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This past May, after 6 months of lockdown, 6 months of job hunting, and multiple half-assed attempts to figure out a routine again post-vaccination, I decided to run an errand around my old campus in Manhattan and check out the ramen shop I frequented my senior year of college. As I got off the L train into 3rd Avenue, I could already feel the abundance of space in the neighborhood. During my time in college, the area around Washington Square Park and Union Square became a second home and the constant bustle of people and businesses became the backbeat of everything I’d do between classes. I learned how to keep the walk from 23rd Street to University Place under 20 minutes, which halal carts were optimal for the 10 bucks I had in my bank account at the time before getting my next thin paycheck from calling alumni whenever I felt like subjecting myself to 3 hours of torture, and what route to take back to my dorm when I needed walk off some of the alcohol in my system before the security guard would ask me anything. While the memories kept, the places definitely didn’t as my walk down 3rd Ave into 8th Street was full of empty storefronts. Mind you, I expected some changes to the location given the way no one really could call themselves unaffected by the pandemic, but it takes a special blend of exorbitant rent prices and privilege to simply leave a metropolitan area, since your office job managed to go online with the occasional Zoom meeting, and reliance on temporary residents to transform what’s supposed to be one of the busier pockets of New York City into a shell of its former self. The ramen, by the way, was still good.
I highlight this loss of a space I called home because it’s a similar kind of dread I felt when I first heard about NEO: The World Ends With You; Square Enix heads back to the streets of Shibuya for another round of the Reapers’ Game, a jam-packed week full of action, anguish, and a lot of bold fashion choices. The first game, released all the way back in 2007, was a sleeper hit on the Nintendo DS, lauded for its gripping story, flashy visuals and soundtrack, and a gameplay style that utilized nearly all the DS’s features. TWEWY was a game indicative of the metropolitan jungle it wanted to emulate, and for the longest time felt like such a flash in the pan experience that the mention of a sequel was equal parts concerning as it was exciting. Was there a way to bring the energy of the original onto current generation consoles? The Nintendo Switch got an enhanced port of the mobile version which, while good to have for the sake of accessibility, highlighted just how unique the original game was when all combat became mashed into one screen. Footage of NEO: TWEWY was equal parts mind blowing as it was nerve wracking, having to think of replicating that experience for a controller. Maybe this game had a good story, maybe the soundtrack would be enough to save the experience. Overall, that sensation reminded me of sitting in the train waiting for my stop, unsure of what I’d really find once I stepped out onto the sidewalk.
I can comfortably say that, despite all odds, Shibuya’s still the same after all these years. NEO:TWEWY manages to blend the essence of what people loved about the original with a new story, new characters, and an updated gameplay style. It’s unafraid in wanting to take its gameplay to a new direction, and its focus on bridging the gap between its predecessor and what it is now really drives home its overall ethos.
In NEO: TWEWY, three years have passed since the events of the last Reapers’ Game in Shibuya. You play as Rindo Kanade, a high schooler whose fashion sense already showcases the passage of time from the last time Nomura had to design a hip and happening urban youth. Rindo and his friend Tosai “Fret” Furosawa, spend the day in Shibuya and in a matter of seconds wind up in the middle of a free-for-all between psychics and monsters. The Reapers’ Game is alive and well in Shibuya again. With a new smartphone update and a healthy dose of insults from cat hoodie clad Shoka Sakurane, one of several great new additions to the game when it comes to snappy dialogue and delivery, Rindo and Fret have one week to score points and win it all as the newest team in the Game trying to take down the ever-victorious Ruinbringers.
The most immediate change to recognize between this game and its predecessor comes from the shift to 3D. Shibuya on the DS was a larger than life experience thanks to a slanted perspective and cluttering of passersby in every nook and cranny, each with a mind to read based on whatever minutiae they had to worry about at the time. That spirit gets amplified tenfold thanks to the ability to really see the buildings and bridges that connect the city. The game starts at the Hachiko memorial, a section all its own in the original game, but expands out to reveal that the entire Scramble Crossing is in the same section too. The decision to keep Shibuya as a sectioned off map with a fixed camera in each locale rather than pivot to an open world with a mini map on the corner is one that really does a lot in preserving TWEWY’s energy. The background buildings warp to fix into the perspective, and even as more options in the game open the city up to you, most of it does so in a way to let you see the city in angles hitherto unknown when limited to 2D art assets alone. The achievements that you earn along the way also add some flair to your romps around Shibuya in the form of unlocking graffiti tags for a mural on Cat Street, a place that you run into along the way alongside the original piece Neku idolizes in the first game. There’s no hesitation in giving the old fans some indulgence with references and location updates, but it never does so in a way that keeps new players out of the loop.
