The DS classic’s sequel is every bit the charmer the original was – and in many ways, the long wait has only helped.
Is being tasked with a revival sequel a blessing or a curse? I suppose it depends on how you look at it. When a video game sequel arrives a decade or more after the last entry, you’re given more powerful hardware and more advanced options to work with, and also potentially at least partially released from the original game’s template, something which a closer follow-up would be pressured to adhere to. On the other hand, it introduces an even more razor-thin tightrope to walk: change too much and it won’t feel like the game you’re following up on. Change too little and your shiny new release will feel dated.
I bring this up because, honestly, it feels like a balance that few games strike as well as Neo: The World Ends With You, the fourteen-year-late sequel to a Nintendo DS classic. What makes it work isn’t just deft work on the part of the developers, however: it’s baked into the very core of what this franchise is all about.
The World Ends With You was always deeply contemporary. Sit it next to Kingdom Hearts and you might feel that the two series’ have superficial similarities – a focus on friendships as a core theme, soap operatic plot melodrama, and character designs from Tetsuya Nomura that somehow perfectly intersect at that strange point where edgy and friendly brush past each other.
Scratch beneath that, though, and TWEWY was always something more real, more grounded, and more eminently relatable. It doesn’t matter that the characters are largely archetypal caricatures; you surely know people like most of them. That was always its greatest strength – or at least that plus a totally kick-ass soundtrack.
All of that is still present in Neo, with one crucial caveat: the world has moved on. Square Enix loves to jettison beloved casts between games, a tradition set out by Final Fantasy, but in Neo: TWEWY it just makes sense. To tell a similar story all these years later, a new generation is needed – even if the oldies still appear from time to time. The passage of time and the way the world has changed simply cannot be ignored, as they’re too central to the basic precepts of this universe – and so the gap between the original and the sequel is quietly assimilated into the game’s identity, and for the better. It’s familiar, but not. Time itself has provided this game with an alluring whiff of evolution over its predecessor.
In the intervening time, the societal functions the game builds upon have changed. The form, function, and abilities of mobile phones is now drastically different, for instance, altering the paradigm of how people like TWEWY’s teenaged cast interact – a key pillar of a game like this that’s ultimately built around leveraging the relationships and the bonds your characters build.
One core piece of the character progression network is literally called your ‘Social Network’, a web of friends, acquaintances and friends-of-friends that stretches out like everybody’s Twitter or Facebook account, with your social standing and friendships impacting ability unlocks. All of this really functions as a glorified skill tree, but it’s in putting these relationships front-and-center that Neo: TWEWY shines.
Other gimmicks serve to differentiate the two titles, most notably a time travel mechanic that is core to the story but not as consequential as you first might think. But really, that suits – as what makes this game stand out is just what made the original stand out – it’s a piece of its time. Slice-of-life even with all the supernatural, it feels more contemporary than almost all other Japanese RPGs, and reminds that The World Ends With You was doing this supernatural-meets-reality JRPG thing successfully before Persona’s explosive success in the West made the concept more trendy.
The spirit and energy of Neo sets it apart in much the same way that the original TWEWY shone out on the Nintendo DS. This time, built from the ground up for current machines, the loss of the touchscreen focus isn’t felt – which lets you focus down on the things that matter. While by no means perfect, the most important aspects of the game feel handled brilliantly, and with a care and attention for the series’ mood that honestly feels a little uncharacteristic for Square, a company often guilty of cruelly abusing its back catalogue.
Neo: The World Ends With You might be fourteen years late, but it isn’t diminished for it. In fact, the wait might even serve to make this return to the streets of Shibuya even sweeter. I almost hope that if this series goes to a third entry, there is a similarly long wait yet again.