Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Backlog Will Not End With You

Let's be clear here: I like Nintendo, but I'm not a fan of gimmicky console features, no matter how innovative they are. For example, while the Wii-mote is a cool idea, it's not my cup of tea to play games that rely solely on it. I took back Zelda: The Twilight Princess because back then, I worked in the nonprofit sector and the last thing I wanted to do after a grueling day of working for the betterment of a small section of humanity was swing around a controller to mimic Link swinging his sword: I much preferred to be in an unsociable vegetative state and play my games in mindless bliss:

Yeah. Sort of like this.

My feelings regarding the Nintendo DS are similar: Cool idea, but similarly frustrating to play games that rely fully on its gimmick - the stylus. In this case, the full reliance on this gimmick made me take back Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword shortly after I realized it was a stylus exclusive game. I'm a huge fan of the series, but the games are already renowned for their difficulty. Console-based Ninja Gaiden games already move people to destroy their systems. Somehow, I don't think hammering your game screen repeatedly with a blunt object on one of the most frustrating series known to gamerkind is a great idea.

To a person with a stylus, Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword looks like a nail.

But I digress.

The game this post discusses is The World Ends With You, one of Square-Enix's earlier DS entries. If you know anything about the gameplay, then given what I previously said it should be no surprise that I was not interested initially. A stylus-reliant action-RPG that makes use of both screens at the same time? No thanks -- it sounded like an aneurysm ready to happen. Thus I passed on this title, despite the insistence of my good friend (who I shall affectionately refer to as "Canadian Wench")

As it turns out, however, I had cheated myself out of quite an experience.

Some months ago, a dear friend of mine (I shall only refer to her as "The Enabler") succeeded where Canadian wench failed. The Enabler, whose backlog rivals (and perhaps surpasses) that of David's and my own, assured me that this was a worthy purchase. The fact that The Enabler had actually managed to finish this game added strength to her argument. If this was a game that could jump ahead of other quality titles in a backlog, then it was certainly one worth checking out.

As it turns out, she was right (and yes, you too, by extension, Canadian Wench).

Plot Overview

TWEWY begins with the protaganist, Neku Sakuraba, waking up in the middle of Shibuya. Disoriented, with no memory of what has happened to him, or even much of his past beyond his name, Neku soon learns that he's somehow been swept into the Reaper's high-stakes game with a foreboding warning: Survive for 7 days, complete the objectives laid out before you, or face erasure. Not exactly the most welcoming way to begin a week.

Subtlety is not a Reaper strong point.

To survive the Reaper game, Neku needs a few things: His wits, the power of mysterious pins, and the aid of a partner. Fortunately, Neku seems to be one of the smarter people in the game, so #1 is covered. On top of this, he's revealed to be some sort of natural expert with the pins, which grant powers such as pyrokinesis, telekinesis, control over ice, and various other nifty powers. Think of them like pogs, but on crack, and with the power to fling cars at people you hate. Base #2 is easily covered right there.

Sadly, none of the pins let you summon Alf.

The partner thing, however, becomes problematic. Neku is told repeatedly that survival in Shibuya requires reliance on, and trusting your partner. Unfortunately, Neku's something of an emotionally distant prick, which makes bonding just a bit difficult: Think of him as Squall, but with headphones. Compounding this problem is the fact that he does not exactly have the most appealing selection of partners.

First, there's Shiki Misaki, who's quite possibly Shibuya's neediest woman.

You knew she was going to be trouble the second you saw the hat.

Then there's Yoshiya Kiriyu (aka Joshua), who is likely Shibuya's biggest jackass.

He's a popped collar away from being the *world's* biggest jackass.

Then there's Beat, who is undoubtedly the biggest idiot in Shibuya.

Brash, brave, and brainless.

Yeah. It's going to be a long 7 days for Neku.

I won't ruin anything for you (though if you've seen Shibuya 15, supposedly this game borrows some from that plot), but I will say that this plot is certainly one of the most intriguing ones I've played through in quite some time. The characters generally have decent developments, the cast of villains is rather colorful, and there's even a robust enough post game that manages to add to the story without being overly cumbersome.


On first glance, the gameplay can be quite confusing. You're essentially controlling two characters at the same time, relying totally on the stylus for the actions of your main character, and paying attention to action occurring on both screens. If nothing else, the game certainly makes full use of the DS's functionality.

Now, the stylus controls all of Neku's actions (who is on the bottom screen): His movement, the use of his psychic powers, item use, and defensive recovery. The directional pad is utilized to control Neku's current partner (depending on who it is, the command sequence changes). If enough correct command sequences are entered, Neku and his partner can utilize a team attack. Suffice to say, it's quite overwhelming at first:

This is typically an initial reaction to the game.

In fact, Jared and I had a conversation about the game, where he noted that sure, for us, it was seizure inducing. For Japanese kids, however, the hypersensitive reflexes required to play the game to complete mastery was second nature:

This is their Sesame Street.

