listen to, and even if the story kinda drops the ball at the end it was a really entertaining ride that still managed to be pretty affecting. I have lots of minor gripes and quibbles, but overall I still loved the game, and honestly I’m a little bit miffed that some of its more clever quality-of-life elements never managed to bleed into Kingdom Hearts. I can actually see myself revisiting this game from time to time, playing some of my favorite bits from the chapter select and filling out my pin collection. It’s a great game, and I’m really glad that I finally made myself play it.
Now, I guess it’s time to head back into the Kingdom Hearts mines. Next time, I’m actually gonna play Dream Drop Distance. See you then!
Eyyyy, I did that thing I said I did. Wanna read about Dream Drop Distance? You can do that here!