I admire NEO: The World Ends With You for its youthful attitude and wild characterizations through eccentric personalities, extravagant character designs, and cheesy irreverence. To play through NEO TWEWY is to feel young again, inviting me to relive that too-cool-for-school vibe I had all those years ago with its predecessor. But that's also because, while it's a sequel that can be enjoyed on its own, its adherence to the original story of The World Ends With You brought me back to another time, and that might leave you lost if it passed you by.
Still, NEO TWEWY has its share of attractions, like a standout action-RPG combat system that evolves into an exciting rush of flashy spells filling up the screen. And while you might roll your eyes at the cast of characters' quirks in the beginning, they'll grow on you like good friends who were annoying at first. The same can be said about its soundtrack--songs that are odd upon first listen become bops that get stuck in your head. This is also a story-heavy RPG with intriguing twists and turns. However, in its exploration, riddle-laden objectives, and narrative wheel-spinning, NEO TWEWY drags its feet for a bit too long and too often before reaching its payoff.
NEO TWEWY revolves around the Reapers' Game, the premise that drove the original game. In a parallel dimension of real-world Japan, called the Underground (or UG), characters trapped in the Reapers' Game have been posthumously invited to play a game of ambiguous rules and objectives for another chance at life. But rules are meant to be broken and parameters are meant to be manipulated, so much so that you eventually disregard its logic and just embrace the cool nonsense used to bend the fate of the characters and the setting of Shibuya itself.
The concept goes off in many directions, but it's the foundation for understanding the desperation for survival portrayed through main character Rindo and his friends Fret and Nagi--all teenagers who constantly wrack their brains to overcome the Reapers' Game's seemingly impossible odds. The effortless bouncing between the lighthearted quirkiness and the story's darker side is something I really appreciate about NEO TWEWY. Supporting characters and whether they're friend or foe, they make the core ensemble all the more stronger.
Characters are at the heart of NEO TWEWY--from their striking fashion sense to their overstated idiosyncrasies, it's how you come to understand these characters and they drive most of what makes this game memorable. While Rindo, who is your avatar, is the level-headed empath, most of the supporting characters fill in archetypes with confidence and their own personable touch, which is also a credit to the voice actors who play these roles.
Not everyone is particularly likeable (although a few are straight-up loathsome for narrative purposes). One notable letdown is the disappointing characterization of an old favorite (who I won't spoil); it's as if the character were written by someone who picked up slang on the spot and threw together a poor amalgamation of what you'd hear in American streets. Otherwise, the wide cast, and the freedom of expression NEO TWEWY affords these personalities, make it easy to find characters to identify with, and it's one of the strongest hooks here.
And while I definitely can't get into spoilers, those who loved the original TWEWY (including myself) are treated to some hype moments through important story connections and sweet callbacks. A few aspects of this do come across as hamfisted at times, but I also can't deny the jolt of nostalgia that made the experience all the more enjoyable.
Ultimately, that leaves those who never engaged with the original TWEWY out of the loop. NEO TWEWY tries to accommodate by throwing in references to what happened in the first game, but they're vague and rarely go beyond a sort of, "Hey, remember that this happened back then?" Even I was somewhat taken aback by how much NEO TWEWY relies on its predecessor (and the additional content that came out with the Switch remaster), so NEO TWEWY will hit differently for different folks, depending on past experiences.
At the end of the day, NEO TWEWY is a game about people and the strength of their relationships. I wouldn't call it deep per se, but it is undeniably endearing. As such, it should surprise no one that the power of friendship is the prevailing theme here, represented in melodrama you love to see.
As for the storytelling, NEO TWEWY takes a long time to get the ball rolling and sometimes drags its feet even when things really start to heat up. It's not that NEO TWEWY's exposition is bad; it's actually where a ton of its charm comes from, letting characters express themselves and imprint their mannerisms in your mind. It's just that there is so much of it, and it often feels like filler and dialogue for the sake of dialogue.
There is a lot to work through, and not all of it is particularly fascinating. Its story is so shrouded in mystery and clings onto obscurity longer than it should, running the risk of losing your interest before it gets real spicy. It hurts its momentum by dragging you through wild goose chases, funneling you from point to point for a chunk of dialogue to move the story a step forward. You're frequently asked to solve riddles or investigate an anomaly, which can sometimes be an interesting brain exercise, but as stated above, these moments frequently feel like busy work rather than actually engaging with the game world. NEO TWEWY is backloaded with some of its best moments, but the earlier fluff forces you to simply trust that it'll all pay off at some point.
