NEO: The World Ends With You Will Reflect 14 Years of Change to Shibuya
When The World Ends With You launched on the Nintendo DS in 2007, I was 16 — only a year older than the game’s main protagonist, Neku. And while the real-world Shibuya that was so lovingly modeled in the game was half a world away from me, the stylish cast, themes of growing up and overcoming one’s own prejudices and inhibitions, and absolute bop of a soundtrack gripped me utterly. I remember posting on forum threads back in the day speculating as to whether a sequel would be announced at an upcoming E3. And then again the following year. And the year after that.
In reality, it took 14 years — punctuated by mobile and Switch ports — for The World Ends With You to earn a sequel, NEO: The World Ends With You. I’m now probably closer in age to the enigmatic barista Mr. H than I am to Neku and his friends. And, over the course of this long, long wait I was far from alone in rampant speculation and thirst for a new entry. So, given the positive critical response and commercial success of the original — not to mention enthusiasm for the ports and fan demand for a sequel — what took so long?
According to NEO’s producer, Tomohiko Hirano, plans have been in place for some time (we’ve seen teases of a character we now know to be Tsugumi Matsunae since 2012), and fan reception spurred things along. Ultimately, though, the long wait stemmed from the team needing multiple pieces to fall into place to make their vision come to life.
“With the original version of the game, from the very beginning we’ve had a lot of fans that have been asking for a sequel to come along,” Hirano says in an interview with IGN. “But with the content of the game, it’s a little out there. It’s a little different from your usual game and with that, we needed to secure an environment where we could really focus on the development of this team. Up until now we really weren’t able to secure that kind of environment, but now that we have been able to do so we’ve been able to proceed.”
I ask what he means by “securing an environment,” and Hirano specifies that the team wanted to create “something totally new” rather than simply do what they had done with The World Ends With You and attach a different plot. And in the interim, new platforms came out, changing the systems and tools they had to work with.
Here, series director Tatsuya Kando interjects with a succinct addendum: “We were also busy handling Kingdom Hearts, so we didn’t really have time to allocate to this series previously.”
In the span of those 14 years, Nintendo hardware has moved from a tiny dual-screen handheld with a touchscreen to a device that, while portable and with a number of interesting optional control schemes (thanks Joy-Cons) ultimately defaults to functioning as a regular ol’ console with a no-nonsense controller attached. That means that the vast majority of games released on it need to function that way too, including NEO. That’s great news for PS4 and PC owners, as it frees the sequel from necessary platform exclusivity. But gone are the days of The World Ends With You’s divisive, challenging, and (to me) delightful multitasking touch controls and button patterns across two screens simultaneously. A new battle system had to be devised.
Game director Hiroyuki Itou says that the shift was indeed a roadblock for the team, but playing around with the battle scheme fits in with the team’s desire to make something completely new. The new battle system he describes to me does seem to echo one critical element of the original game that played out across all platforms it was released for: NEO’s combat is all focused around the main party members’ teamwork. Itou says developing the smartphone version of The World Ends With You inspired the route the developers ended up taking.
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“When you look at other titles, when you’re playing as a party with multiple members in there, it’s usually turn-based where you’re switching between characters to control them,” Itou describes. “This time around, we implemented a system where you’ll be able to control all of your characters simultaneously using the various buttons on the controller.”
The system he describes brings back The World Ends With You’s system of Pins for different attacks, but this time instead of equipping a full set on one character and using different motions on a touch screen to activate each power, you equip Pins to your different party members, which are then assigned to different controller buttons. So in battle, you’ll control your entire party at once via their respective Pin buttons, with party members acting out distinct commands like fire or sword attacks simultaneously.
Aside from the battle system, another major change Itou describes is to the overworld. In The World Ends With You, progression around Shibuya was tied to progression of the main story, with areas blocked by Reapers who were either impassable or required battles or simple story puzzles to move forward. Though the Reapers’ Game remains the focus of the main story, progression and discovery will be more connected to new kinds of puzzles taking place around Shibuya and the surrounding area, encompassing both the main story and sidequests. Itou doesn’t elaborate on what these puzzles are just yet, but describes them as distinctly different from what players found in the first game.
Speaking of the first game, no worries if you didn’t play it — Itou reassures me that players new to the series can step in comfortably to NEO, even though we’ve already seen a healthy pile of cameos from returning characters, from the first game’s protagonist Neku to former villains Kariya and the math-obsessed Minamimoto. Itou adds that there will be plenty of nods to the first game for those familiar as well.
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Perhaps most interesting of all for returning players will be to see how the fictional Shibuya has transformed over the course of 14 years. Much of The World Ends With You was modeled directly after actual places in Shibuya City, a major commercial area within Tokyo popular for its youth culture, fashion, and shopping. Hirano tells me he believes that the game’s earnest attempt at an accurate recreation of the area, encompassing its food, music, fashion, and culture, was a major factor in what made The World Ends With You so appealing to Western audiences, even resulting in tourists who had never been to Shibuya before traveling to the area, DS systems in hand, to compare TWEWY’s Shibuya with the real one.
NEO The World Ends With You will follow this same philosophy of accuracy, Kando adds, while also seeing a “big expansion” to the map fans are familiar with, incorporating nearby Harajuku as well. But the real-world Shibuya hasn’t been a static place in those intervening years, and Kando tells me NEO will reflect many of the changes it has experienced over that time.
One example he offers is Miyashita Park, which in The World Ends With You is a relatively uneventful area featuring little more than an underpass. In the real world, Miyashita Park has historically been a public park situated in a rare green space in Shibuya. But in 2017, the city kicked off a remodeling project, transforming Miyashita Park into a huge outdoor shopping mall complete with a rooftop park. Kando tells me this transformation will be reflected in the game.
It’s hard not to harp a bit on the 14-year gap between games in what is now a The World Ends With You series — after all, most unique experiences don’t go that long and then suddenly get a sequel after years of fan requests. But The World Ends With You is coming out of Square Enix, a developer and publisher known for some of the most popular and long-running RPG and RPG-adjacent franchises out there, Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts in particular. I ask the team if the hope is that The World Ends With You can eventually become a series like those, especially now that its universe is expanding not only with a sequel, but with an anime adaptation as well.
“Yes, that is what we’re aspiring for,” Hirano responds. “But of course, as mentioned earlier, there was that big gap since the first title came out. So with the new title that’s coming out, and also the anniversary version of the game going live, we’re hoping we’ll see more demand from the players, which would serve as an opportunity for us to expand more on the franchise.”
I tell him that I hope that comes true, but also that there isn’t quite as big a gap between NEO and whatever comes next.
The entire team laughs. “That’s what we’re hoping for as well,” Hirano replies.
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.