It's certainly a system that takes some getting used to, as there's a tremendous amount of variety in Neku's psychs: Some require you to tap or drag the stylus against an object to fling it. Others require you to tap Neku, slash across an enemy, or tap an empty space repeatedly. Yet somehow, it works: Once you have it down, you're treated to a fast paced combat system that makes battles a pleasure for the most part, rather than a chore.

In addition to combat, there are a few other intricacies in the system worth noting: Stat increases come via consuming food. It takes a certain number of battles before the food is digested, resulting in an increase of attack, defense, hit points, or bravery (the stat that lets you equip better gear). While you can only consume a limited number of meals per day, this is easily bypassed by resetting or changing the DS clock.

Your pins are also not a static entity: They can evolve into more powerful (and rarely, less powerful) pins through experience (dubbed "Pin Points") gained through combat, through shutting down your DS and leaving it off for a few days (this too can be exploited by the DS clock trick) or "mingle PP" which makes use of the wireless function. I'm sure the last was a hit in Japan, but in the U.S. it likely fell short (see also: Dragon Quest IX).

Furthermore, there is the system of "trends" -- Shibuya itself is constantly changing and influenced by trends. Most of your pins have a certain brand attached to it, as well as the armor you equip your characters with. The more often you fight with these items equipped, the higher it goes on the brand chart for a particular area. In most cases this results in an increase (or decrease, depending on the popularity) in potency for your pins. On occasion, you'll need a certain brand to be at the top of the chart to advance in a particular area. I'll admit that this had the potential to be annoying, but thankfully there was only one point in the game where it was absolutely vital (as in, not related to the main quest) to get past a certain point.

Even shopping for items has a system attached to it: Buying more items from particular shopkeepers increases your reputation with them. As this increases, you can unlock more merchandise, and additional info about special stats your items offer.

As you can see, the game has a lot going on. As an experience overall, however, does it have a lot going for it?

The Overall Experience

I mentioned earlier that I had cheated myself out of an experience by ignoring this game for so long: As a complete package, I rather enjoyed TWEWY. Some points in particular:

The characters: The dialogue between characters in this game is absolutely fantastic. By himself, Neku does not start off as a particularly likable character, but his snippy remarks to other characters do elicit a chuckle. Each of the different partnerships Neku establishes during his time in Shibuya have a different dynamic: The growing bond of friendship between him and Shiki, the banter between him and Joshua, and his surprising patience with Beat's silly antics make advancing the story a pleasure.

The battle system: While seizure-inducing at first, the battle system becomes extremely engrossing. With so many different options for pins and combat, plus the added dimension of the partner, I found myself turning on my DS for quick spurts just to play a few battles. If I found them getting too easy? The difficulty's adjustable, making for more of a challenge should I need it.

The story: Since I hadn't seen Shibuya 15 prior to playing this game, the story came across as pretty unique to me. There's enough suspense early on to keep you playing in order to find out more. There are notable plot twists all throughout the game -- even up until the grand finale. Even the post game has a parallel story that makes light of the characters.

The music: This game has one of the most uniquely addicting soundtracks I've heard in a game. I won't waste space here trying to describe the feel of the music (I'm just horrid when it comes to that), but go on YouTube and listen to a few tracks. Then go on iTunes and download the soundtrack -- trust me, it'll be worth your time.

In truth, very little about the game bugged me, but a few points I'd have to nitpick?

Villain development: Herein lies the tricky part -- while Neku and his friends are rather well developed, the villains in this game did not feel quite as fleshed out. This is truly a shame, as there are some pretty interesting characters in the cast: Admittedly, the "Game Master" for the first part of the game is rather flat in personality, but then you advance later in the game where you run across the second GM, Sho Minamito:

He's like a math teacher from hell.

Admittedly, Sho is probably one of the better developed villains. While you get enough dialogue to get some insight into the other antagonists (such as Kariya and Uzuki), it just feels like so much more could have been done with them.

Stylus controls: The game did not take as much getting used to as I thought it would have. However, when it comes to designing your pin deck, you do need to be careful about which ones you select. Certain pins will have overlapping commands (for example, equipping two pins that require you to slash at an enemy) -- you may intend to use one pin's function, but end up using another pin inadvertently: While this may not be a pain in fodder fights, it can become a bit annoying at higher difficulty levels, or during boss fights.

In the end, however, my experience with this game was positive overall. In truth, it's hard to consider this game in the traditional sense of "Backlogged titles": While there were points where I put this game down to play a game on one of my actual consoles, and there were times where it actually did leave the DS, I always kept coming back to it. In fact, I ended up finishing it within 4 months or so of purchase.

..Alright, considering the length of the game, that's not an impressive feat.

But for fellow backloggers out there, I'm sure you can relate: Any game that leaves the backlog in the same year it comes in is certainly a title worth playing. If you haven't purchased this game, don't let the stylus reliance put you off. If you have purchased the game and it's sitting in a forgotten corner of your pile of games? Don't delay your gratification any longer.

As we're fond of saying here at the backlog: Until then, keep playing.

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