One of the biggest helpers when it comes to providing new players some solid footing comes in the form of the new characters that make up the Wicked Twisters, the team Rindo and Fret start in their quest to take down the Ruinbringers. Rindo himself is a great start in showcasing just what this game wants to focus on thematically when compared to Neku. Rather than bring in yet another isolated preteen who wishes everyone around him could shut the hell up, Rindo’s introduction is through a series of annoyed texts to Fret about where exactly to meet up for the day (all done with some choice line stickers that I hope get released officially). For the most part Rindo’s not the kind of kid that needs a lesson specifically, but as the events of the Reapers’ Game carry on the pressure gets put on him to learn how exactly to work alongside others and sus out who he can consider not just on his side, but also willing to fight alongside him. The switch from Neku’s iconic headphones to Rindo’s facemask—which the game will gladly tell you is a fashion statement alongside a few jokes surrounding a group of sanitation-based idols that are in the city—is as much an indicator of what’s going on. If the first game was focused on outright yelling at you to go and meet new people even if it feels scary, NEO: TWEWY recognizes that progress and asks you to consider how tight those circles run.
Another big help is the fact Rindo plays the straight man to a lot of colorful personalities. Fret is a certified fuckboy in appearance between his bleach job and light scarf, but makes up for it by being the resident Golden Retriever of the group. His Psych, the catchall term for the pin-based psychic abilities everyone has access to in battle, alongside some powers that help with overworld exploration, allows him to remind people of events based on a general theme (done through a quick minigame that reveals a crude drawing that could only be something he’d doodle in an effort to get through to people). For the most part he wins people over, but his lovable schtick stops cold when it comes to playing off the third full member of the party, Nagi Usui. Nagi, to put it bluntly, is a big fucking nerd and the best thing to happen to games writing in terms of navigating how to keep the core tenants of character’s eccentricities when mapping out permanent personality changes. When you first meet her she’s ready to raise hell for a promotional pin featuring the visage of her favorite gacha character who also happens to look like another unexpected member of your party, and this is partially the extra push for her to join up with the Twisters. Nagi calls back to the familiar themes of social awkwardness and needing to learn to reach out to others, but she does so in a way that doesn’t ask her to change who she is entirely. Initial impressions on her eccentricity aside, Rindo and Fret take kindly to her presence. Fret even takes the charge in nicknaming her “Boss” as she’s also the oldest of the three. In exchange, Nagi is constantly gracious about Rindo and Fret being some of the first people she’s been able to talk to since the new Game began. Yes, a lot of the jokes with Nagi revolve around her being cringe and maybe too eager to write doujinshi for the next Totally Not Fate chapter. However, at no point is she shamed for these interests and instead learns to bring that same enthusiasm for her passions into a desire to protect the people she can call her friends.
The gameplay, much like in TWEWY, is the final kicker when it comes to presenting the overall message for the game. In the original DS game, players controlled Neku using the touch screen while coordinating a second partner on the top screen via the D-pad or buttons. The proper know-how with which to coordinate button inputs and various actions on the touch screen is how you could initiate combo strings that filled a meter and let you unleash incredible super moves. NEO: TWEWY does something similarly but is fully aware of the scope of control in using a console controller scheme. Every pin that you acquire in the game is associated with a button: For the PS4, it’s Triangle, Square, and all four shoulder buttons, and in your party you basically assign one button for each character to use. Instead of passing the combo back and forth, the game incorporates a “drop the beat” system that has you coordinate follow-up moves with one another or lead big impact moves into quick hits that fill up the same type of meter. Your pins have some usual archetypes to them between energy blasts, sword-like shockwaves, and area-zoning trip wires and mines to name just a few, each also being acquirable throughout the game in various elements.
As a resident Sword Liker, I’m a fiend for the shockwave pins and my deck usually has one alongside an energy round pin for an easy switch between blasts and slashes. Charge pins, specifically ones that lead into a MvC-Assist-style dropkick from long distances, also help so much in the early game with being able to add some extra damage and combo extensions. Alongside these classics come some fantastic additions like grenade launchers, homing rockets, full-on lasers, and the ability to just tackle a motherfucker. While these pins show their worth pretty quickly, I can’t say the same for stuff like the mines and time bombs. These are probably the most antithetical to TWEWY’s whole design of resource management given how a whole five seconds to wait for a bomb to blow up basically leads to you getting torn into by a wolf or bear or frog and cursing at the screen and your (read: my) need for completion percentages. I won’t knock a game for trying something new, but I definitely shudder at the idea of someone being able to make an effective deck from a trip wire, time bomb, minefield, and attack boost pin.
