I really don't know what it was that encouraged me to seek out The World Ends With You, then. Maybe it was Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw's favorable review of it, when most of Zero Punctuation is dedicated to accentuating the negative. Maybe it was the "Player Pin" decal I kept seeing everywhere.
You might not recognize this, but it's pretty recognizable to certain circles of gamers.
But whatever the reason, I decided that I'd give this game a shot since I owned a Nintendo DS and everything. And I was not disappointed.
I'll admit that I'm not a gamer. I really don't play a lot of games. But I'm a critic. The hardest part of making a "Top 5 Favorite Games" list for me isn't deciding which games are better than the others. It's finding games I loved enough to put in a Top 5 list. But TWEWY? It easily takes my #2 spot (second only to Majora's Mask, which I love enough to write a pseudo-dissertation on. Nothing's usurping that). Why? I'm glad you asked. What? You didn't ask? Well I'm going to tell you anyway.
First of all the game flawlessly integrates story with gameplay. Of the games I've played, only Portal has done as well. This is because the entire story is based around the protagonist competing in an otherworldly game. The game masters force Neku to complete certain tasks to get to certain places, require him to battle monsters, etc. This story seems to have been formatted to work best as a video game, since the story itself is also based around a game. There are monsters you have to face called Noise, and instead of fighting them as random encounters, you scan for them and choose to battle them. You can grind for pins/money and experience when you want to, and you can just ignore the Noise when you want to. There are, naturally, some story-forced battles, and later on there are some Noise that actively pursue you (though these can still mostly be avoided), but for the most part, you get to choose when and how you battle the Noise. In fact, if you're well-enough prepared, you can run through the game and only engage in as many battles as are absolutely necessary.
This leads me into the second point: the replay value. If you don't need to grind, why should you? Because Noise drop pins, which are, in this game, both your weapons and your money. And there are a lot of pins. 304 different types, to be exact. Most of these pins level up after use, and will either max out or evolve at a certain level. Whether or not a pin evolves is based on what type of experience it gains: Battle PP (gained during battles), Shutdown PP (gained by turning off the game), or Mingle PP (gained by "mingling," where you gain points for either encountering other people using wi-fi or just random encounters). Even ignoring the desire to strive for 100% completion that games naturally evoke in people, training and evolving pins is fun because you get to see their different effects. The gameplay changes drastically based on what type of pins you choose to equip.
On top of that, there's plenty of replay value in the story. I'm going to keep it as spoiler-free as possible, but there are a lot of different agendas colliding with each other, some of which you might not even catch on the first playthrough. About five characters have notable goals that are all opposing each other and our protagonist, Neku. After you beat the game, replaying the story will do two things: first, completing the missions for each level will unlock secret reports that provide additional information about the world and some of the characters. Second, the storyline is filled with brilliant foreshadowing that you almost certainly wouldn't have picked up on the first time around. The second playthrough will provide new insight on one character, but after you've read all the secret reports, the third playthrough will provide you with insight on yet another.
The third point reason I love TWEWY so much is its brilliant use of a learning curve. The game not only allows you to select your difficulty (Normal as a default, and then Easy, Hard, and Ultimate after you unlock them in that order), but to level down. Why would you want to level down? Well, while adjusting the level nets you different pin drops (and consequently requires you to play on Easy at times to get certain pins), lowering your level increases the chances of a pin drop. In fact, to get all the pins from the Gatito brand, you'll need to face some of the most difficult bosses on Ultimate difficulty at very low levels. This provides a wonderful challenge even after you've mastered regular combat.
And while I've touched on the story already, I'd like to bring the writing up as the my fourth point. Not only is the story wonderfully complex with memorable characters and great dialogue, there are also some wonderful themes and motifs. The central theme of the game is, I'd say, opening up to the world around you. But it's the motifs I'd really like to talk about. Shibuya (the Japanese city where the game takes place) is, in this world, a very trend-conscious place. You gain boosts or deductions in power depending on whether your pins and threads (i.e., clothes) are trendy or not in any particular area. Hate unequipping everything all the time? Don't worry; it's not too big of a deal, and enough battles in an area will actually make the trends turn in your favor.
