What do the games in a series or genre owe to each other? How do they inform and build on each other? After playing Neo: The World Ends with You, a reboot-cum-sequel to a critically-acclaimed 14-year-old Nintendo DS game, this question sits at the forefront for me. Especially since, at least according to the series’ creative producer Tetsuya Nomura, Neo: TWEWY isn’t actually a sequel to its video game predecessor.
Back in April, Funimation began simulcasting a The World Ends with You anime season, 12 episodes designed to tell the first game’s story and eliminate the need to play the game itself entirely. Within the space of nearly five hours, viewers can get all caught up with the story of Neku Sakuraba and his friends, Shiki, Beat, Rhyme and Joshua, as they all get transported to an alternate, afterlife version of Shibuya, Tokyo called the Underground. Trapped in the Underground with no way to reach anyone in reality, Neku and his friends fight a group of supernatural executioners called Reapers for control of their lives and the fate of Shibuya.
I didn’t play The World Ends with You when it was originally released on the DS, but it’s currently available as both a mobile phone game (which I did play) and as a 2018 Nintendo Switch port. There are elements of the game that are definitely dated — seeing flip phones everywhere is wild, and Neku wears a pair of Bluetooth headphones connected to a marker-shaped MP3 player around his neck — and these elements are what the anime attempts to modernize, while maintaining the original game’s story and bringing its emotional beats to new audiences without all the systems and lore.
As the final episode aired in June, gamers got a chance to play the new game’s demo on PlayStation 4 and Switch — the ultimate marketing move. That demo rules, by the way — it’s a free, almost-feature-complete taste of Neo: TWEWY from the prologue to the end of in-game Day 2. You can level your party up to level 15, and your save carries over to the main game.
Is watching the anime necessary to enjoy Neo: TWEWY? No, but it does provide some vital context for a lot of the proper nouns the game throws at you basically from the start. Otherwise, the beginning of the game focuses on new people in a new situation with new stakes. It doesn’t really hold players’ hands throughout its course, even though there is a big glossary of terms tucked away inside one of the menus. This means the game can be confusing, but there isn’t much time to dwell on that at first — because Neo: The World Ends with You is an incredibly busy game.
Players take on the role of Rindo Kanade, a teenage Shibuya resident who, along with his friend Tosai “Fret” Furesawa, gets trapped in the Underground and is cut off from this mortal plane, known as the Realground. Rindo and Fret are forced to team up and participate, alongside four other teams, in a deadly game called the “Reaper’s Game,” run by literal grim reapers (Shinigami, as the game refers to them in Japanese).
The Reaper’s Game sounds easy enough, if a bit dire, on paper: the team with the most points at the end of the seventh day of play wins, and the team in last place faces erasure from existence. To earn points, teams must complete challenges the Reapers set for them, as well as erase hordes of Noise, the personification of the turbulent thoughts and emotions of all the people moving through Shibuya. In order to do all of this, characters are given metal pins called Psych Pins that channel their latent psychic abilities into a bevy of crushing energy attacks and useful passive techniques.
As a pair, Rindo and Fret are in way over their heads, but luckily they’re joined by Sho Minamimoto, who comes and goes as he pleases and helps them out when he finds it convenient. Minamimoto pushes the pair to find a fourth teammate, college student Nagi Usui, after a couple of days. Rindo, Fret and Nagi become the core of the Wicked Twisters team and the true protagonists of Neo: TWEWY.
The trio is delightful, if a bit stereotypical, in their roles as the whiplashed teens new to the Reaper’s Game. Nagi is an otaku and a stan for a gacha game Elegant Strategy and thinks Minamimoto looks like a character she has a crush on from the game. Fret is extremely too happy-go-lucky and always flirting with the leader of the Variabeauties team, Kanon Tachibana. Rindo is quiet, withdrawn, and seemingly indecisive to a fault, always deferring to others in the group whenever something needs to happen. However, he loves his friends and will do anything to keep them safe — even going so far as to turn back time to do it.
The Wicked Twisters split their time between battles and hanging out in Shibuya. In battles, the barrier between the game’s combat mechanics and full-on button-mashing is thin. You assign psych pins with different powers and button presses to different characters. These pins can be described as “rapid-tap,” or projectile, telekinesis, sword and melee attacks; “tap,” or bomb- and trap-laying attacks; “charge,” which are generally area-of-effect attacks that damage a large amount of Noise or other teams at once; and “hold,” which includes a variety of attacks and powers ranging from powerful laser beams to healing moves. Putting all of these different types of moves into practice can feel like a complex dance at times, and the learning curve to perfecting this dance is fairly steep.
There’s no control editing outside of assigning characters and pins to particular buttons. In fact, the game does not seem to be very accessible in general — on Switch, the settings are sparse, with only a single toggle for subtitles, and there seem to be no options related to colorblindness or other visual impairments. I do not know if this is the case on the PlayStation 4 version or on the PC release on the Epic Games Store due out later this year. This is a shame in terms of allowing the most JRPG fans possible to play the game.