Brands also make a comeback, as would be expected in a game set in one of the fashion capitals of the world. Your stats are linked to your clothes, and in order to ball out in combat you gotta ball out in fashion choice. There are 13 brands to choose from, some returning from the original game’s zodiac-inspired lineup like hip hop brand Jupiter of the Monkey and the chic Natural Puppy, to some new additions like the Uniqlo-equivalent Shepherd House and Gatto Nero with its very familiar mascot. The more you shop, the higher your VIP level increases, and the more items you can pick up and eventually trade materials for. But of course, fashion comes at a price, which in this case is your style level. The main way to fill that up is by taking your gaggle of kids to the nearest place serving food to load up, raise stats, fight battles until you’re hungry again, and then load up once more.
The epicenter of all this back and forth is the Social Network feature. Folks, we’ve got a sphere grid here and the main way you fill up this bad boy is through completing side quests that you can uncover throughout each day and the Noise gauntlets that Nagi can access through her own unique Psych. Both offer the opportunity for you to earn Friendship Points that can be spent on unlocking various clothes, special food orders for restaurants, and even new mechanics to increase noise chains, game difficulty, and the ability to farm for higher rarity pins. Just as importantly, you get to learn about every shopkeep and named character and how exactly they know each other. As one of the two resident Trails fans here, these flourishes add so much to creating a game atmosphere where Fret hanging around the Hog Fang on Central Street and giving the nervous shopkeeper there tips on how to act around customers isn’t just cute, it’s literally in the descriptor for that character. Everyone matters in Shibuya and that rules!
In a time where everyone focuses on the difficulty of games in relation to accessibility, NEO: TWEWY proudly says, “Fuck outta here with that” and encourages you to try every difficulty on file if you want every pin possible. If you’re set on keeping to one difficulty, the game also provides a level slider to increase drop rates the more HP you sacrifice for battles. The difficulty is yours to play around with and the notion of the optimal NEO: TWEWY experience is less about how much the Noise kicks your ass as it is about getting really excited about giving the ever edgy Minamimoto enough style points to put on a maid outfit that boosts HP.
The fact that I had so much to say about this game prior to bringing up the soundtrack really says a lot about its overall quality because holy crap are the tunes here something else. TWEWY’s eclectic sound back in 2007 was cultivated by hip hop and J-pop, as heard on the title track “Twister” and “Calling”. NEO honors that tradition and throws in new songs to coincide with remixes of some Shibuya classics. “Bird in the Hand” and “Breaking Free” are easily some of the standouts in this new crop of songs, but each one has its place in the game both in the cue of cutscene BGM and in the general way the game will choose to switch songs out whenever you navigate in and out of menus. You never have just one favorite song in this game, and the fact the entire soundtrack is now available for streaming just makes it prime for replay. Seriously, go stream the soundtracks if you haven’t already.
Every bit of this game succeeds because of its focus on interconnectivity. There’s nuance in being able to not just retell a story built on learning to talk to people, but to really make the most of what that experience entails. In talking about the main story Psychs, Rindo’s basically got time travel, but the decision to have such a powerful ability work as a last resort to avoid certain doom helps to make this more than just a matter of having an immediate “win the story button”. To get to a positive outcome in these moments requires Rindo to actually clue in to the people around him, learn what’s going on and use that info to his own gain. Sometimes this helps him avoid last minute ambushes, other times this forces him to come to terms with the fact that not everyone is someone he can ally with. You can’t shut the world away from you, but you do need to discern the stuff that raises you up from the stuff that pulls you down.
I think back to that ramen shop I visited in May, and that’s ultimately the core of what NEO: TWEWY is about. A city is as much the buildings and bridges that connect it from point A to B as it is the people who live in those buildings and walk down those bridges. While the game never fully addresses its primary threat as a form of gentrification, it does recognize how unwelcome changes harm the natural ebb and flow of city life. I can’t speak to how much of this game was written prior to the pandemic, but it ultimately ends up becoming something necessary in a social context, much like how its predecessor was deemed necessary by so many who needed to hear they should actually go and talk to people. I didn’t have a love for the crêpe place on 8th Street that closed down my sophomore year because of the food, but because that was where I took a photo with some of the first friends I’d make in a new city, some of which I still keep close to this day. Yeah, sometimes the camera can get difficult to deal with in battles and the melodrama that pushes the story into its final act may not hit for everyone, but I started playing this game on the week I had to leave the apartment I called home for two years, one of which I stayed in with barely a penny to my name aside from whenever I had to pay rent. There’s a lot to unpack there, but at the very least this game helped me remember the things that kept me going, the people both on my block and in my contact lists who were there in one way or another when I needed it most. The world does end with you, and as much as it’s necessary to know your limits, that horizon is ever expanding.