The original The World Ends With You is a game that I always felt like I should have loved more. It’s a title I’m still very fond of but, having experienced the arguably inferior Nintendo Switch version first, it’s one that I mostly remember for its characters, world, music, and style, rather than its finicky gameplay and lack of any real comfortable method of playing.
My main hope going into NEO: The World Ends With You was that it would take everything that worked about the original, whilst letting the gameplay match up with what was being presented. Thankfully, the sequel does exactly that and has quickly become one of my favourite games of 2021.
NEO: The World Ends With You is a sequel to the 2007 Nintendo DS game (well, technically it’s a sequel to the anime adaptation, but I digress) that takes place three years after Neku took part in the Reaper’s Game, a trial that has players competing for the chance to come back to life. This time around the stars of the show is Rindo, Fret, Nagi, and returning character Sho Minamimoto, who all take part in a new iteration of the Reaper’s Game with different rules and completely different stakes.
Going into too much detail on the story would be spoiling things, as a good amount of the plot is centred around mysteries slowly being resolved, but suffice to say that it’s really well-told and gripping throughout the whole 30-hour adventure. Similarly to the first game, the real star here is the characters and the self-reflective journeys they go on during the Reaper’s Game. Once again, it feels like going into too much detail would be spoiling things, but Fret’s journey in particular stuck out to me and felt like a really relatable issue in this day and age.
That may all sound doom and gloom, but one big advantage to The World Ends With You is its sense of humour. It’s often genuinely really funny and well-written and feels appropriately modern, with phrases like “Love that for you” and “sus” thrown in without feeling forced. Even when things get dark and the stakes get higher, there’s always a lot of positivity and light.
One thing I would point out is that this isn’t a good introductory game to the series. Although it focuses on new characters and does reshuffle the rules of the Reaper’s Game, the second half of the adventure really expects you to know what happened in the original and to have some understanding of who some characters are. You wouldn’t be as lost as you would be if you jumped into something like Kingdom Hearts 3 without any background knowledge, but this still feels like a game for the fans.
If there’s one element of The World Ends With You that was almost universally praised, it’s the presentation values. The whole game was practically dripping with a modern, youthful atmosphere that was perfectly displayed through the detailed character portraits, genuinely stylish fashion, and an awesome soundtrack. NEO: The World Ends With You gives me serious déjà vu because it accomplishes the exact same things 14 years later.
The 3D style that’s present in gameplay and some cutscenes is purposefully simplistic, which isn’t going to be for everyone, but the fantastic 2D portraits are full of character and always a joy to watch, especially in the scenes that feature voice acting as well. I do find myself wishing there were a few more 3D cutscenes and more 2D sections with voice acting, but that’s admittedly just me being greedy because I enjoy them so much.
I’ve been listening to the game’s soundtrack pretty much on repeat since the demo was released, so I was already sure I’d love it, but the music I hadn’t heard from that small glimpse is just as good. In particular, some of the remixes here are absolutely fantastic and a real highlight for fans. I’d go as far as saying that the soundtrack overall is stronger here, with tracks like Breaking Free and Storm becoming favourites in my mind. Don’t go looking it up or anything, but in my opinion, the final boss theme is one of the best from a game in recent memory.
So far, NEO: The World Ends With You has managed to take all of the things that I loved about the first game and upgrade them for a new generation, with better music, better visuals, and a more engaging story. As I said before, my main concern was the gameplay, but as it turns out I had no need to be worried – NEO: The World Ends With You’s combat takes some getting used to, but it’s a ton of fun when you get to grips with it.
The gameplay is split into two sections – exploration and combat. Combat is easily the more interesting out of the two, and I’m shocked at how well it translates the original’s focus on multiple characters and puts it into a 3D space. You control up to six characters at once and move around an arena space taking down the game’s enemy, Noise. Each character is controlled with a different button input that links to whatever pin you have equipped for them, and you’ll be in full control of the character whose ability you last used, whilst the other party members move around on their own until you press the button assigned to them.
Sounds confusing, right? Well, for the first couple of battles it takes some getting used to, but it essentially boils down to each character representing a different attack or ability. Once you realise that the game really only has you in control of one character at a time it becomes a lot easier to parse. That’s when the real fun begins, as you’ll start combining attacks to “drop the beat” and increase your groove meter.
On paper, it sounds a bit complicated but in practice, it flows really well and almost plays like a rhythm game. The more you play, the better you get at timing beat drops and saving groove for specific enemies. It can be a little much as the action gets more hectic towards the end of the game, but it’s consistently engaging throughout the adventure and is a far cry from the touch-screen controlled combat of Final Remix that almost put me off the whole adventure. NEO: The World Ends With You finally has gameplay that matches everything else that it does so well.
A big reason why combat is so much fun is because of the variety of pins. There are over 300 pins in the game and each of them has a different effect. Some of them cause characters to shoot out fireballs, some let players use energy swords, and some let you heal your team. Those are just some of the more easily explainable ones too, you’ve also got the ability to shoot out piles of junk, lasso enemies to spin them around, and cause gale-force winds.
Although combat itself is satisfying, pairing these pins up and figuring out the best combinations is really what keeps it so fresh over the whole campaign. Although I initially struggled, I soon had my party equipped with psychic shotgun blasts to deal high damage, a light projectile that healed the damage that it dealt, and a close-range attack to close the distance. Once you’ve got the winning combination, combat becomes eerily relaxing, only going back to being stressful during some of the boss battles.
When you’re not in combat, you’re going to spend the rest of your time exploring the city and completing puzzles to progress in the story. These puzzles are usually pretty simplistic and spelt out for the player, but they’re good for introducing some variety to the game. The most interesting of them come from Rindo’s special ability to rewind time. This has the player revisiting events and changing things around, and although it’s usually greater for the story, there are a few times when it affects the puzzles and makes them much more interesting, such as having to influence someone with a specific conversation before a big battle.
Beyond the story, each day also has different side missions for Rindo to complete, which unlock special bonus abilities and quality-of-life improvements through the social network menu. There’s a fair bit of bonus content to do beyond just collecting all of the pins, so those who really get into the game can easily spend 40 or more hours trying to finish it.
Although overall I loved the journey, I’ll admit that the formulaic approach can sometimes get a little tedious. There are a few sections in the game that stood out as being overly long and boring (sorry Golden Pig hunt, you suck), particularly towards the end of the first week. This boredom only really lasts for a few hours and quickly gets knocked aside as big story moments happen, but it’s worth pointing out that there are a few small sections that drag a little.
Beyond these sluggish sections, the only real issue I have with NEO: The World Ends With You is its performance on Nintendo Switch. Beyond suffering one crash that didn’t really lose me any progress, the frame rate can drop significantly in busier fights, loading screens take up to five seconds each time, and there’s a noticeable delay when waiting for a cutscene to start up.
On their own, each of these issues isn’t really anything but noticeable, but after 30 hours of gameplay, it becomes a lot harder to ignore. Considering how many times you’ll be running between different areas, or stopping to wait for a cutscene to load, it can end up becoming a little tedious. This is made all the more obvious from having played a few hours of the game on PS5, where everything is buttery smooth and happens as it’s supposed to. It’s not a deal-breaker by any means, but it does sometimes feel like the Switch is being pushed a little too hard here.
Those small technical issues can’t stop NEO: The World Ends With You from being one of the best games of 2021, however. It’s endlessly charming, has an in-depth combat system that feels great to learn, and constantly goes above and beyond what the original did. I am praying that it sees the success it deserves, because this wonderful world can’t end here.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Square Enix