Delivering a sequel to a beloved game is hard enough. Setting out to create a sequel that’s almost fifteen years late, though? That’s an even bigger challenge.
One could argue that the developers behind NEO: The World Ends With You have an even greater challenge than that. The original TWEWY was a cult smash on the Nintendo DS, but part of what made it special was how steeped in the culture of its time it was. Set in a twisted version of real-life Tokyo, it drew heavily from the fashion, music and trends of the mid-2000s. It was cool and refreshingly contemporary.
That places a sequel in an interesting predicament, though. Music, fashion, and even the towering buildings of Shibuya have changed in the ensuing 14 years - but developers have to bridge the gap, keeping elements and stylistic choices that fans now view as series staples while somehow remaining contemporary.
“Over the last 14, 15 years a lot has changed in terms of culture,” The World Ends With You series director Tatsuya Kando admits via an interpreter. We’re speaking as part of the game’s promotional cycle, a period that’d ordinarily see its key development staff jet around the globe to talk to the world’s media. It’s 2021, though, so we’re on Zoom, bleary-eyed across multiple time zones.
“Everything is really based around the previous game - its ideas are still very central to this game as well,” Kando reassures. But he also asserts that wrangling the passage of time itself was more exciting than frightening, providing new opportunities for TWEWY’s unique storytelling.
“I mean, for example, look at mobile phones,” he enthuses. “Just the way that they look and function nowadays has completely changed. We've now also got a very sophisticated internet and so on. In that sense, how people interact with each other, interpersonal communications, has also changed quite a bit.”
If you’ve never played the original, those interpersonal relationships are a key part of what made people love it. It’s different to many Japanese RPGs, placing relatively grounded ‘slice of life’ characters into extreme situations, but also retaining a grounded real-world setting. In many ways it tonally resembles the Persona series, which truly took off in the West with the release of Persona 4 right around the same time the original TWEWY became a cult smash.
The only way forward, Kando says, was to embrace the new culture of the 2020s and bring the series bang up to date.
“We really wanted to try and recreate what is going on now - kind of like a snapshot, if you like. Our new protagonist is a high school boy, so we worked really hard and thought about how he'd see the world through his eyes and how he'd interact with the world in that sense.”
With so much time having passed, NEO features a new core cast of characters and a new stylish protagonist. The core narrative driver of the Reapers’ Game is back from the previous game, though this group is participating in an entirely different iteration of the game than the previous cast. In this way, as in many others, the game fully embraces the time that has passed. With that said, there’ll still be plenty of small nudges and winks that’ll thrill fans of the original.
“With these different protagonists and a new story, I think that people who play the game just from this, you know, those that haven't played the previous game and just started with this, they'll be able to get into it very easily,” says Kando.
“And then there are also of course the people who've played the previous game - but I think they will definitely be satisfied because there are returning characters who kind of support and sometimes get a bit into the fray. I think that people who are returning to the series will be very satisfied with all of that.”
One thing that won’t be returning to the series, however, is one of its most iconic elements - touch-based controls. The original game was one steeped in the design quirks of the DS - though a trade-off has to be made for much bigger news for this game, its arrival on PlayStation and PC as well as Nintendo Switch. That meant the touch screen had to go.
Like dealing with changing real-life trends in Shibuya, the team’s answer has simply been to focus more on the feel of the original game rather than trying to replicate it exactly under different circumstances, as producer Tomohiko Hirano explained.
“There's a unique way that [the original game] felt, and the feeling you got from controlling that. Moving that onto modern platforms, it's impossible to recreate it in the same way,” Hirano says.
“So we really did think very hard about the kind of play feeling we wanted - how we can recreate that World Ends With You feeling, that essence, from a control pad. We really put quite a lot of effort into making sure it felt like the original game, even if we couldn't recreate everything completely.”
The result is something that looks quite different but certainly does evoke much of the same feeling. For a start, it’s a fully 3D title, which certainly gives just about every element of the game’s presentation a major overhaul.
“The image of the original, how the style of the original was - it was very well-loved and everyone was very kind and really took to it. So in that sense we wanted to make sure that this game had the same feel to it as well as that same kind of overall image,” Kando says of the perspective switch.
“So in that sense we've tried to kind of make sure that even just by taking a quick look at it that the backgrounds, the cutscenes, the characters etcetera resonate with the original title with that same kind of feeling.”
“The backgrounds were previously very stylistic in how they were drawn, and so we've been trying to make sure that translates well to 3D, and that the camera work and so on is very enjoyable and fun.”
But in addition NEO also focuses down on more role-playing elements, expanding on the original’s focus on interpersonal relationships and the concept of clothes and fashionable pins your character wears having an impact on combat into full-blown RPG equipment and level-up systems. In our chat, the developers name-check Final Fantasy, and explain that including systems like this has allowed them to create a significantly larger game - one they claim is as much as twice as big as the original.
Battles, which are now focused around teamwork to a degree which is perhaps more fitting with the game’s themes, look to be as exciting and dynamic as the original - just different. That, in fact, seems to be a general theme. All of the time away working on Kingdom Hearts has allowed TWEWY’s core development team to reconsider what makes this franchise tick - and now this appears to be a very considered reimagining and continuation of one of 2007’s best games that not nearly enough people played.
If nothing else, this new 3D recreation of Shibuya might allow fans to undertake a little bit of digital tourism, taking in the sights of the city in a year when travel feels impossible. The developers laugh when I say that’s what I’m most looking forward to in the game, but also nod excitedly.
“You can definitely do that, you can definitely use it to visit Japan!”