It's also worth noting that most of the game's story is told through character portraits in manga-style panels accompanied by dialogue. The game's wonderful art style complements the approach, but the over-reliance on character stills takes away from the feeling of being present in a bustling city like Shibuya and that things are actually happening in those streets. It's a shame, too, because the toonish rendition of Shibuya is full of color, life, and potential, and the game's handful of cutscenes are stunning and beautifully drawn and animated. Unfortunately, in several story-critical moments, you have to use quite a bit of your imagination to visualize what's happening instead of actually seeing it unfold.
Combat picks up some of that slack, though. The chaos of the action-packed battles is a visual treat, especially as things ramp up when extra party members join the fight. And thankfully, it's a blast to play, too.
The foundation of combat are Pins, which are your equippable spells and attacks that get mapped to a specific button for a certain character, depending on the attack type. You have melee, ranged, charged, damage-over-time, and area-of-effect abilities, all of which can be fired off simultaneously or strategically used to string together combos with good timing. Doing so is rewarded in boosting your Groove meter, which then lets you cast a powerful super-like ability to further pound your enemies. You're constantly earning new Pins throughout the game, giving you new ways to engage in combat and rethink what's most effective for your party. Once you start building up a collection of Pins, devising effective combos, and reading the patterns of the various enemy types, NEO TWEWY's gameplay really shines. It becomes absolute chaos when you start stacking and juggling multiple attacks, yet remains fast-paced and satisfying.
What's more is that combat difficulty can be fine-tuned at any moment in your journey. NEO TWEWY features the basic easy, normal, hard, (and extra hard) settings but also lets you slide your party's level down in increments to further tweak the way you're challenged. It's also a means for adjusting how you earn rewards like new Pins and experience points. In the overworld, you can choose when you engage with enemies and how many at a time, letting you gather encounters before initiating them. You could also just worry about the battles necessary to advance the story if you want. NEO TWEWY is designed to accommodate various playstyles in creative ways.
Having the streets of Shibuya as your overworld, and the familiarity you build with it, is one of the joys of NEO TWEWY as well. So while the core story misses the opportunity to use Shibuya as a proper stage for some major story beats, shopping for new gear and ordering food to boost your stats in the different districts is a nice way to connect to the city. Side quests, while fairly basic in design, represent the lives of the people who fill these streets, and a few of these have neat little stories to boot. It's also part of how you build out your social network, a grid of perks you unlock by progressing through the game, connecting with shop owners, and completing these sidequests. Not all of the perks are useful, and the best ones are tied to main story progress, but it's incentive enough to seek them out in each chapter.
Lastly, one of the most significant pieces in creating NEO TWEWY's distinct atmosphere is in its oddball yet lovable soundtrack. With a complete disregard for consistent music genre, you'll hear grungy punk or full-on hardcore tunes one minute then some catchy J-pop- and J-rock-style bops before going into uptempto synthwave--occasionally tossing elements from each into one song. It'll throw you for a loop at first, but you'll be humming along to this fun mish-mash of sick jams. The playlist grows as the game goes on and a few songs in particular are why certain moments got me so hyped. Music was paramount to the first game's identity (and OG TWEWY fans may find NEO calling back to that), so it's great to see this new soundtrack carry on that tradition. It's representative of NEO TWEWY itself, in that it doesn't really care about adhering to norms and doubles down on its attitude--and you can't help but admire that.
The world of TWEWY is a unique one that offers a chance to feel young, wild, and free--and it brings that same heat as a fun, action-packed RPG in the exciting setting of Shibuya. It's largely made for those with a fondness for the first game, which becomes increasingly apparent as the story goes on, so your mileage may vary. NEO TWEWY can be cheesy as hell in both its serious and lighthearted tones, but after embracing that, it's a ride worth taking.
Despite my gripes and the number of ways NEO TWEWY almost stunts my enthusiasm for it, I'm glad it exists. I can live with the lulls along the way for the memorable moments the journey gave me. And I can still wish it did more with its storytelling while loving its personalities, extraordinary sense of style, and connections to the original. I can also find value in the age-old question it posits: What good is a place you love without the people who matter most? Many stories have asked and answered this--and maybe the game puts too neat of a bow on it--but I find the way NEO TWEWY answers the question the most satisfying part of the experience.