In an odd twist, Square-Enix has decided to localize its most "off the beaten path" RPG in many years in America. Not only is it set in a modern times, but specifically in a real location in Japan. To further mix things up, it makes heavy use of both screens for battles, heavy use of the touch screen in and out of battles, and even uses the microphone as a weapon. While the game is definitely a breath of fresh air presentation wise, different does not always mean better.
Graphically, the game is heavy on sprite work and high res character art for dialog sequences. The game is entirely 2D, with the hustle of street traffic NPC impressively wandering about Shibuya. An interesting side note: the actual layout of the Shibuya district was used as a map for the game, though the angles in which you view it are presented in a very stylized manner. There is also some nice use of "scaling" effects when your characters are running toward and away from the center of the camera. In battle, the time graphics are toned down just a little, most likely to keep things smooth as your characters bust out fancy combo moves.
Musically, this game is anything but standard: the soundtrack has a upbeat combination of pop, techno, hip hop, and a tiny bit of rock. All the tracks are vocal, and the quality is pretty high. What's really interesting is that the game constantly cycles through songs -- coming in and out of the pause screen, or cutscenes, a random track will play. There is no set track for any given area. Even the battle mode has a random selection of vocal tracks that will play, so you don't hear the same battle theme twice in a row. In a way it almost has a "Tony Hawk" like feel the way it constantly changes up the music. This isn't to say that the music is totally random as there are specific scenes where a piece of music is meant to played.
Since the game isn't actually set in the distant past of far future, you will notice a lot of modern slang and language throughout the game. At any given moment you can "scan" people to read their thoughts, which is one of the more amusing diversions in the game. People will think about soap operas, internet blogs and memes, and cosplay -- yeah, its modern day, all right. The main character, Neku, is a pissy, moody son of a !$@$& who hates people and thinks friends just get in his way. He is joined one at a time through the game by a cast of troubled teens, including Shiki, a girl with no self esteem and jealousy issues over her best friend with dreams of being a fashion designer, Joshua, a bizzare know-it-all who can see dead people and seems to almost flirt with you at the start, and Beat, a thick headed punk skater who has issues with his parents. Sounds like a real group of winners to go stomping through Japan with doesn't it?
This brings up the first problem with the game in that not only is it hard to relate to the any of them unless you're 15, but also makes you not really care much if they complete their quest. Of course over time they learn to overcome their problems, it's just that getting to that point can be annoying. In the game's favor though is the fact that it is pretty short. The game is split into "days" which can take around twenty minutes to and hour to complete. There are twenty-one days total so this is far from the daunting journeys of other mainstay series in the Square-Enix line. Another problem is the fact that the entire land area of the game is pretty small -- imagine if Section 6 and 7 of Midgard in "Final Fantasy 7" were the entire game. As noted it's a short game, so it's not a huge problem, but it would have been nice to have a little more variety. The game builds itself on fashion trends and clothing: what pin you have equipped will affect the brand trends in a given area of Shibuya, yet despite the wealth of different types of clothing shops, whatever you wear does not reflect on your in game character model. This is just strange for a game whose soul is all about modern clothing and music.
Where the game is really divisive is the battle system. It is fresh and original and nobody can deny that. The bottom screen is always inhabited by the main character Neku, and the top screen is displaying your partner of the week. You share the same life bar, and your enemies also do as well. The idea here is that you are battling the same enemies in different planes of reality, basically a neat way of using both screens at once. So if an enemy dies on the bottom screen, he dies on the top as well. With Neku you equip pins as your weapons and items. Everything is used with the touch screen, and each pin has a specific way in which you use it. For instance, you might equip a pin that you slash the enemy with for close combat and a pin that you tap on the enemy to shoot fireballs at it from a distance. Healing items require you to touch the pin at the top of the screen, though if your hit during the animation of using it, your heal is canceled. Pins also have their own stamina, and once you use a pin it slowly drains of its stamina, so you must wait for it to refill once it runs out. The pin will not refill until you have completely used it up, so don't expect to be to strategic on it. The top screen battles happen simultaneously and are controlled with the D-pad or ABXY buttons. the battle basically plays out like "Bust a Groove" but without having to match the timing. At first it is simply overwhelming to try and figure out. Luckily you can set the top screen to fast auto play and not worry to much about what is going on up there. However, during certain boss sequences, the computer AI just doesn't cut it and will require you to play both screens. Furthermore, certain bosses have tricks to them, or require using one screen at a time. This leads to some confusing trial and error fights that might have you playing football with your Nintendo DS.
Later on in the game, fights will require Neku to not only be fast,but fast on his feet and just like everything on the bottom screen, using the touch screen makes Neku move. This proves to be a little to much for what amounts to one big button. Similar to the GameCube title "Kirby Air Ride" where the A button was used for everything from braking to boosting, "The World Ends With You" overuses the touch screen. Attacking close, attacking at a distance, quick dodging, running, using items to heal, all uses the touch screen. When you reach the final bosses, the precision required to dodge attacks, while trying to beat upon the boss and heal in between attacks becomes more of a exercise in frustration then a refreshing new concept on the real time battle system. Other problems within the game are the red hooded reapers who block off areas of Shibuya from you. In order to get past them you must meat their demands, which can be wiping all the enemies out in front of them, and at worse making a label popular by battling with a certain brand pin until its number one on the local chart, or killing a specific enemy over and over until it drops a rare item. These reaper conditions just reek of bad MMORPG quests and have no place in a portable RPG.
For all its faults, it's not a terrible game overall, it has a unique option to lower or raise the difficulty at any given moment outside battle, which enables better item drops on higher settings. It also has the distinct advantage of being set in a modern setting which lets the characters have a more colorful vocabulary that avoids sounding monotone or boring. The central story is also pretty cool, which I wont give away here since slowly discovering the secret of Shibuya is one of the best parts of the game.
Final Verdict - 7/10
A fresh concept on the action RPG setting, everything from the presentation screams modern. However, it ultimately suffers from trying too hard to be innovative and forgets the important part of being user friendly. It is worth a rental for sure and if you can stomach the cast of characters and initially confusing battle system then it might be worth a buy for you.