So We Ride Again...To Another End...
It’s really easy to get kids to kill each other. Well, not in real life. In real life, it’s pretty difficult, but when you are writing fiction? It’s REALLY easy to get kids to kill each other and be popular for doing so. Criminally so. Trace a short line through adolescent psychology that brings readers to ask, ‘What could bring a mere child to the utmost savagery?’ and you can get readers to burn through stories faster than you can say Fahrenheit 451. Lord of the Flies, The Hunger Games, Battle Royale; I mean it worked great as an opening hook for The Bible! Everyone loves a good True Crime story, so now just make the criminals smaller! There’s no one who knows how powerful this writing motif is more than Danganronpa director Kazutaka Kodaka, who has teamed up with fellow killing game visual novel author of The ZERO ESCAPE series Kotaru Uchikoshi to develop World’s End Club; a gentler vision of an apocalypse for children. But is this a sign that Directors Kodaka and Uchikoshi are finally going soft? Or is there more at stake within World’s End Club than meets the extremely cute and colorful eye?
Before we talk directly about World’s End Club, though, we need to talk about what I would call a massive literacy gap between the video games kids play and the books kids read: the trench that divides kids who read and kids who play games, as well as the current trends that define kids who enjoy doing both. Games are real hard. The level of games literacy required to use a controller to manipulate yourself in the abstract towards a win-condition? That’s complex in a way that is always taken for granted within the wider games community. Super Mario Bros is difficult and alienating for many kids to this day. Books are also real hard! To be able to extrapolate meaning from strings of words in the abstract while maintaining the expanding canon from page-to-page with little-to-no sound or pictures to help guide? These are completely different skills from the ones kids develop in most popular children’s games. Books and games are sold in different markets to different types of people, they carry different cultures, themes, and meanings, and both leverage child development in very different ways which leads to this chasm in learning between the two. I bring up this gulf between mediums because the bridge between the two lies within the humble visual novel.
Visual novels, while having a long history in Japan, were until-recently maligned in the west both by a Book culture that hated games and a Games culture that hated books. This chasm was too wide, and the bridges were too weak. However, there’s been a huge influx of young people from a new generation who have now grown up on games like Undertale (2015), Doki Doki Literature Club (2017), and Sally Face (2018) that stem from the success of Kodaka and Uchikoshi’s works, as they were the artists to combine popular Young Adult literature genres with game-show styled rules to make these closed room murder mystery machines. The killing games. The works of these two writers alone make up the majority of Jason Schreir’s 2014 list of “Visual Novels You Must Play”, and their success has an incredible amount of overlap with the Gen-Z cultural sensation of Undertale (which notably uses the JRPG genre and also has historical roots bridging the book-game divide through its origins in tabletop gaming — these are extremely connected markets and the stories they tell follow those markets).
It’s easy for writers to get kids to kill each other, a cheap trick even, but it takes a deft hand to mechanize that in a way that is playful and not unnecessarily cruel. Uchikoshi specifically uses his games (AI: The Somnium Files, The ZERO ESCAPE series) to tell stories with multiple parallel canons running in tandem to explore how truth is found in perspective. Meanwhile, Kodaka uses his games (Danganronpa series) to tell stories with ensemble casts each with unique powers fighting against the machinations of a cruel world whose systems try to commodify them as ‘special’ or ‘super highschool level’. World’s End Club marries both of these core themes together while also connecting to both writer’s work in apocalyptic fiction which is, unsurprisingly, a super popular genre in literature right now. [I CAN’T IMAGINE WHY THAT WOULD BE?? /s]
So this long preamble discussing game genres, book markets, and the overall career of two writers is how we start things here because I need to as clearly as possible explain something that gamers haaate hearing: if you are here right now, as a huge fan of Danganronpa or Somnium, then World’s End Club is probably not for you. You are not directly the audience this game was made for, and you’ll probably keenly dislike it if you go in expecting a similar type game. Yes, it is apocalyptic fiction, yes it uses the same tropes as both director’s previous work, yes the music is awesome, and yes the characters are incredibly well designed by Takegarou of Pokemon fame. However, this is a children’s video game, in the same way the recent Balan’s Wonderworld was designed to be played by and for young children. Now, unlike the regrettable Balan, World’s End Club is coming from a specific literary tradition that is extremely popular right now. You might have noticed that there are less Twilights and Hunger Games books and movies coming out lately, however due to your Netflix algorithms and not having libraries open to visit you probably HAVEN’T noticed that the decrease in young adult fiction has led to a vast increase of middle-grade fiction in books and on streaming services: fictional series specifically for young teens and tweens. Books like The Last Kids On Earth, Hilda, or Nimona or some folks might even recognize The Baby Sitters Club and Captain Underpants coming back ‘seemingly out of nowhere’. That’s the tradition that World’s End Club is writing for; 12-13 yo’s who want to read about a world, without parents, where kids their age are empowered to guide each other on a grand adventure. So now the questions become how successful is World’s End Club at reaching their target audience, and will this game, positioned for a younger audience, manage to challenge the dark and edgy reputation that these writers have spent the last decade building? Or alternatively… How do you feel about The Goonies?
