There is not an ounce of convention that The World Ends With You respects. A partnership between Square-Enix and Kyoto-based developer Jupiter, TWEWY is the kind of inexplicably fortuitous intersection of creativity, talent, and sheer brazenness that comes only a few times each generation. And it’s not exactly hard to see why TWEWY stands out, adopting an urban anime aesthetic for a JRPG long, long before it became popular to do so, and boasting a soundtrack that’s an eclectic mix of rap-rock, soul, jazz, hip-hop, and R&B. This was just about the last thing you’d expect from the house of Final Fantasy.
Of course, it’s just about exactly what you’d see coming from a man like Tetsuya Nomura.
Nomura, like SEGA’s Toshihiro Nagoshi, is a man who seems dedicated to his sense of aesthetics, and he’s received no small amount of grief for it. Nomura is perhaps most famous for his work on character designs for Final Fantasy VII, but the man has accumulated substantial infamy in later years for the increasing improbability of his human character designs. Nomura adores zippers, straps, shoulder pads, pockets, utility belts, armor plating and just about anything else that can make for an impossibly busy look. Love him or hate him, it’s impossible to deny that Nomura has a indelible sense of style. You’ll never mistake a Nomura design for anything else.
Keeping all this in mind, TWEWY feels like something of a thesis statement from the man. Featuring some of Nomura’s most Nomura-esque designs, this is a game with fashion as a mechanic both in gameplay and as a lingua franca in Shibuya. It’s expression, plain and simple. Over the course of this 80-hour JRPG, our protagonist Neku Sakuraba comes across all kinds of people boasting all kinds of worldviews. These unique perspectives inform their personal aesthetics. As a result, no one in TWEWY dresses the same way. It’s entirely possible to make very salient observations about these characters just by taking into account how they choose to present themselves to the world. Fashion is a big deal for Nomura, and you won’t catch him apologizing for what he likes. It’s a fitting crux for a game like TWEWY, that aims to be unique and singular above all else. The aim was to make a game without equal, stylistic or otherwise. Something utterly transgressive and unique. The fact that it just happens to be one of the finest games of the last two decades is little more than a happy accident.
It really is a minor miracle that TWEWY ended up being as good as it did. Its combat system is a wild, chaotic mess that has you control two characters simultaneously. If this weren’t enough marketing poison, the protagonist, Neku, is controlled entirely through touch-based gestures, while his partner on the DS’s top screen responds to directional button inputs instead. This is a system that takes advantage of the DS’s unique hardware, and it’s one that has no real points of comparison. What the game did isn’t possible with the Switch or any modern hardware. It’s a thoroughly unique experience you can’t get anywhere else. Controlling Neku in perfect sync with his partner is one of the most satisfying skills that one can master in all of gaming. There’s a particular joy to being presented with what seems to be an overwhelmingly chaotic system that requires thinking about combat in a way few games ever make you do. Just like Neku, the player is forced to consider the needs of people other than themselves in order to succeed. Both players share a health bar—you thrive together and you die together. Eventually, you’ll find yourselves taking on screens full of enemy Noise in perfect sync, resulting in remarkably flashy displays of skill not unlike the kind of spectacle one would find in Devil May Cry or Bayonetta.
What’s great about TWEWY isn’t just its high skill ceiling but how it allows the player to customize their gameplay experience to a frankly absurd degree. In an age where nearly everyone seems intent on arguing about difficulty in games, TWEWY figured out the solution years ago. Here, you may choose between four difficulties on the pause menu as well set your level to whatever you damn well please. Difficulty levels change enemy item drops while your current level determines drop rates. Here is a perfect risk-reward system that allows the player to make the game as easy or as hard as they like, while ensuring that confident players can always play at a handicap for particularly enticing boons.
Gameplay is another means through which TWEWY encourages expression. Play how you like, but remember that you can’t do anything of worth alone. Alone, Neku is mere fodder. With a partner, however, nothing is out of your reach. Each partner plays differently in such a way as to highlight their distinct personalities and worldviews. Laid-back and eager to please Shiki is remarkably easy to sync with, while snotty and lackadaisical Joshua requires a fair bit of babysitting and has a particularly slow attack rate. Neku will need to draw on each of their strengths to survive.
Here is the centre of what TWEWY is trying to impart: expand your world by taking a peek into others. The world is transformed through each person’s eyes. By ourselves, we can behold only a fraction of a fraction of the totality of being. With others, however, we can better contextualize reality and our place within it. So it is that prickly, reclusive Neku learns to connect and cherish people for all their faults, thereby finding some possible purpose for himself in the uncompromising, unrelenting chaos of the Shibuya streets.
You ought to enrich your own world by grabbing a copy of one of the most unique gaming experiences ever put to cartridge.