The World Next Door feels like it's a video game adaption of some manga or anime, which isn't too surprising. Rose City Games' visual-novel-meets-puzzle-battle game is published by anime and manga distributor Viz Media and features anime-inspired characters designed by artist Lord Gris. The game wears its inspirations on its sleeve, incorporating popular manga and anime tropes into its story. While the cast is fun to interact with and the game's combat a blast to play, there are certain aspects of The World Next Door's narrative that feels a little too stereotypical--especially in regards to most characters' portrayal.
In The World Next Door, you play as Jun, a human teenager who's lucky enough to win a ticket that allows her to visit the land of Emrys--a parallel world connected to Earth via both the internet and a magical portal that opens up for a few days every 20 years. Her trip in Emrys suddenly takes a dark turn when she fails to return to the portal before it closes, as humans can only last a few days in Emrys before they die. Jun teams up with her friend Liza, an Emrys native who's been communicating with Jun for months as a pen pal, to figure out a means of reopening the portal and getting home. The two enlist the help of a few of Liza's acquaintances as well, culminating in a party of seven when all is said and done.
The World Next Door is divided into two portions, with visual novel gameplay framing Jun's journey into four puzzle-battle game dungeons. The bulk of the game takes place in the visual novel portion, seeing you choose dialogue options and actions during conversations, complete fetch quests for Liza's friends, and figure out which three people you want to text in your precious allotment of limited free time each day. You do get some control in how Jun behaves, allowing you to make her nice, vengeful, flirty, sheepish, or bored. However, your choices don't influence the outcome of the overall story, instead shaping the direction of the conversations along the way.
Most of the game's anime inspirations come through in the visual novel gameplay, with many of the characters' personalities and designs fitting the implied archetypes of their appearance. The demonic-looking Horace, for example, acts like a sarcastic badass who's always ready for a fight. The blond-haired, pretty, always-has-a-cellphone-in-her-hand Lux, meanwhile, is a gossip with a vain need to always be the center of attention.
It works at first, especially as a means of quickly establishing the personalities of Jun's new friends. Even if you've never read a manga or watched an anime in your life, you'll probably be able to pick up each character's habits and temperament at a glance. However, none of the characters truly grow outside of their respective archetypes over the course of The World Next Door's campaign. Some grow as people, for sure, but they're minor, stereotypical transformations--like an increase in confidence or a newfound willingness to share their feelings. None of it really feels earned, either. Jun's friends just suddenly open up to her and accept each other without much prodding, despite which conversation options you choose. The one exception is Liza, who reveals a surprisingly intriguing detail in the final arc of The World Next Door's story. Trading quips with Horace or admonishing Vesper for the crime of putting pineapple on pizza may spark a chuckle or two, but Liza is the only one with any worthwhile growth.
This isn't to say that you shouldn't get to know the other characters. There are plenty of hilarious conversations to be had in The World Next Door, and it's absolutely worth your time talking to someone whenever you have a chance. If you do, you'll also learn more about the culture and history of the world of Emrys. Side conversations between story missions flesh out the fantastical land Jun finds herself trapped in. Even if it isn't necessary to get to know every character in order to complete the game, the promise of learning another fascinating fact about Emrys pushes you to chase down your companions between missions. It's an excellent reward for taking the time to explore.
The World Next Door plays like the first arc of something more, ending right when it seems like it's about to deliver the experience you want.
In the process of getting to know every character, however, I did encounter an unfortunate bug. In order to complete a favor for angelic straight-A student Cerisse, you are tasked with completing a riddle that involves using the runes on the floor of a room. However, when I entered the room, the runes never showed up. Even after resetting the puzzle, restarting the entire mission, and exiting the game and loading an old save, the runes still refused to appear. Thankfully, completing Cerisse's quest isn't mandatory for moving on in the main story, but missing out on the possible conversations that mission could have sparked is disappointing.
It's also disappointing that your conversation choices seemingly always lead to the same final large decision at The World Next Door's end. Also, unless I'm missing something, there's a pretty huge plot thread that remains unresolved regardless of which path you go with. Perhaps The World Next Door is being set up as the opening chapter of a larger story, but, as is, its narrative feels incomplete.
The World Next Door spends too little time in the other portion of its gameplay, the puzzle battles, as well, which is a shame as they're all pretty fun despite their simplicity. Throughout The World Next Door, you explore four different dungeons, each of which is inhabited by its own unique enemies. Upon entering a new room, you are thrown into battle and the floor is painted with an assortment of differently colored runes. Stepping on any spot of the map where at least three runes of the same color are touching allows you to perform a magical action. Three red runes, for example, let you send a fireball towards the nearest enemy, while purple runes summon a black hole to slow others down. You can drag runes from one spot of the room to another in order to get three of one color together, and dragging together more than three runes of the same color allows you to cast a more powerful version of the spell. All the while, the enemies in the room scurry after you, attempting to deliver a fatal blow.
Combat in The World Next Door is very simple to pick up, so by halfway through the main campaign--when the game starts throwing new types of enemies at you that do more than swipe at Jun's ankles--you're ready. These new enemies inject some welcome strategy into each battle, creating frantic matches of cat and mouse where you're trying to navigate around the room, dodge enemy attacks, and scan for the next rune you need to launch your counteroffensive. One of the best enemies in The World Next Door are these terrifying wraith-like creatures that attack by using the same runes that Jun does, so you have to constantly be aware of their position and try to lead them away from the runes that you're grouping together because your own attack might be used against you if you're not careful.
Battles can get challenging at times, but they're always finished in a matter of minutes, if not seconds, so they're rarely stressful. But The World Next Door never sets up clever encounters that test your reflexes and strategic ability until the latter half of its campaign, resulting in a first half that--though fun--is both a smidge too easy and feels uninspired.
The World Next Door plays like the first arc of something more, ending right when it seems like it's about to deliver the experience you want. The cast of characters are genuinely funny at times, and getting to know them has its benefits, but the story ends before most have a chance to really grow and mature. Worse, an interesting plot point that Liza introduces into the story near the game's end is never satisfyingly resolved. The combat portion has similar shortcomings. Though the puzzle battles are frantic bouts of fast-paced fun, the most interesting enemies and bosses are introduced in the latter half of the game, leaving combat in the first two dungeons too simple. Ultimately, there's enjoyment to be had with The World Next Door, but the game takes too long to start leaning into its strengths.