Trying to make a follow up to a beloved cult classic years after the fact rarely, if ever, goes well – this isn’t just true for video games, mind you. Look at the subpar results achieved with the attempted revivals of Arrested Development, or the Terminator movies. A lot of the times, what makes something so beloved to so many people is attributable to the extremely unique blend of the people who worked on it, as well as their specific headspace at that present moment in time. Trying to follow up on that years later – either with the same team, but who are now very different people than they were when they worked on the original, or with a mostly different team altogether – is typically a recipe for disaster.
NEO: The World Ends with You could easily have fallen into that category. It’s coming 14 years after the original, and it’s launching in a very different market than the one that the original title released in. Back then, JRPGs were on the decline, and the overwrought nature of their plots and characters had turned many off from the genre. The World Ends with You, with its urban setting and extremely relatable themes, as well as a striking sense of style, refreshing aesthetics, and hip hop soundtrack, as well as its extremely unique dual screen gameplay enabled by the DS, stood out from the pack right away. But the trail that The World Ends with You blazed was followed and built upon by many. Even as Square Enix ignored the property for over a decade, urban JRPGs started to become more and more popular, and JRPGs as a whole started to mount a comeback. Where the original game was remarkable in large part because of its novelty, NEO has to stand out on its own merits.
Time has not dulled the series’ edge, apparently, because NEO manages to come through, succeeding remarkably at almost everything it tries to do, successfully evoking the original, and building upon its canon with its own fresh ideas. NEO: The World Ends with You is very close to being the perfect sequel to a game like The World Ends with You – it is, essentially, everything that fans of that game have been asking for for 14 years. It’s hard to believe that there is almost a decade and a half separating the two entries because of how well NEO channels the original, in fact. And at the same time, it also takes advantage of the intervening 14 years and of the far more capable technology it gets to be on to deliver a substantially bigger and more fleshed out experience – it never feels like it’s content to just stay within the boundaries the original title marked, either. It’s a remarkable balancing act, one that even sequels born in less difficult circumstances often have trouble with, and it’s a wonder NEO pulls it off as well as it does.
“Time has not dulled the series’ edge, apparently, because NEO manages to come through, succeeding remarkably at almost everything it tries to do, successfully evoking the original, and building upon its canon with its own fresh ideas. “
The basic premise is the same here – a bunch of teenagers who realize they’re caught up in something called the Reaper’s Game, a twisted game that the deceased have to play through in the afterlife in an attempt to win back the right to return to their lives and the world of the living. NEO generally stands on its own merits – a newcomer to the IP will still be able to follow through its substantial story, and be able to follow most of the developments without any trouble. That said, however, the full significance of a lot of it all may well be lost on them, since NEO is a far more direct sequel to the original game than we have been led to believe. It goes beyond just having a similar premise to the original, or some references and nudges to that game, this is a very literal direct follow up to that game, and knowing what happened in The World Ends with You definitely enriches NEO by that much. Even though it is decidedly newcomer friendly, NEO: The World Ends with You is definitely a game made for the fans of the original, and they are the ones who will get the most from it.
This isn’t to say that newcomers can’t enjoy the story – they can, and presumably they will as well, because it’s done really well, with some sharp writing and great characters. I’d go as far as to say that the new cast of characters is far superior to the original batch, with Rin being a far more likeable and pleasant character than Neku, whose dourness didn’t make him the easiest person to relate to. The supporting cast similarly shines as well – Rin’s best friend Fret is a total loudmouth moron, but he never gets obnoxious or grating, and is generally just a fun character who you’re more than happy to have along for the ride. Nagi is an anti social otaku, but her interactions with the other characters (whether it be her jeering dismissal of Fret’s stupidity or her swooning and unrequited crush on a fellow party member) make her a delight. Every new character seems far more immediately fleshed out and compelling than characters did in the original, and the tropes they are initially presented as are then built upon and subverted in some really interesting and compelling ways.
The cast and storytelling in general benefit from the game’s excellent and sharp writing. The characters sound like you would expect teenagers to, and that’s a really hard thing to nail down, because generally, adults trying to write teenage dialog just ends up being cringey. There are a couple of occasions NEO veers into that territory, but on the whole, it’s extremely well written, with some fantastic dialog punctuating the game’s surprisingly brisk pacing. It also helps that the game’s presentation and aesthetic is so sleek and immediately striking. The art style is bold and stands out, the cut ins used for most conversations and cutscenes are incredibly expressive (and rarely seem to hold back the storytelling like you ordinarily would expect them to), the voice acting is a triumph on every level, with every character and every actor a delight, and the music-
Well, The World Ends with You was especially notable for its soundtrack, and NEO seems to realize that, because it mostly brings over that entire soundtrack wholesale and as is. A lot of the songs are remixed, and while I can see some fans and purists unhappy at the (frankly very minor) changes these remixes result in, I think on the whole, the new versions are superior to the originals. NEO also introduces new songs of its own, these ones tending more towards punk rock and metal, and they’re generally great enough to stand side by side next to the older songs and blend in effortlessly enough that it might take you a bit to realize that a lot of them weren’t ever in the original game to begin with.
“The battles are the highlight of the experience, and they benefit from just how many systems the game has that feed into them.”