While Neo: TWEWY prefers fast-paced combat to slower fighting styles (you’re graded on speed and efficiency), you can mostly play however you want. Certain pin combinations will control the field, preventing enemies from moving and attacking; other pins will do higher damage to certain enemies based on elemental type. Each pin has a cooldown rate and an attack limit; reach this limit, and you’ll have to wait a certain amount of time before that character can use their psych again. If you don’t put thought into your “pin decks,” or sets of different combinations of pins, you might find combat starting and stopping a lot, with frequent awkward moments where everyone just stands around waiting for their pins to recharge before returning to the fray. This can have devastating consequences in certain contexts, like boss battles and chain fights.
You soon learn to rely on the Beatdrop system to quickly take enemies out. While individual pins might be powerful enough to defeat enemies on their own, Beatdrops let players link attacks together in wild and flashy combos. If you can successfully drop the beat (bring another character in to attack after staggering an enemy), you earn “Groove,” which can be used to execute a massive finishing move on the entire field. Fail to drop the beat quickly enough, and you might lose Groove progress instead.
Battles take place when you “Scan” a part of the city for Noise. They’re a bit like random encounters, except you can chain multiple encounters together. These “multi-reduction battles” increase the amount of experience both the characters and their pins get, as well as increase the likelihood for rare pin drops and more money — not to mention less time grinding spent overall. Adding to this effect is the ability to increase the difficulty before combat, which further increases the likelihood of rare pin drops, as well as the amount of experience points you get.
This difficulty toggle is one example of how much the game wants you to become more powerful. For example, setting the team level to 1 will bring you back to the amount of HP you started the game with while keeping everything else — attack, defense, etc. — the same, meaning if you can dominate the field, you stand to gain a lot of experience with no real downside. On top of that, at any time you can revisit earlier chapters with weaker enemies who nonetheless drop high EXP, making grinding a breeze. Having trouble with a late-game boss, like I did? Go back to week one and grind out some levels while your favorite podcast plays in the background. The one gripe I have is that if you go back to a previous chapter, you will have to sit through all the dialogue in that chapter again, with no “skip all” button in sight.
The game does a lot to make you feel powerful without making you overpowered, and this balance maintains itself regardless of the difficulty setting you choose. Bosses are still tough as nails on Easy difficulty, but switching to Easy gives you just enough of an edge to eke out a victory most of the time. I just as often switched the difficulty to Hard and drained my HP to Level 1 in order to max out the amount of EXP I’d earn from combat and level up via grinding faster. This is not simply tolerated by the game; it is absolutely encouraged.
Battling isn’t all you do. Shibuya is fully 3D and explorable, and the different areas of the city look gorgeous. Despite being 3D-rendered spaces, they hold onto the painterly qualities of the 2D backgrounds in the original TWEWY. Shibuya is world-renowned for its food and shopping, so of course, the game puts these elements front and center. Between battles you traipse around the district, encountering a bevy of interesting clothing boutiques and restaurants that all make your team more powerful. Eating a character’s favorite food provides them with a small-yet-permanent boost to their stats; doing this repeatedly might earn good favor with the restaurateur, who will then offer a secret menu item to you with a bigger bonus. (Like other games with food systems, overeating is possible, and it means you won’t be able to eat again until your hunger meter is completely empty, which only happens when you fight.)
Similarly, most of the clothing shops you enter have a combination of clothes and pins that increase your team’s effectiveness via the game’s Threads system. They generally receive new shipments every in-game day, so buying clothes constantly is a must. Each item of clothing provides some kind of stat boost to HP, attack or defense, in addition to an active ability that gets unlocked when a particular character’s style stat reaches a certain point. The higher your style stats across the board, the more clothing you’ll be able to take full advantage of. The most interesting aspect of Threads is that every character can wear basically any article of clothing in the game, even if the item’s active ability is meant for a particular character, and regardless of the character’s gender. The main trade-off is that you don’t actually see the characters in outfits other than their main designs, so their utility is basically only for stat tweaking and battle-preparedness.
In addition to eating, clothes shopping, outfit-planning, and psych pin management, there is one more major system: the Social Network. This is a sprawling web of connections with various NPCs, including teammates, with Rindo at the center. Each node is a different person, and attached to each person is a perk that drastically improves your game. Some of the perks are fairly easy to achieve, like “eat at this restaurant three times to get a secret menu item,” or “reach level three affinity with this clothing retailer for new gear.”
This is where Fret and Nagi really come in handy. Everyone in the Underground has some kind of latent psychic ability, and Rindo’s core partners have particularly helpful ones. Fret can jog anyone’s memories, which can help to solve puzzles, open pathways, and get people to do what you want. Nagi can dive into people’s minds, which allows you to battle Noise that have attached themselves to targets’ souls. When this happens and you do well in battle, you can earn extra “Friendship Points” to spend on the Network and even unlock new nodes in it.
