NEO: The World Ends With You Preview – Return To Shibuya

Sequels to cult classics always make me anxious. The World Ends With You has been beloved by a small group of fans for over a decade, having experienced a slight resurgence in recent years with a Nintendo Switch port and an anime adaptation that introduces the original story to a whole new audience. Square Enix hasn’t forgotten about the property, and this newfound confidence is especially evident in NEO: The World Ends With You – a sequel that both apes its predecessor while altering many of its core fundamentals.

I recently spent roughly 90 minutes with NEO and came away with a decent understanding of its narrative, combat, and characters. Unfortunately, there wasn’t nearly enough time to figure out whether this is the JRPG successor many fans are hoping for. It seems to abandon many of the systems and ideas that made that game so unique, opting instead for a faster, more unpredictable approach to combat that puts rhythm at the forefront. If you’re a hardcore lover of all things TWEWY, this is both the follow-up you’re looking for and an unexpected diversion from the source material in terms of exploration and mechanics. But it’s got style, and for some, that will be more than enough.

You play as Rindo, a teenager who loves torn-up skinny jeans and eccentric overcoats. He’s your typical young adult in fiction created by older adults, always glued to his smartphone and texting with slang that makes me want to crumble into dust. Much of his time is spent in Downtown Shibuya where he and his close friend, Fret, spend time browsing shops and loitering like the cool kids they are. While their vibing in Shibuya begins as an average day, it quickly devolves into chaos as monsters attack and they find themselves enveloped in the Reaper’s Game.

If you haven’t played the original, this is a devilish competition where teams must compete against one another to earn the right to live, escaping an afterlife they’ve suddenly found themselves beholden to. Each day is a mission, and only the first to reach the goal is crowned the victor. If you’re too late, tough luck and try again tomorrow.. It’s a grim scenario, but one that is imbued with a sense of weeaboo bravado thanks to gorgeous cel-shaded visuals and an approach to music and imagery that feels like a Linkin Park music video from 2004. I’m talking Breaking the Habit – top tier banger.

Taking place three years after the original game, NEO once again drags our protagonist into the UG (Underground), an alternate reality that bears a striking resemblance to our own, However citizens here simply walk past our heroes as if they don’t exist, while monsters prowl the foreign dimension in search of unfortunate players to dominate. If you die in the game you die in real life, but these melodramatic anime teenagers are surprisingly chill about the whole affair.

Moments after finding themselves deceased and confined to the afterlife, Rindo and Fret kinda just roll with it, accepting each new punch as it comes despite knowing they’ll likely never see their families again. It’s a jarring introduction, to the extent that NEO could have spent much longer establishing its world and narrative for new fans who might not have touched the original. I was also streaming the game over Parsec, so I’m going to be forgiving about unsynced audio and small hiccups that robbed certain moments of their intended impact.

Once the underwhelming opening subsides and I find myself enveloped in the colourful streets of Shibuya, NEO quickly comes alive. You’re free to explore the Tokyo streets at your leisure to battle with monsters and scan the thoughts of citizens, many of them acting as a cliched symbol of capitalist greed and self-indulgent excess that NEO’s wider themes aim to tackle. Rindo and his homies represent the younger generation, a group of people fighting back against a structure of unfair systems content to hold them down. Unfortunately, they’re dead right now, so any acts of potential righteousness are lost amidst a battle for their own survival.

Speaking of battles, NEO diverges from the 2007 classic in a number of ways with its combat. Instead of battling alongside a partner, you control several characters simultaneously, with their commands locked to individual buttons. Moves are determined by pins, which you can find across the environment and as part of story progression. I tended to strike a balance between close and long-ranged attacks that made it easy to execute combos while ensuring a quick escape from potential strikes, since NEO is surprisingly unforgiving in early bouts as you get to grips with everything.

Each encounter is blisteringly fast, with rhythm playing a massive role in effectively damaging enemies and executing special attacks. After battering a monster for a handful of seconds you’ll be rewarded with a time sensitive prompt to mix things up. Take advantage of this and a percentage meter at the top of the screen will slowly increase. Once it reaches 100 percent, you can pull off a devastating ability that either deals huge amounts of damage or temporarily buffs your team.

You won’t succeed in boss battles without mastering this technique, with NEO encouraging you to learn its fairly simplistic systems or be punished for your ignorance. Fortunately, it’s very easy to wrap your head around, and perhaps too trivial in its execution throughout the 90 minutes I played. I barely dug into pin customisation, and couldn’t even touch the Threads component, which allows you to equip different clothes and accessories each with their own distinct properties. There’s a lot of potential for depth here, I sadly just wasn’t witness to much of it.

However, I was witness to navigating the Shibuya streets, which are broken up by far too many loading screens to make the world feel satisfying to explore. It’s stilted and archaic in this regard, with creative puzzle sequences and narrative intrigue doing little to break up the monotony. I’m basing this on a miniscule amount of time with the game, so take such complaints with a grain of salt, but if I’m stuck exploring this relatively narrow depiction of Shibuya for several hours I will undoubtedly grow tired of it. NEO’s characters and story will need to do much of the heavy lifting to truly immerse me, and I only met a small number of the main cast before my preview was brought to an abrupt end.

NEO: The World Ends With You is immediately captivating, especially for fans who fell in love with the original and its charming characters and wonderfully diverse depiction of modern Tokyo. This sequel maintains everything that matters while taking the combat system in an entirely new direction. In a way, it feels like stepping back in time to a place where music was ruled by nu-metal and rap rock, while urban fashion was defined by far too many zippers and bold, alluring colours that help each and every character stand out. In that regard, NEO is absolutely a winner, but it’s far too early to tell if it will become a JRPG classic like its predecessor. Fingers crossed, since I love what I’ve seen thus far. Except for the opening song, which is a solid contender for the worst thing I’ve ever heard in my life. 

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