While the story side of things is definitely a bit diminished for newcomers, the gameplay side will find them on even footing with fans and veterans in terms of the enjoyment they can get from it. The Reaper’s Game involves a seven day marathon of different objectives and quests that sees its players going through Shibuya, taking down Noise (the manifestation of negative feelings and thoughts) that infests it and its inhabitants, with “psychs” (as in attacks) they can activate by equipping pins. Unlike the original game, which was very specifically built around the DS’s unique hardware, NEO was built for consoles and PC – so no unique battle system or control schemes here. At first, this can feel like a bit of a step down – combat seems far too simple, with each character getting only a single button (and therefore, a single attack) assigned to them, and battles feeling very button mashy. But NEO fleshes its mechanics out over time, layering things on until the battle system becomes extremely involved, necessitating players thinking in three dimensions for multiple characters at the same time, and also rewarding customized pin load outs that can work together to stack effects and bonuses to devastating effect.
These battles are the highlight of the experience, and they benefit from just how many systems the game has that feed into them. Said systems are slowly introduced and built upon over time – for example, in a bid to recreate modern teenage culture’s obsession with style, fashion, and brands, NEO: The World Ends with You sees your characters’ equipment basically become clothing from different brands, with special bonuses being unlocked if you wear multiple pieces from the same brand, or if you are stylish enough to really rock what you’re wearing. Or, for example, the ability to delevel your party – lowering your level lowers your stats, and makes battles far harder, but magnifies the quality and quantity of rewards you can expect (something that can especially help players of all persuasion find their sweet spot with the challenge, especially when combined with the extremely flexible difficulty levels the game also offers). Then there is this game’s version of social links – these aren’t handled like you would expect them to be based on other JRPGs, but rather take the form of a skill tree. By befriending the people around Shibuya, you add them to your “social network”, and by becoming closer with them and helping them out with their problems, you get to unlock unique abilities associated with them – whether it be new items to buy at a store, or the ability to have multiple pin loadouts.
All of these systems were in the original game too, but NEO adds a whole bunch of new mechanics of its own as well. Each new character, for example, gets a unique power associated with them – Fret can essentially plant ideas and thoughts in people’s minds by reminding them of specific ideas or things at specific points to induce thoughts related to them. Nagi can help clear people’s depression or frustration by targeting the specific noise that is manifestation of their lethargy, and help motivate them to do something, which typically involves them doing something so they can clear the way for the party. And Rin’s power is the ability to reverse time, to try and redo things with foreknowledge and prescience if things go south for the party. These abilities can make for some extremely interesting gameplay scenarios – Rin’s tie more into the main story progression, but generally, being able to go around Shibuya and impress thoughts upon people and clear their heads with Fret and Nagu definitely makes the city and its inhabitants feel more real and authentic this time around, and causes a better connection with them for the player – it’s hard not to like the people of Shibuya more when there is more to them than just a one line thought bubble over their head, and when you have delved into the deepest recesses of their mind to try and help them get their lives back on track.
“NEO: The World Ends with You is that rare thing, a long awaited and belated sequel to a cult classic that ends up thoroughly recreating the brilliance of the original, while pushing against its boundaries.”
NEO: The World Ends with You‘s many victories on the gameplay side of things can often feel undermined, however, by its bevy of technical issues. The unpatched Switch version of the game is a bit of a mess, with severe frame rate drops with very little provocation (including on the loading screens! How do you have frame rate drops on loading screens?), long load times, and infinite load loops and crashes that disrupt the experience. I would say this is an unacceptable state of things – but the day one patch actually fixes most of this, surprisingly enough. Framerate drops are exceedingly rare with this patch applied (though they do still occasionally crop up), and I’ve run into no crashes or load loops since either. Load times themselves have been shortened a little bit, and while on occasion they can feel annoyingly long, on the whole they are no longer disruptive. This is good, and it means most people who play it get to play the game without any of the significant problems it has in its unpatched state – but if you play it via a physical copy, there is still a very large chance that you run into these problems if you don’t patch it up right away. So that’s something to keep in mind: under no circumstances should you play NEO without the day one patch. Make sure you have the latest updates.
However, there are some problems with the game that can’t be patched away. Chief of these is the camera – NEO: The World Ends with You employs fixed camera perspectives, and these can be extremely frustrating and disorienting for players, particularly since the camera just jumps from one fixed angle to the next without warning or transition, and sometimes totally flips the directions around the player. You tend to get used to this over time – each location has specific camera angles at specific points – but it’s a learning process for sure.
There’s also the trouble with some bizarrely obtuse or sloggy objectives you can sometimes get. Earlier on, I called the game’s pacing brisk, and it is, it’s remarkable how little things seem to drag. But that’s on the story side of things, and on the gameplay side, there are definitely a few in-game days where it can feel like you’re just being made to go on a series of infuriatingly trite fetch quests, which can grind the game’s momentum to a halt. On the whole, just running around Shibuya and chaining battles with Noise can be fun, so NEO never threatens to get boring – but it does come closer to it than it needs to at times with what feels like objectives only added to introduce some unnecessary padding to the play time. Which can especially feel like a shame, given that one of the original game’s triumphs was how lean and streamlined it was.
These problems, such as they are, don’t detract from the game, however. NEO: The World Ends with You is that rare thing, a long awaited and belated sequel to a cult classic that ends up thoroughly recreating the brilliance of the original, while pushing against its boundaries. That it has more shortcomings and failings than the original did comes down to it being a far more ambitious game as well, and in the end, even with the flaws it does have, NEO: The World Ends with You delivers an experience that at the very least manages to stand side-by-side with the original, if not outright exceed it in many ways. Whether you’re a long time fan of the original who’s been eagerly awaiting the follow-up for fourteen years, or a newcomer jumping in now to see what all the fuss has been about for all this time, you’re in for a hell of a ride. You have seven days – survive. Fail, and face erasure.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo Switch.