Other perks are unlocked simply by playing through the story, and these include quality-of-life improvements like “Press B repeatedly to move through Shibuya faster and earn Groove if you can match the tempo of the background song.” Still other perks are earned through the completion of side quests that start showing up after Day 4. Completing these side quests earns you Friendship Points. There’s no right or wrong answer to how you spend your points. By the time credits rolled on my playthrough, just by playing the game as normal, I had completed two-thirds of my Network.
All of these different systems are fairly unobtrusive while actually playing the game. I didn’t feel like I had to juggle anything or that I was too encumbered by any particular thing. The game encourages you to find your comfort zone and doesn’t try to cajole you out of it very often. Even as characters were added and removed from the Wicked Twisters’ roster over the course of the story, I was able to keep gameplay moving smoothly along with just a few minor adjustments to my pin deck.
Neo: The World Ends with You is more than an endless series of fights bound together by a bunch of systems, though. Every character – protagonist, antagonist and deuteragonist – has quite a bit to say and do throughout the game, and their relationships to each other grow to be pretty complex over time. Dialogue flows pretty naturally, for the most part; these teens are not portrayed as Teens™, there is no overuse of Gen Z (or even Gen X or Gen Y) dialogue to drive home that Rindo and Fret and Nagi — to say nothing of the many members of the slightly older yet still supposedly hip supporting cast — are Cool and With It or whatever. Even when a character uses a little too much slang, it doesn’t feel super forced.
Sometimes, some of the characters do feel like the embodiment of archetypes and tropes. For example, the main antagonist of much of the story, a Reaper from Shinjuku named Shiba Miyakaze, can best be described as simply “a less goofy Maximillion Pegasus, from Yu-Gi-Oh!” Another antagonist, Tanzo Kubo, is simply bizarro world Columbo. There are fashion models and pop idols who act, predictably, like fashion models and pop idols. Sometimes the game feels a little bit black-and-white in its portrayals of people and depictions of moments, but everything in its narrative works together really well, creating a world that feels both stylized and relatable.
There are very few fully 3D in-game cutscenes, and most of them are relegated to the very end of the game. Everything else is done in much the same way as the original game, with characters sharing dialogue in drawn, static panels, almost like a visual novel. These scenes are fairly long, but a good chunk of them are voiced, so you’re not having to just sit around silently reading thousands of lines of text. Takeharu Ishimoto (Kingdom Hearts 3, The World Ends with You) returns as the freelance composer of the game’s soundtrack, and his tracks serve as a nice, constant background companion as you play. (The classic track “Twister” from the original game makes its return here in a neat way, so be on the lookout for that.)
Mechanically, graphically, from moment to moment, Neo: The World Ends with You is enjoyable, and for many players that’s going to be enough. The gameplay hits a sweet spot between deliberate turn-based combat and hack-and-slash mayhem; it almost feels similar to a fighting game like Skullgirls at times. The voice actors sound great, and the writing isn’t cringey. It’s competently made.
And yet, I felt like Neo: TWEWY desperately wants to get out of its own way and be its own game, but it simply can’t pull it off. Nearly everything in the game is a reference to its predecessor. Sometimes, the game manages to make this work, like with the pin-based battle system and its drastically improved inputs over the touch controls on the mobile and Switch versions of TWEWY. Other times, the game really wants players to remember what happened in a particular, random moment of the post-game content in The World Ends with You: Final Remix — content that just wasn’t covered in the anime for which Neo: TWEWY is supposed to be the direct sequel, and which Square Enix indicated newcomers to the series should watch to get the lowdown. This problem only compounds as the game reaches its conclusion.
I played the original, so the references landed for me, but the newcomers the game clearly expects to attract might struggle. What messes me up is the claim by Nomura that Neo would be a sequel to the anime and not the game. Neo feels much more like a sequel to the Switch port of TWEWY — as it should logically be. You can, right now, go back and play The World Ends with You: Final Remix on Switch, and I don’t know why Neo is supposed to shy away from that. Ultimately, I think it’s a shame that Neo doesn’t know whether it wants to be a new thing for new fans or something for Hardcore Players Only.
If you’re a fan of the franchise, there’s a lot here for you specifically. If you’re coming in fresh, the game is going to throw a lot of jargon at you in a very short amount of time, and then it’s going to hit you with references to prior events with which you won’t be familiar. You don’t need to play the previous game or watch its anime adaptation, but doing so might help with context. If none of the narrative stuff interests you, there’s plenty of in-game stuff to collect: I’m currently working on completing my pin collection, whittling down my Noisepedia and hunting down graffiti (the game’s version of achievements). When this game shines, it really shines, even if maybe too much of that shine is refracted by its past.
Neo: The World Ends With You will be released July 27 on Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4, as well as on Windows PC later in 2021. The game was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a pre-release download code provided by Square Enix. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.