In making a sequel to anything, there’s an inherent tension between re-capturing what made the original enjoyable while introducing enough newness to make a separate adventure worthwhile at all. That tension is exponentially increased in a case like that of NEO: The World Ends With You, when the sequel is not only coming 14 years after the first game, but on a completely different set of platforms and set in a location inspired by a real-world that’s changed dramatically in that time too. What, then, does it take for Square Enix to make something simultaneously faithful, novel, and true to Japanese youth culture in Tokyo as we know it now?
At least in the first two story chapters that I previewed last week, Square Enix seems to have threaded that needle delicately. NEO: The World Ends With You is not merely a new set of characters stamped into the same dilemma of Shibuya-turned-Purgatory and a week-long game to regain their lives. The Reaper’s Game, like Shibuya itself, has modernized itself in the hiatus since Neku’s escape, embracing new trappings like a Reaper app and a competitive framework reminiscent of the recently popular battle royale game genre.
In the first few hours of NEO: The World Ends With You, I’m introduced to the cautious and straightforward protagonist Rindo and his laidback and cheerful best friend Fret. A brief prologue sets up their appearances in the UG, or Underground, Shibuya — an alternate version of the real-world Shibuya where people who have died can win a second chance at life. To get it, they must triumph in the Reapers’ Game, a seven-day competition that challenges the deceased with puzzles, challenges, and battles against strange, dark creatures called the Noise. And so Rindo and Fret, thrown into the UG following a deliberately confusing and chaotic scene with a truck accident, become team Wicked Twisters in a battle to return their lives to normal.
NEO: The World Ends With You Pre-Release Screenshots
The team element of NEO immediately sets it apart from its predecessor, especially given that the most glaring theme of the original was protagonist Neku’s growth from adamant independence into learning how to rely on others. Rindo and Fret, though not without their own troubles, are far more open to forging connections with those thrown into the game with them, making them both more immediately endearing. Early on, they bond with the mysterious Sho Minamimoto, a familiar face from the first game who’s clearly got his own motivations for hanging out with two goofy kids. His incessant math puns don’t quite land the same now that he’s playing for the protagonist’s team and not building giant mounds of garbage all over Shibuya, but I’m willing to give him time.
Far more interesting are NEO’s new characters, like the goth Reaper Shoka, the tough Ruinbringers player Susukichi, and the new Game Master: Shiba. In its opening hours, NEO is at its strongest when it’s not leaning too heavily on explicit references to its aged prequel; it’s enough for NEO to embrace its predecessor’s memorable vibe. While brief glimpses of grown up returning characters like “The Prince” Eiji Oji were pleasant treats, I hope that NEO mostly stays away from trying to forge deep lore connections between games and focuses instead on telling the stories of the immediately endearing Rindo, Fret, and the friends and enemies they make throughout the Reaper’s Game.
Tied in tightly with the new team structure of the Reapers’ Game is NEO’s combat, which was forced to pivot completely from its split-screen origins. Instead, each party member can equip a single pin at a time, each of which is mapped to a different controller button. The types of pin attacks, spanning melee slashes, bursts of flame, spikes of ice, long-distance beams, and far more will be instantly familiar to veterans of the first game, as will the need for Pins to recharge periodically so you can’t just mash a single button through an entire fight. Using a Pin in combat hands the player control of whichever character it’s equipped to, allowing quick swaps between close and ranged attacks and fun combo set-ups. Though the game’s early hours weren’t enough to assess how deep the new system goes, I was impressed with how natural it all immediately felt despite its on-paper differences from the DS game.
In fact, despite the very different platform and decade-long wait, much of NEO felt intimately familiar. It was difficult for me to stay focused on finishing the preview content in the time allotted to me because I was so eager to explore UG Shibuya like I had years ago. I kept getting distracted by scanning the thoughts of passersby for their often funny, often insightful perspectives on life in Tokyo in 2021. I hunted down and defeated a secret Pig Noise, a rare monster of sorts that makes its return in NEO. I chained Noise battles together in hopes of winning rare pins off enemies or evolving the ones I had in my arsenal into more powerful and interesting versions. I stopped and stood around in the street multiple times, bouncing in my chair to the absolutely incredible soundtrack of both remixed favorites and new tunes. And all that’s without even unlocking the food and fashion elements of NEO, which I know are coming but didn’t get a chance to see.
The opening hours of NEO: The World Ends With You are mysterious, energetic, and stylish as hell – all the prerequisites I wanted out of a sequel to a game that was all three throughout. I’m interested in how the combat systems might evolve out of their early simplicity as the game progresses, and I’m a bit tentative about how NEO will balance reintroducing old characters with telling a coherent new story (I say, glancing sideways at Kingdom Hearts). But these are normal questions to have at this stage. Right now, I’m confident that NEO: The World Ends With You’s opening two hours are an exuberant, faithful re-introduction to a fantastical Shibuya I once loved.
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.