'NEO: The World Ends with You' Has Style but Lacks the Edge of the Original

NEO tries to satisfy both a new fanbase and the old. It doesn't succeed particularly well at either.
August 4, 2021, 1:00pm
Neo Hed

I played The World Ends with You when I was a very messy teenager. Seventeen was a rough age to be in general, but it was doubly so for an immigrant kid who constantly struggled with their queerness. Anime offered me an escape from aggressively American gender roles, and I was notoriously protective of it. I was quick to judge people based on their favorite series. Remember the “Normal People Scare Me” meme on Tumblr? That was my personality, but unironically.

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The World Ends with You (TWEWY1) gave me a much-needed dose of self-awareness. It went beyond the peace and love messaging that was archetypical for Japanese role-playing games. Instead of pandering to my little nerd ego like a Ready Player One might have done, it painted an unsparing portrait of a flawed protagonist in whom I saw too much of myself. It bullied me into straightening my act, dropping the insecurity, and accepting other weird, traumatized nerds for who they were. 

So I can’t give NEO: The World Ends with You uncritical praise. Doing so would be ungrateful to what the game did for me while I was a self-absorbed teenager.

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The World Ends With You is well known for an incredible soundtrack and an impressive art style from the developers of Kingdom Hearts. It’s also infamous for an unusual battle system that originally made use of the Nintendo DS’ dual screens. Structurally, it’s a JRPG that I can superficially compare to Persona 5 and Tokyo Mirage Sessions. You play as a dead teenager who has to beat the Reapers’ Game in order to come back to life. They’re paired with another dead soul, and every day is a list of puzzle objectives that must be solved in order to advance. The deadline is seven days, and those who lose the game are unceremoniously erased. 

NEO takes place three years after the first protagonist had beaten the Reapers’ Game. It throws players into a new Reapers’ Game. This time, cheating death is a team sport. Only those who learn how to coordinate a JRPG party will emerge victorious. Did I mention that the story kills a lot of allies, and you have to fix it with time travel?  

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As longtime TWEWY1 players would know, the Reapers’ Game takes place over a week, and the Reapers act as its tireless game masters. The Shibuya Reapers would quickly learn that not all internationalism was so benign. As I skateboarded down the greyed streets of the Scramble Crossing during the third chapter of the game, I couldn’t help but see the similarities with another city that I knew in real life: Beijing, China. Like Tokyo this year, the city had once been chosen to host the Olympics. I remember the optimism in the summer of 2007. Beijingers were so proud that their city was opening up to the world, and that foreigners would be able to see what made their city so special. Or so I thought. The human cost of the games were astronomical. One and a half million residents were evicted to build the Olympic facilities. NEO’s Shibuya experienced a similar displacement, as the Shinjuku Reapers demoted their Shibuya counterparts and treated the city as their personal playground. Perhaps alluding to the massively unpopular Tokyo Olympics, NEO makes several references to social distancing, and the the game masters infected Shibuya with a hazardous virus during the third round of the Reapers’ Game. 

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The game isn’t all doom and gloom, however. Despite the game’s rebellious aesthetic, NEO is aggressively pro-social like its predecessor. The party can order a variety of stat-boosting foods from restaurants and drink shops, but they can only order if you buy an item for every character. If I didn’t have the funds to buy a drink for even one party member, then the whole party would have to walk out without ordering anything. At first, I felt frustrated. The entire party loses out just because I couldn’t afford to buy a snack for Minamimoto? Except that’s what friendship is supposed to be, isn’t it? Nobody was supposed to be left behind, even if it meant that I had to forgo the opportunity cost and leave empty-handed.

I found NEO’s battle system to be more egalitarian than its predecessor. Unlike the original game where partner activity was at the cruel whims of the AI, each party member in NEO contributed to damage equally, and could play a variety of combat roles. I rolled my eyes when Fret… fretted about how difficult battles would be after one of the party walked off for plot reasons. I wasn’t ready for how painful combat would be once he did.

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In the previous game in the series, a character’s ability to equip stat-boosting clothes was determined by their Bravery stat. Men’s clothes required a lower bravery stat, and women’s clothes required a far higher stat. While the original idea was interesting, it fell flat to my own personal experiences. Queer women, nonbinary people, and trans men were often reviled for daring to experiment with masculine clothing. So it was refreshing to see that NEO had changed it to the “Style” stat. Gender also did not influence the amount of style points that were required to unlock each item’s special ability. I immediately put a lolita dress on Minamimoto, who had the highest style stat out of all of my characters. The auto-style function insisted that Beat performed at his best in a maid outfit (and I agreed). This design felt more intentional once I had encountered a trans shopkeeper in a records store. 

