NEO: The World Ends With You is 2021’s most stylish video game
Inverse score: 8/10
The most visually distinctive video games often aren’t the ones with the biggest budgets.
Each new generation of gaming hardware has inched tantalizingly closer to photographic realism, with expansive landscapes, remarkably expressive faces, and staggering setpieces. AAA games are often big and bold. But eventually, they begin to run together in a Marvel movie kind of way. They’re pretty, sure, but somehow bland too. NEO: The World Ends With You strives for something cozier, with a more handmade feel that’s altogether different.
At its core, NEO: TWEWY is a game about style, centered in the kaleidoscopic heart of Tokyo’s street fashion scene. While elements of Square Enix’s latest will invite comparisons to Persona, The Hunger Games, or Kingdom Hearts, there’s no other game quite like it. At every turn, its immersive story and unexpectedly deep combat eagerly invite you to let your freak flag fly.
Weaving a plot
The sequel to a cult-hit 2007 Nintendo DS game, NEO: TWEWY captivates as a standalone story but offers plenty of shout-outs and connections to satisfy longtime series fans. Like its predecessor, the game plonks you in the shoes of an unwitting teen participant in the Reaper’s Game — a week-long gauntlet of challenges that include defeating hordes of enemies known as Noise and solving a variety of puzzles orchestrated by the Reapers, a group of cooler-than-thou twentysomethings tasked with overseeing the game for mysterious reasons.
There’s just one big problem — it’s not totally clear if the players are dead or alive, and in order to avoid being “erased,” you’ll have to win the game. It’s a team competition, so as protagonist Rindo, you’ll need to find some allies. Accompanied by his chipper bestie Fret, an oddball otaku girl named Nagi, and the former Reaper Minamimoto, Rindo’s tasked with leading the Wicked Twisters to victory over the long-dominant Ruinbringers.
The relationships between the Twisters are as “realistic” as the fantastical scenario can allow, and it’s consistently compelling to watch them alternately grow closer and butt heads. While there are a few too many secondary characters to keep track of, the story consistently keeps its hooks in you, thanks to the intimacy of the core group and the tight focus on Reaper’s Game. You’ll be eager to see what happens next, but you won’t be totally lost if you step away for a few days.
A deadly game
NEO: TWEWY serves up a satisfying variety of mission types for each day of the Reaper’s Game. One day, you’ll have to find a series of clues spread across multiple neighborhoods to solve a mystery. On another, you’ll play a high-stakes game of capture the flag with the other teams, or have to defeat hordes of Noise in order to satisfy the demands of the villains behind the game. The game does an admirable job of alternating between short and long missions, keeping things varied while also bringing out more challenging iterations of familiar challenges to create a satisfying feeling of progress.
The streamlined combat prioritizes rapid-fire action while still leaving room to develop your own unique strategies and playstyle. Your party members acquire new abilities by wearing pins, each of which is assigned to a particular button. Since any character can equip any pin, you can essentially change their role on the team whenever you choose. While you’ll only be able to use four kinds of skills in battle at any given time, that also means no one’s locked into the role of healer or long-range attacker, as is common in the RPG genre. It’s a gratifying level of freedom and one that encourages the player to experiment with wacky setups.
If you’re stuck on a particularly challenging boss fight, overhauling your pin setup will usually do the trick, but the game’s difficulty can also be adjusted at any time — it’s a nice option to have if you’re feeling frustrated or just want to wrap up a chapter before bed.
That unexpected freedom also carries over to your party’s threads or defensive equipment. All of your “armor” is based on bespoke streetwear designs inspired by the trendy boutiques of Harajuku and Shibuya, from feminine lacy frocks to spiky leather trousers. If your style level is high enough, you’ll unlock special abilities like damage boosts or resistance to certain types of attacks. Any character can equip any item, regardless of gender — if you want to dress Rindo in the sweetie-pie designs of Top O Topo, there’s nothing stopping you. It’s a shame these outfit choices don’t translate to the character models and portraits, but it’s a welcome tweak to the usual way of doing things in these kinds of games.
I played the PlayStation version of NEO: TWEWY on PlayStation 5, but I was struck throughout by how this feels distinctly like a handheld game — in the best possible way. That’s partly due to the intimacy of its scope; it’s roughly a 30 minute IRL walk from one end of the map to another. It’s also because the game feels like playing a manga — cinematic cutscenes take a backseat to a rapid-fire progression of panels and portraits as the characters react to the story’s twists and turns. All the while, it’s easy to lose yourself in the rhythm of the eclectic and toe-tapping soundtrack, which ranges from thrashing rock bangers, synthy City Pop earworms, and funk-laced pop bops.
Completionists will savor this sequel, as there are literally hundreds of pieces of clothing, soundtrack entries, and pins to collect. While you’ll initially find yourself browsing through your collection of threads for more info about perks and stat boosts, you’ll get lost admiring the level of detail and sheer cool factor of each entry. The clothes in this game include everything from T-shirts to beanies to platforms and petticoats, each belonging to one of more than a dozen remarkably fleshed-out fictional brands.
The 3D environments of NEO: TWEWY are a substantial visual upgrade over the side-scrolling pixel art of the first game. The environments and map designs are almost unnervingly accurate to real-world locations. Persona 5 and the Yakuza series have been praised for their virtual tourism factor, and NEO: The World Ends With You belongs in that same category of wanderlust-inspiring titles. If you can get through a 40-hour playthrough without getting lost down an online shopping rabbit hole trying to find websites for some of the real-life stores on Cat Street or Spain Hill, you’ve got more willpower than I do.
If you enjoy Japanese role-playing games but shudder at the thought of labyrinthine stories and 100+ hour playtimes, NEO: TWEWY serves up a tightly paced narrative with impressive mission variety and unmatched panache — in half the time.
NEO: The World Ends With You comes to PC, Nintendo Switch, and PS4 on July 27. Inverse played the PS4 version on PS5.
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