Playing “Neo: The World Ends With You” invites quite a few questions. Some pop up mid-game, like, “What ludicrously over-the-top thing is Nagi, a self-described edgelord and one of the game’s funniest characters, going to say next?” Others are tied to characters: “Just what is Sho Minamimoto, video gaming’s coolest mathematician, scheming and why is he working with the inexperienced protagonists?” Perhaps most importantly: “Why does this game have frequent frame rate drops despite looking worse than the 14-year-old title it follows?”
There’s a lot to like in “Neo: The World Ends With You,” from its wacky urban fantasy story that aptly infuses outlandish plot devices into contemporary Shibuya, Japan, to its intricate combat system that allows players to mix and match an impressive variety of abilities. For fans of Square Enix’s 2007 Nintendo DS hit “The World Ends With You,” the sequel is laser-focused on titillating the senses and, for the most part, accomplishes that mission with aplomb. But man, Shibuya is in rough shape, and not just because the city is swarming with fantasy monsters.
Players will spend a lot of time backtracking through Shibuya’s washed out streets solving riddles, completing fetch quests, and fighting monsters, and every 3D model you encounter looks like it was ripped out of a cheap mobile game. The repetition isn’t helped by the drab environments and fixed camera angles, which are made worse by frequent slowdown issues (on the docked Nintendo Switch version of the game, at least); the frame rate drops aren’t severe enough to meaningfully impact the gameplay but are just noticeable enough to be an annoyance. What happened? The original “The World Ends With You” was lauded for its graphics, which featured all manners of distinctive 2D sprites that managed to stand out despite the tiny screen size of the Nintendo DS; perhaps it’s telling that “Neo” looks marginally better when played in the Switch’s handheld mode.
Moving beyond the poor transition to 3D, it’s worth examining the core question of any video game: What is “Neo: The World Ends With You,” and why has the small franchise garnered such a dedicated following that publisher Square Enix decided to invest in an anime adaptation of the original game earlier in the year?
Like its 2007 predecessor, “Neo: The World Ends With You” is an action role-playing game set in Japan’s Shibuya commercial district. Players control Rindo, who is forced to participate in a deadly week-long contest known as the Reapers’ Game. Rindo and his teammates have apparently died and the Reapers’ Game is a kind of purgatory and opportunity for redemption; win the game and you can be resurrected in the real world or be granted some other wish, but if you come in last place, you’re permanently erased from existence.
Of course, there is a deeper conspiracy at play and it’s clear that some of the Reapers running this high-stakes contest have ulterior motives. As with the 2007 game, there’s ample fun to be had in “Neo” when you cross paths with all manner of outlandish and stylized characters and attempt to figure out the mysteries behind the Reapers’ Game. The story is primarily told via 2D comic book-style panels (which look significantly better than the game’s 3D graphics) and though it takes a few hours to heat up, “Neo” eventually lays out a satisfyingly high-stakes tale with a few appropriate twists, turns, and a handful of callbacks to the 2007 game that diehard fans will relish. There’s a lot of jargon that might confuse newcomers who skipped the original game or the Funimation series, but the plot of “Neo” thankfully never goes as off-the-rails as many of Square Enix’s “Kingdom Hearts” or “Final Fantasy” titles.
Unfortunately, Rindo has a severe case of being a video game protagonist: He’s mostly a blank slate that just serves to drive the action forward. Want more? Well, Rindo’s in-game profile helpfully states that he’s a high schooler and a “heavy social network user.” That’s pretty much all you’re going to learn about him for most of the game. The writers give a few supporting characters more attention — Shoka, a goth Reaper who somehow manages to pull off wearing a hoodie with cat ears and a tail, is bound to be a fan-favorite and steals most of the scenes she’s in — but it’s a shame that “Neo” is more focused on referencing the original game and its typical “save the city” plot instead of giving players a reason to emphasize with most of the core cast. Thankfully, the moment-to-moment writing is nonetheless full of wit and charm and there’s a sense that the people who crafted this world and its characters have a genuine affection for Shibuya and the trend-obsessed people who roam its streets. It’s not perfect, but the writers’ enthusiasm for this setting is infectious.
The game’s phenomenal music also does a great deal of heavy lifting. “Neo” boasts a myriad of original songs that run the gamut from rock and pop to heavy metal and hip-hop, as well as remixed versions of the original game’s hits, and there’s nary a weak recording on the soundtrack. There are some legitimate bangers in “Neo” and at least several tracks are bound to stick with players long after they’ve shut the game off. Shibuya might not look the part, but its music is undeniably stellar.
If only you didn’t have to slog through Shibuya completing all manner of fetch quests in between the more story-driven segments. The muddled graphics make it difficult to enjoy the adventures, despite the admirable recreations of the city’s various landmarks. Regardless, those who can look past these issues will be rewarded with plenty of things to do. There are ample side quests, unlockables, and other goodies scattered throughout Shibuya and the game actively rewards players who are willing to backtrack and scour every corner of the map.
The shoddy presentation also adversely impacts the combat — it’s hard to keep track of the visual cues that indicate enemy attacks due to the messy particle effects cluttering the screen, while audio cues are practically nonexistent — but there’s enough depth to the fighting to mostly overcome that issue. Rindo and the gang can equip all manner of pins (spells, basically), ranging from simple melee attacks to long-range magical abilities, and there’s a huge variety of powers to mix and match. The combat isn’t anywhere near as unique as the original game, which exploited the Nintendo DS’ touch screen controls in all manner of creative ways, but it’s significantly more approachable.
“Neo” actively rewards experimentation and players will constantly unlock powerful new talents to use throughout the game. Like its predecessor, “Neo” also boasts a stellar difficulty system that players can tweak to their liking. Raise the difficulty and intentionally lower your party’s HP, and you’ll get significantly more loot and XP upon defeating enemies. It’s an intuitive way to allow players of all skill levels to tackle the game at their own pace. That said, most players will definitely want to bump the challenge up, because doing so will cut down on the necessary grinding and “Neo” can quickly devolve into mindless button mashing if players don’t handicap their characters a bit.
Everything about “Neo” is made better by its contemporary setting: In other RPGs, gearing yourself in chain mail or wearing an enchanted necklace might increase your strength. Boring. Wouldn’t you rather bulk up your characters by buying distressed jeans at a department store that is based on the real-world Shibuya’s iconic 109 building and chowing down on ramen with your party members? You can even become a brand ambassador in “Neo” — deck your characters in clothing owned by a specific company and you’ll get an additional stat boost; help out other characters in side missions and they’ll become part of your social network, which allows you to unlock all sorts of useful abilities.
Topical pop culture elements are woven throughout the game’s dialogue and mechanics and rarely come off as pandering or overly annoying. (An ally who frequently shouts about activating his galaxy brain is a notably aggravating exception.) It’s all definitely a bit of style over substance, but style can go a long way: As with 2007’s “The World Ends With You” and games like “EarthBound,” the fairly routine video game tasks here often seem fresh and exciting because of the unique setting.
A bit of style over substance is an apt summation of “Neo: The World Ends With You.” Dedicated fans of the original game will doubtlessly be able to overlook the aforementioned issues, and it’s a credit to the game’s strengths that its downsides don’t completely derail the overall experience. It’s… a mixed bag. If you’re looking for a new anime action game, “Neo” is an absolutely fine way to get your fix. It’s just hard to imagine that people will remember this game with anything close to the adoration that so many players had for the original.
“Neo: The World Ends With You” is available on PlayStation 4 and the Nintendo Switch. This review was based off of a Nintendo Switch code provided by Square Enix.