‘NEO: The World Ends With You’ review: A superb sequel that oozes cool

Square Enix’s latest JRPG is a Shibuya sensation full of smart ideas.

NEO: The World Ends With You is the coolest JRPG I’ve ever played. It oozes style from every orifice, and I can’t quite believe it’s real. Here we have a role-playing game about Shibuya youth culture, starring a cast of eccentric kids with unbelievable fashion sense. Instead of Materia or spells, you collect pins that give you powers to unleash and master in battle. Instead of armour, you shop for clothes and craft stat-boosting outfits from a variety of fashion subcultures. The ambitious plot concerns The Reaper’s Game, a life-or-death competition where teams of deceased players battle monsters called ‘Noise’ in a parallel Tokyo called the Underground in order to escape their fate.

NEO is a sequel but also a love letter to The World Ends With You, which launched on the Nintendo DS in 2007. With character designs from Tetsuya Nomura and an adventurous soundtrack from Takeharu Ishimoto, the original was destined for cult classic status. It captured the cultural milieu of the late 00s, and had a singular combat system involving touchscreen stylus swipes and taps.

TWEWY is a popular property for all the right reasons and has been supported with re-releases and even an anime in recent years, but a full-fat sequel came as an exciting surprise to many. Many of the original developers returned to work on this follow-up, and it shows. From the off, you can tell that NEO wants to respect the source material but push this unique IP into the next-generation. It’s taking the pulse of a whole new age of adolescence — one that was only dawning when the first game launched — and reflecting it with passionate authenticity.

NEO: The World Ends With You
NEO: The World Ends With You. Credit: Square Enix

You play as the mask-toting Rindo, a moody dude in a great get-up with some intriguing secrets up his sleeve. The supporting cast is full of stellar characters too, like your loveable sidekick Fret, with his dorky catchphrases like “Galaxy brain activate!”. Then there’s Minamimoto, who speaks exclusively in mathematics puns, and Nagi, who is so obsessed with her favourite game that she is covered in its merch and speaks with a medieval affectation. The screen gets a grunge filter during cutscenes, with characters emoting and animating in rough-stroked comic book boxes. Half-tones and chromatic aberration make visual elements pop and help spotlight key chemistry moments between these pals.

Even beyond the combat party, there are some fascinating folks to meet in NEO, including a character who has a physical presence but only speaks in text messages, using XD and :3. There’s also a mob boss baddie who says things like “you’ve got moxie, kid”, an omniscient goth in a floppy-eared hoodie and a regal food blogger. Somehow the writers manage to keep a hold of the game’s tone as we drift between these eclectic characters. In fact, the diversity brings the world to life with remarkable efficiency.

When you’re walking around the overworld, the screen is presented like a phone or video camera screen, with user interface elements represented by battery symbols and WiFi bars. The iconic architecture of Shibuya is realised in style, but often exaggerated and made wonderfully impossible, bending and warping as you explore alleyways and shift around the ward. If you tap R1 Rindo can pierce the veil and turn the sky purple, illuminating the private thoughts of the faceless citizens of the Realground, which you must investigate to solve puzzles and progress the story.

NEO: The World Ends With You
NEO: The World Ends With You. Credit: Square Enix

In this psyche dimension you’ll also find stark red symbols which, when collected, allow you to fight Noise. These are manifestations of people’s negative emotions, taking the form of corrupted frogs, gorillas and jellyfish among other animals. They provide EXP, drop those precious pins, and can be extremely moreish to grind thanks to the way difficulty works in NEO. At any time, you can tap the touchpad to lower your team’s HP but increase the drop rate, and then run around collecting Noise orbs to stack the battles in quick succession, further increasing the drop rate and challenge. This creates a delicious collectathon trade-off that makes grinding tons of fun.

Each pin has its own mastery system, so you’ll want to collect, upgrade and trade them for new pins to ensure you have the best build. The beauty is that because you can always tweak the difficulty, you can’t break the game by over-levelling, so all play styles are accounted for, from mainliner to completionist. The way this system translates to gameplay is as follows: you control up to four characters in battle, but essentially you’re controlling the pin that you’ve equipped for them, with each pin mapped to an input on your controller.