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All these great touches and improvements don’t make up for NEO’s lack of focus when it comes to its characters and their humanity. The first TWEWY was a story located in Shibuya, but its central conceit was how the various background characters had given the ward its distinct personality. The new Shibuya is too large, and its inhabitants struggle to be heard above the noise (but not in a way that felt intentional). In the first game, your character Neku started to care about the individual struggles of Shibuya’s inhabitants because the Reaper’s Game forced him to help them.

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In contrast, NEO makes the Reaper’s Game the point of the story, and turns Shibuya into a fancy backdrop. Each day is a never ending list of ephemeral objectives, with the Real Ground (living) inhabitants acting as quest markers, rather than as full individuals with their own lives. After two weeks of the Reaper’s Game, Rindo’s insistence that “Shibuya is a unique city where anyone can be who they are” fell flat.

NEO rarely made me feel like I had a good handle on "who people are."  I had been excited about Tosai “Fret” Furesawa, whose exuberant personality was an interesting contrast to our sullen protagonist. I was considerably less excited when other characters told him to confront his insincerity, a flaw that it was not clear Fret possessed. The weirder part was that he was being rehabilitated by a couple of contentious teammates who had only known him for a few weeks, making the entire arc feel rushed and superficial. Where the first game's conflicts were convincing and strengthened the bonds between characters, NEO's characters get over their differences without any proper buildup. There simply isn’t enough time for the characters to work out their differences in such a short party-based RPG.

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The problem is the time travel mechanic. NEO explains that time travel creates excess energy that hurls the city towards chaos, but it also strongarms the game into puzzles that were not its strong suit. I was intrigued by how NEO ambitiously tries to integrate the time travel mechanics with the bombshell it drops during the endgame, a similarity that it shares with the Zero Escape series. However, it comes at the expense of its characters and theme. It’s a familiar problem that I often struggle with as a game designer. How does a story create meaningful character moments when most of them are hypothetical what-ifs? Time and resources are finite, and the most straightforward answer is to reduce the content burden for the stories that are meant to be pruned away. NEO prioritizes its pseudo-branching structure over adequate character development, and it is a creative gamble that did not wholly succeed.

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The game immersed me in a busier Shibuya than the one from 2007. The protagonist Rindo would intercept ambient conversations by accident, lending a new serendipitous quality to Shibuya. The characters dined at an Indian restaurant on week one and a taco stand on week three. I paid their tab with Shibupay - a direct reference to the Chinese payment processor Alipay. It reminded me of the ShibuyaI had visited prior to the pandemic, where I purchased the most delicious shawarma wrap I had ever eaten in my life. Unlike the orientalist images that American media liked to paint onto Japan, Shibuya was constantly reinventing itself around global culture and ideas.

Yet NEO leaves so much beautiful potential on the cutting board. I met Nagi, whom the characters had intense misgivings about. She’s a superfan of a mobile gacha game called Elegant Strategy. Despite young women’s massive influence and spending power in the anime content industry, they are regularly dismissed or ignored outside of their own fan communities. Nagi was the first time I had seen the subculture explored with such care and attention to detail. Her itabag is as iconic to her as Beat’s skateboard was to him. Unfortunately, she mostly served as exposition to the plot and the feelings of the boys around her. Her moments in the spotlight were limited to how others reacted to her dramatic behavior. Nagi’s lack of personal character development is one symptom of NEO’s major flaw: its emphasis on spectacle, rather than heart.

Compared to TWEWY1, the new Shibuya is a more globalized and impersonal, but also, inclusive place.“ Does Shibuya deserve to be saved, and what does salvation look like?” would have been an even more interesting question now, compared to 2007. Unfortunately, NEO struggles to answer both of these questions, and defaults to a story about the redemptive power of friendship. Normally, I would never fault a JRPG for trying to give me warm and fuzzy feelings about friendship. The World Ends with You was a cultural juggernaut because it spoke to the messiness of teenage relationships. NEO makes no attempts to challenge its audience.  NEO tries to satisfy both a new fanbase and the old. I’m not convinced that it succeeded particularly well at either.

If you want to play a stylish action RPG with a killer soundtrack, then NEO is a great game. But when its predecessor left such large shoes to fill, its lack of focus prevented NEO from being a truly legendary sequel.