Back in 2008, video games could be more than a little bit weird. Nintendo’s DS had hit its stride, and before the iOS goldrush truly began, there was a brief window where, it seemed, anything went. It was a wildlands full of outlandish, often brilliant games – none more so, I think, than Square Enix’s The World Ends With You.
It’s an eccentric, messy and often difficult-to-fathom modern-day RPG from some of the team behind the Kingdom Hearts series – and yet it’s also innovative, smart and heartfelt. Set against the backdrop of Shibuya, Tokyo’s crowded core, it’s an artful reflection of the place itself as much as it is an expression of RPG mechanics; across the district’s famous scramble and the areas beyond you’re given a bustle of systems that somehow conspire to make something beautiful. Playing The World Ends With You can lead to that same heady euphoria you get when, stepping out of Shibuya station, you’re faced with a crowded Hachiko crossing; this is a game that soars with humanity.
Part of that’s down to the exquisite cast, and the twisting path they’re taken on through their adventure. You’re Neku, a recently deceased teen who’s spent his waking life shut off from everyone, a pair of oversized headphones the barrier between himself and the outside world. That barrier’s broken down, of course, as you enlist the help of others to partake in a game that might bring you back to the world of the living… but how? You’ll find traces of its set-up in games such as Zero Escape, but there’s a sweet, unassuming positivity that remains The World Ends With You’s own.
It tells a story about the importance of making connections with others, and builds a game around that same conceit. The combat that’s at the heart of The World Ends With You is about working well in unison with your partner – well, actually it’s about many things, but we may as well start with that. On the Nintendo DS, the split screens had you controlling one character on each, one via d-pad inputs while the other was ushered around with gestures on the touchscreen. If it sounds strange it’s because it most definitely was, and at first the struggle with The World Ends With You is getting to grips with its curious ways. But oh boy, when you do…
This new Switch version distills things down to a single screen, your partner’s attacks being mostly automated with just a little input from yourself. It smooths out the famously steep learning curve, even if it loses some of the nuance, though it does end up in the same place: a fascinating blend of RPG and fighting game, where you draw upon your abilities while paying close attention to your positioning. It’s perhaps the most interesting battle system to come out of Square Enix since Final Fantasy 12 (and in a pleasant twist, that particular game’s director, Hiroyuki Ito, seems to have had a hand in this Switch port) – and it’s certainly the most eccentric. The real genius of it all, though, is that despite its complexities and crinkles, it just works.
And in the Switch’s Final Remix it works, too. There’s a handful of options available, though be warned – none of them are centred around what you might consider traditional controls. Not that that will be a surprise if you’ve played The World Ends With You, which is too unwieldy to be contained in any traditional set-up. Instead, you’ve got the JoyCons which can be used to control a pointer when you’re playing in table or docked mode, or of course there’s that touchscreen for when you’re playing in handheld mode.
And it’s a game that’s purely played on the touchscreen or through the gestures you make with the JoyCon, which may well prove a barrier too far for some.
Funny thing is, touchscreen controls have fallen fast in and out of fashion since The World Ends With You first came out. Back in 2008, the touchscreen was furtive ground for all sorts of wonderful experiments, pushing towards the iOS revolution that was only just beginning. And that iOS revolution led to the inevitable backlash, to the point that, for the audience the Switch plays to, touchscreen controls are tainted. Some people just don’t like them, and this new version of The World Ends With You doesn’t make any concessions for that bunch.
It does, though, prove what can be done with touchscreen controls. This is a game of staggering depth, its battle system a rich alchemy where your concoctions are rarely short of delightful. The pins that you equip, and that grant you your abilities in battle, are delivered with heft and imagination, but that’s just half the story. I love the deeper systems – the way you can tinker with the difficulty as you see fit on the fly, the nest of menus that let you tinker with tangible results, the way that, in a game about the obsessions of teen life, the fascination with fashion runs system-deep, with different pins being more in vogue in some areas of Shibuya than others. It’s dizzying, electric stuff.
Is Final Remix the definitive edition of The World Ends With You? I’m not entirely convinced – the battle system, stripped back slightly as it is, still works wonderfully, but it doesn’t sing the same strange harmony of the dual-screen original. Still, for what’s missing, there’s an awful lot in its place. The artwork, spiky, spunky and full of that same ebullient attitude that made so many of us fall in love with Tokyo at the turn of the century, looks exceptional now it’s been remastered and given more room to breathe, and the same can be said for the soundtrack, full of that same attitude and fleshed out to beautiful effect.
You could point, also, to Solo Remix, the mobile version which seems to act as the foundation for this, and which is available at half the price on the App Store. In its defence, though, The World Ends With: Final Remix You does have an all-new epilogue (which, I’ll admit, I haven’t got to yet – it’s post-game and demands a few requirements from a new in-game reaper) – and anyway, it’s crude to argue about the cost of a game such as this. This is RPG-making at its boldest and brightest, and a window onto a brilliantly bountiful era for the genre. It’s priceless, really.