But I digress.
Trends are based around thirteen brands: Mus Rattus, Jupiter of the Monkey, Wild Boar, Hip Snake, Tigre Punks, Pegaso, Natural Puppy, Dragon Couture, Sheep Heavenly, Pavo Real, D+B, Lapin Angelique, and Gatito. Have you picked up on what these brands have in common? If you're sharp, you'll notice that most of them (actually all of them) have animal motifs. If you're very sharp (and have played the game to pick up on the more obscure ones (like D+B) through context), you'll notice that these animals are all the animals in the Chinese Zodiac, plus the cat. This isn't really tied into the game too particularly much, but it's pretty cool. Likewise, the seven "metal" pins (Scarlite, Rare Metal, Tektite, Adamantite, Orichalcum, Shadow Matter, and Dark Matter) all have a color and a number of gems on them. Scarlite is red with one gem. Rare Metal is orange with two. From there, it continues with ascending numbers of gems as their colors move through the colors of the rainbow. Again, not that important to the game, but a neat detail.
The more noticeable theme is the motif of music. Neku is always wearing headphones, which he uses to shut himself out from the world. But on closer inspection, most of the world of TWEWY uses musical motifs. The person who created the Underground is the Composer, the one who runs the game is the Conductor, and there's a person whose title is the Producer as well (though going into that further spoils a few things). Beings can move between different planes by lowering the "frequency" of their soul's "vibe." And unlike the other motifs/patterns, this fits in much better with the story.
And speaking of the music, it's great. It's maybe not my style, but it's still very enjoyable, especially the song that plays over the closing credits (don't worry, no spoilers--as long as you stay away from the comments). Do yourself a favor when you play and wear a pair of decent headphones, which vastly enhance the experience. The DS's speakers do not do the music justice.
Finally, there's the controls. Lots of people think that the Nintendo DS is gimmicky. I won't lie, it kind of is. Every game seems to shoehorn in the microphone or touch controls when they're not necessarily needed. Well, TWEWY makes extensive use of both the touch controls and the microphone. But it does it in a way that's natural instead of gimmicky. You can be using up to six pins in battle, and they all need different commands. From blowing into the microphone to slashing an enemy to tapping an enemy to drawing a circle and more, there are plenty of varied and distinct commands that work well because you need that many distinct commands so that the controls are distinct and the DS can pick up on them. Why not just use the buttons instead? Well, because the D-pad or the ABXY buttons (depending on whether you're right or left-handed) control your partner, while the stylus controls Neku. The combat is challenging, but insanely fun, and the touch controls work well instead of seeming obtrusive.
I've said earlier that Madoka Magica is about the closest thing to a "perfect show" that I've ever seen. Well, The World Ends With You is about the closest thing to a "perfect game." Now, this obviously doesn't mean that it's the best game ever (as evidenced by my ranking it second to Majora's Mask), but it's an amazing game that's worth playing. If you own a DS, you need to play this game. Buy it, even. It's worth the price.
What's that? You don't have a DS because you don't do a lot of handheld gaming? That's fair. I don't expect you to go out and drop about $100 for a used DS and TWEWY cartridge, just so you can play one game. However! Fairly recently, the game was ported to iOS as "The World Ends With You: Solo Remix." You can now play TWEWY on your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch. While there are obviously some differences between it and the DS version (being short a screen will do that to you), and while I can't vouch for it myself, I've heard that they did a very good job with the port. If you're willing to shell out $18, an admittedly steep price that I still think is totally worth it, you can play it too. Seriously, play it if you get the chance.
What, you're not going out to buy it at this very second? So zetta slow!
All other games are garbage! CRUNCH! I'll add them to the heap!