Some games trade substance for visual flash. But in the action role-playing game The World Ends With You, the world of fashion is the game’s substance. You play as a teenager in Japan’s colorful Shibuya district suffering from amnesia and in a desperate battle for survival in “The Reapers Game.” The game is available as separate downloads for the iPhone ($18) and iPad ($20); devices must be running iOS 4.3 or later.
The anime-inspired artwork and strange story are the products of Square Enix’s Kingdom Hearts team, who also developed the original Nintendo DS version of this game. The multiple-screen format of the original title translates to iOS fairly well; the game takes place in cut scenes, in crowded Shibuya street hubs, and in battle instances where you confront graffiti-inspired animals called “Noise.” Only in the battle instances does the need for an additional screen prove apparent—switching out weapons or getting information on the Noise can only be performed in the game’s hubs, but not in the barebones battle screen.
The world is introduced slowly over the first few hours (yes, hours) of gameplay, with the amnesiac Neku bringing up plot points repeatedly to ensure everyone is up to speed. Essentially, the “Reapers Game” takes place in an underground dimension that exists in parallel to the real world. Neku and his friends, the Reapers (another opponent), and the Noise can all see each other but are largely invisible to the crowded streets of people in the real world, with the exception of shop keepers who you will buy from.
Neku and his friends use pins that instill powers that can be upgraded and used in combination to score points. Use a gesture on the touchscreen, and Neku unleashes ice walls and energy blasts or syncs up with his partner for elaborate attacks. A neat feature of the game (and a handy way to avoid the grind of leveling) is that you’ll be granted experience for certain pins even when you don’t play. I stepped away from the game for a weekend and came back to see some of my attack pins gained several levels in my absence.
Unfortunately, the touchscreen exacerbates what is fundamentally a shortsighted battle mechanic. Gesturing to unleash fireballs and tapping to hurl lightning is novel the first few times, but its an imprecise and clunky mechanism for dealing with large groups of enemies that dart and dash about the screen like caffeinated rabbits. Since most of your level grinding and quests will revolve around encounters with Noise, you’ll quickly pine for the days of old-school Japanese RPGs and their turn-based combat.
In a strange nod to the highly-volatile world of fashion, you’ll need to purchase items in shops that will upgrade your character, and many of these are shirts, necklaces, and the like. You’ll receive bonuses for wearing fashionable clothes and handicaps for wearing unfashionable clothes. You need to check what is considered fashionable constantly, as each section of Shibuya has its own ranking in cool. By the time this mechanic is introduced, however, you’ll either consider it another ridiculous conceit of a game full of such distractions, or it’ll be the final straw in a game constantly weighed down by bizarre rules, plot devices, and characters.
Speaking of the characters, rare is it to find a character so thoroughly unlikeable as the protagonist, Neku. Neku is as lost in the new world as you are, and there are many new rules to understand. His major character trait is whining about how he doesn’t need people, but throughout the game it’s established that he needs to partner with someone to survive the rules of the game. Many normal humans would accept this constraint and stop complaining. Neku does not, and I hated every thought bubble and “…” he spoke.
Yet, despite what I consider a frustrating battle mechanic that wears out its welcome within the first hour, I can’t give The World Ends With You a negative review. It’s a flawed game, sure, but it’s so unapologetically weird that you have to give it credit. Any game that can make me feel like an amateur expert in Japanese youth fashion, or has me fight bubble-spewing frogs with a plush toy cat, well, it’s worth a look. And the sheer length of the game (dozens of hours, at least) makes it one of the deepest mobile RPGs.
If you can get through the game’s first few hours, you’ll find that The World Ends With You offers some remarkable characters and strange game mechanics that are surprisingly fun, if not entirely seamless. It is destined to be a cult classic rather than a genre-defining game, but there’s nothing else like it on iOS.