Viz Media’s made a name for itself through anime and manga publishing, but with The World Next Door, the first title to launch under its new video game imprint, it looks like the company has a good chance at breaking into yet another field. Because from what I played of the combination action-puzzle-visual novel during this year’s Game Developers Conference, developer Rose City Games has something endearingly unexpected on its hands.
The World Next Door is a lot more complicated than its simple pitch: A human girl named Jun is transported to a fantasy world, set with demons and other creatures. Although they’re welcoming to her, Jun needs to get out of this “world next door” — if she spends too much time there, she’ll be unable to go back to her real home ... and she’ll die in the process.
This story plays out as a series of long, voiceless visual novel sequences, where Jun and the fantasy world teens who have adopted her hash out a plan to get her to safety. There are occasional dialogue options to choose from, each one defined by a corresponding emotion. It’s a nice touch to what is otherwise a system that’s par for the course. Nicer still is the personality already apparent in the writing: a demon skull-headed monster named Horace is a particular standout, dropping fiery quips in the middle of serious conversations.
But this ultimately amounts to a lot of reading, which I mentioned to the Rose City Games crew guiding the “pre-alpha build” demo. The hope, they said, is to introduce some minor voice acting to fill out the relative silence; otherwise, expect The World Next Door to remain a text-heavy game.
Breaking up that text is a battle system that seemed at first jarring and complicated. As is the norm with any fantasy game, Jun’s got to use some magic and fight off some monsters. That, I can roll with. The battlefield isn’t pulled from a familiar role-playing game, though; it’s instead a puzzle board filled with multicolored runes, each one representing a different element and skill.
And I don’t mean that it just looks like a puzzle board; winning in The World Next Door is a lot like winning in a game like Bejeweled or Tetris Attack. You have to string at least three like runes together to unleash attacks of varying power; if you’re too slow to grab your desired string, your enemy could steal your combo from under you.
This isn’t something I’ve personally experienced in a game like this before, and that’s what attracted Rose City Games to testing out this combat system.
“This sort of, like, match-three puzzle-battler idea is something that we’ve had in our notes for a long time, and we really wanted to try it with something,” director Corey Warning said while I played my first battle, eyebrows slightly furrowed with both confusion and a competitive drive. “The concept of these magic characters with different abilities, we thought it would be cool to do.”
Throughout the game, players will be able to assemble a party and send in other characters to fight off enemies in one-on-one fights. Just as that takes time to do, so too does getting a hang of how to actually win in a fight. But the comparisons that Warning threw out — Tetris Attack and Puzzle Fighter among them — helped clarify for me the expectation here. You really have to look at each fight like it’s a multiplayer game of Bubble Bobble or Puyo Puyo, and you’re sending over cleared pieces to topple your opponent.
From that point, I was able to chip away at the ghoulish enemy’s health bar and build up some powerful combos. As fun as this all was, it was hard to connect the dots between The World Next Door’s anime-like story — especially considering its high school cast and a relationship-building system that sounds reminiscent of the Persona series — and a battle system that’s pulled from games that have zero story to them.
So far, The World Next Door seems to be juggling two dissimilar things in one package. That’s one of the challenges Rose City Games is working to solve in this early development period, however.
“[We’re working on] contextualizing how the battles sort of fit into the narrative, so it doesn’t feel like, ‘Oh, now I’m doing Tetris Attack,” said Warning. “The design of the game and those aspects is something we’re still trying to work out.”
Threading that needle will be key, or else the team runs the risk of doing a disservice to two intriguing halves of a whole game. While the visual novel sections could use some truncation, the chance to build out characters’ relationships suggests that we’ll grow to have a personal stake in the story. Most of all, there’s a lot of promise to that quirky battle system — especially with a planned versus mode likely extending its lifespan.
Even with some reservations, The World Next Door seems just unique enough to work. But it’s a long ways away from completion; there’s no release date planned yet for this PC title. Until Rose City Games and Viz Media are ready to show it off again, the screenshots below are all we’ve got.