So you may have a rapid-fire projectile pin on the Square button with Rindo, but a charged attack on Triangle with Fret. On the triggers, you could be laying traps or deploying status ailments. This turns combat into a rhythm game where you’re trying to maintain a groove by chaining together your pins. One trigger might be an ice spear from Nagi that juggles enemies into the air, and the opposite Minamimoto pin summons a meteor of urban garbage that makes the enemy eat pavement. It’s a lot of fun and offers the same flowmotion finesse seen in the Kingdom Hearts games. A wide variety of enemies means you’re always adapting to certain elemental affinities and movements, but unfortunately they’re not always consistently fun to fight. Some mobs have gimmicks that go beyond being challenging and rewarding and just end up feeling frustrating.

NEO: The World Ends With You
NEO: The World Ends With You. Credit: Square Enix

Outside of combat, you’ll have to complete puzzles to progress the story, which is told across numerous chapters that are often set within a single day. This gives the game great structure and makes the narrative quite easy to follow. If you’re a fan of point-and-click games you’ll like the puzzles in NEO, as they involve quizzes, logic exercises and even some pixel-finding. There’s a great one in the early stages where you have to warp backwards and forwards through time — Day of the Tentacle-style —- to thwart an ambush. Most of them are story-relevant and engaging, but a few did feel like they were padding out a narrative that is already pretty lengthy.

Rindo can replay days at any time to grind for pins and clothes, retry challenges and complete side quests which will flesh out your social network. As you meet new people in Shibuya you grow this web of influence and acquire friendship points that you can hand over for permanent quality-of-life upgrades, like the ability to sell all of your duplicate pins with a button press. It incentivises exploration really well, and the side stories are well worth it. Many of the smaller puzzles involve Psychonauts-style empathy missions like jumping into a person’s mind to clear out the noise, finding and imprinting certain words to change their mental connections, or wiggling the thumbsticks to clear the fog and jog a memory. They feel good to complete and tie in well to the narrative.

One of my favourites felt like a tongue-in-cheek dig at Final Fantasy XIV as it had me dealing with a stressed MMO player waiting for an upcoming expansion. I had to imprint a message in their mind to convince them not to skip or rush the main story content and really cherish the characters and world. A lot of the writing touches on contemporary topics like augmented-reality games, stan culture, the death of physical currency and smartphone addiction with care and great humour. It can get quite dark and emotional in places too. It’s a very fresh and witty game — there’s even a few in-universe allusions to the coronavirus pandemic.

Then there’s NEO’s soundtrack, which takes aim at the high heights of the original with its remarkable range. There are songs that sound like alternate reality Rise Against, Green Day, Alabama 3 and so much more in here. From nu metal to EDM and modern emo rap, it covers a real spectrum of genres, but mashes them up in disorienting and clever ways, curating a busy canvas of culture that feels really contemporary.

Ultimately Shibuya is the star, and much like the Yakuza series, it’s one of those games where you want to go into every shop and restaurant. You want to buy every piece of clothing and eat each piece of food to fill out the lists and unlock cool rewards, just to engage with the world as much as possible. In this case, what you eat determines your stat boosts and you have to manage calorie counts to achieve a certain level of fullness that drains when you fight. It’s not a life-or-death system but it’s another layer of nuance in an already ridiculously meaty game. It honestly feels like the developers have thought of everything — there’s even a graffiti page in the menu where you can create a custom mural using the trophies you’ve popped.

NEO: The World Ends With You will release for Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 on July 27. We reviewed the PS4 version, running on a PS5. 

The Verdict

NEO: The World Ends With You is an immensely stylish game that is teeming with smart JRPG systems. The incredible art direction justifies the price of entry, but it’s the moreish combat, rewarding puzzles and clever writing that come together to wrap you up in the rich atmosphere of Shibuya. If you’re bored of stoic genre conventions and similar settings, this invigorating adventure is a no-brainer, regardless of whether you’ve played the original or not.

Pros

  • A unique combat system that is even fun to grind in
  • Astounding art direction
  • Charming characters and a smartly-written story to match

Cons

  • It’s a bit padded in places
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