Too Kyo Game’s newest work, World’s End Club, is a story about a group of twelve-year old classmates who wake up in the year 1996, an entire year after the school trip they go on is suddenly interrupted by a massive meteor striking Tokyo. The Go-Getters Club, as they’ve christened themselves, seems to be exactly the same as they were in 1995 but not everything is as it seems as they find out they are all now on the south tip of Japan, 1500km south from where the bus crashed, and there are no people around anymore! As the main character, Reycho, you are the newest member of the Go-Getters Club, where everyone seems to cherish one on another while uniting over the shared desire of being there for eachother. Even after their friendship is put to the test in a simulated social deduction game by the roguish robot/fairy, Pielope, the club still regards being together as the most valuable resource that a kid can have. At the edge of the apocalypse, eleven kids are about to make a 1500km pilgrimage in search of an answer to what destroyed the entire world, and wouldn’t you know? A lot happens on a two month walk!
Much like Somnium and ZERO ESCAPE, each character is written to be relatable and down-to-earth and often relate to one another over snack foods, shows they like, and general knowledge of the areas they head into. In Uchikoshi tradition, you’re gonna learn a lot of trivia, but since this is through the lens of kids the knowledge is much less heady than in previous games. This simplifying carries through to the structure of the winding narrative as well, where previous games would have these wide stretching timelines of events, World’s End Club’s timeline never branches more than once before coming back together leading to a climax that will definitely challenge younger players but without overwhelming them. The narrative still doesn’t shy away from referencing heady topics but the game never impedes your progress with surprise trivia questions relying on you remembering details about each Japanese prefecture you walk through. Speaking of, it’s really refreshing playing a game where kids can talk about death and consciousness without having to come up with answers to it or even directly face it. As the kids pass robots they’ll idly muse about existential ideas like if robots can feel and love the same way that people do, and they talk about it with different points of view, but the Go-Getters Club will never argue about anything more than if they should go East or Northeast at the next city. Which is where the main gameplay decisions come up; simply how do we decide as a group where to go next? This is a huge door that is opened to younger-teens and preteens to enjoy and explore apocalyptic fiction with realistic young characters, some crude humor, and a supernatural mystery without feeling like they are being talked down to. And from my perspective as an adult, once the story kicks into high gear, I really couldn’t put it down. It goes to some PLACES. Like some kind of “999 Jr”.
However, beyond the game’s story, there is a portion of the game that felt infuriatingly infantilizing throughout the entire game — and that’s in the separately encapsulated ‘Gameplay’ sections which carry interesting retro ideas but with all the wrong executions. Each of these gameplay sections is a sidescrolling platformer where you take control of a different member of the Go-Getters Club and each one has their own special power they unlock. Kansai can smash things with his bat, Pai can put up force fields, or Jennu can invert gravity for herself. There’s some real neat abilities that do a great job growing the characters they are set for, but between how the platforming controls feel and how overly-simplified obstacles can be, it’s always obnoxious to get through. The sections aren’t even that long, but I dreaded each one as they came up. All the subtle nuances like each character having completely different wind-ups to activate their powers and enemies not telegraphing what they do or how to interact with them made for a frustrating time. And with how often checkpoints came up, it felt like the game is also just as uninterested in the player being in these sections and so it all comes across as almost a checkmark for ‘Gameplay’ or, more-cynically, a pacing measure to pad out the play time. All of this gameplay ends up seeming like a lot of work nobody felt inspired to do, especially since a lot of the fantastic text engine and UI elements are re-used from AI: The Somnium Files, so these new elements seemed like a headache in every direction. But even still, there’s a part of me that -gets it- because something needed to break up the pacing of the story sections, since this is a game positioned for younger kids, I’m just not convinced this is it. World’s End Club would be so much easier to recommend if it weren’t for these sections.
Easily, the most charming element of World’s End Club is the ensemble cast. Each and every character throughout the game gets to have full arcs, moments of heroism, and times when they are at their weakest, even our silent protagonist, Reycho. I know throughout any Danganronpa game I’ve played, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to just have all the characters around to hang out with through their entire game. World’s End Club is a substantial answer to this. The primary motivation through twists and turmoil is that the Go-Getters Club is only a club if everyone is there, and no force of great apocalypse between heaven or earth will stop them from being together and enjoying each other’s company. The compounding factor to this is Takegarou’s character designs which carry so much energy and expression that you can’t help but feel connections to them. From an early interview with writer Uchikoshi, he says the idea to work with Takegarou was because he “thought it would be funny” for these extra-colorful characters to combine with his dark scenarios, and he was completely right. It is funny! The way they combine the face-and-body animation rigging from AI: The Somnium Files, combine it with the diverse ensemble design of Kodaka’s Danganronpa games, Takegarou’s characters, and sprinkle Masafumi Takada and Jun Fukuda’s (No More Heroes, SSB: Ultimate, Danganronpa) stylized funk/western pop hybrid music—the presentation alone is easily worth the entire price of admission, especially for a certain type of aesthetically driven player.
It’s not all cute pastel swaying and rose-colored eyes though, as the last piece of the presentation got a little lost in translation. Script editing and voice direction leave a lot to be desired, as having twelve children as your main cast seems to have fully stressed the general voice acting industry. Apparently, there is an upper limit on how many children’s voices the anime industry can do, leading to a lot of characters sounding similarly nasally and feminine. Both in English and in Japanese, the whole cast is definitely doing their best with what they’ve got, as the performances, especially by the end, are exciting and invigorating. But there are times when the script seems to trail off and character affects are lost within the English translation, especially characters with regional accents or quirky youthful speech patterns. That all said, big bro Aniki says DAMN under his breath every once in a while, like he’s Shadow The Hedgehog, and that’s cool. Aniki is working through some heavy stuff, let the boy say ‘damn’ if he wants to! Being able to switch between languages on the fly worked really well, but there sure is a lot of text in this game and so I needed that dub to help my brain continue giving the game its full attention, and character dialogue didn’t always have the chemistry needed to keep me in it. Which is weird because the dialogue and the dub was one of Somnium’s strongest points, which makes me think if there was any lapse in voice acting, it might have simply stemmed from how uncommon it is to have games that are both A: serious in tone, and B: made for children. And so in the end these lush, well presented characters, can end up being annoying and grating at times in ways that sometimes seem intended and other times don’t at all.
I’ve had many folks ask if World’s End Club would be right for them, because the signaling from advertising seems to be trying to reach out to all sorts of people, but the game itself feels very pointed towards kids, and the fanbase’s reputation is definitely not. So here is a scene that provides a simple litmus test to see if you’d enjoy World’s End Club: Throughout the game the group is put in diverse different groups, but at the midway point, there is a moment of downtime where all the guys and all the girls are following different parts of a set of train tracks, which would be dangerous, but it’s not like any trains are in operation. So the kids are enjoying this act of delinquency and this leads the girls to start talking about which boys they like in the club (or if they like boys), and in shot/countershot, cuts to the boys talking about if there aren’t people anymore then would it still be illegal to run into someone’s house and pee on their carpet? They’re asking important questions here! What are the ethics of the post-apocalypse? Also, do you really want to get married to a boyyyy? If you are fine with this level of comedic discourse, then I think there is a lot you can enjoy from the game which, after this point of levity, hits its stride. Once I realized that World’s End Club is a game meant to be approachable to younger kids, I had so much more fun with it, and on top of that the end half of the game goes 100mph towards its conclusion just like I’m comfortable with from other Kodaka and Uchikoshi games. The pair do an incredible job grounding each other in a way that keeps the game’s main themes and strengths in full focus even while compounding story twists try to stress those themes to the limit. Which is something that has been a weakness of each of them in the past.
World’s End Club manages to bring light to an important demographic that rarely gets important games made for them by veteran game makers, and that by itself is pretty special. It doesn’t wholly land its mark, and since I don’t think the game will be getting a sequel anytime soon it doesn’t seem like the kind of project to spark sudden interest in middle-grade fiction, but there are loads of critical importance within World’s End Club. Kodaka and Uchikoshi’s partnership has brought a very special light and joy out of both of them that had me laughing, tearing up, and singing along with the game all the way to the end. Vanilla and Pochi are the two main characters that end up stealing the entire show by the end in ways that made me get out of my seat to cheer for them. Also, Jennu? Ace genderqueer star, we salute you! This game may not be for you, but if you go into it with the understanding that it is made with kids in mind, I think it is a fun ride and if you know any 4th-7th graders who like reading and games, test the waters with this and then start preparing the 999 machine that they’ll be able to graduate into in a few years. With World’s End Club, Uchikoshi and Kodaka knock a very interesting notch into their legacy as they prove they are both capable of delivering wholesome stories that dive into deep subjects without dealing in death. Now they just need to iterate on how they implement “gameplay” sections so it doesn’t end up playing like Lester The Unlikely.
It’s not for everyone, and it takes time getting there, but overall there is an incredible gem in this game that may be invaluable to share with the younger people in your life. World’s End Club filled a favorite niche of mine, and now I hope the directors continue their path navigating farther away from the dark and intense killing games. With a full heart and a huge smile, I give this a not-too-shabby and not-too-stabby, 3-out-of-5!