Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Player Diary: The World Ends With You

I will admit that I purchased the Nintendo DS game The World Ends With You (henceforth referred to as TWEWY for the sake of brevity) with a bit of pretension. $40 is a steep asking price for a handheld video game, and the lackluster previous efforts of Jupiter (the game’s developer) certainly did not inspire any extra confidence in my selection. The game’s widespread critical acclaim and the lavish recommendations of a respected friend of mine certainly helped to assuage my initial hesitations, but I think that the game’s story concept may have been the tipping point in my decision. Ever wanted to know what happens when a self-absorbed, fashion-conscious teenager from Tokyo’s bustling commercial district gets recruited for a 7-day contest with his life on the line as collateral?

It sounds like something straight out of a horror movie (2002’s mystery-thriller The Ring comes to mind, especially with the “7 days” plot device). I realize that such films don’t appeal to everyone and, at times, have a negligible moral and/or spiritual value (if any at all). That being the case, I can understand why someone might not find the game’s story as interesting as I did. But TWEWY is a far cry from Resident Evil. Rather than focusing on sharp, edge-of-your seat graphic images to elicit an emotional thrill from the game player, TWEWY primarily utilizes its characters and setting, emphasizing exploration and character development, to help the player progress through the game’s narrative.

As long as I’m on the subject of narrative, I would like to take the opportunity to mention that this game presents a surprising amount of positive Christian themes throughout the duration of the game. During the story’s exposition, Neku, the game’s protagonist, is the archetype practitioner of what G.K. Chesterton famously called the most hideous of all religions – the worship of the inner god, the self. Without giving away too much, I can say affirmatively that by the story’s conclusion, Neku is no longer a self-centered egotist – his transformation, though not quite complete by the game’s reprisal, reminds us of the Christian call to conversion: the removal of our hardened hearts of stone for hearts of compassion.

It’s also worth noting that the presentation of these positive thematic elements is not limited to exploits of the main character - the supporting characters undergo their own conversion experiences, as well. Shiki, Neku’s female companion in the 7-day contest, learns a powerful lesson about the self-destructive powers of envy. There’s also quite a bit of Christological symbology interspersed throughout the game, as well, though this particular nuance of the game’s story doesn’t always hit the mark. The game borrows quite a bit from Christian and Jewish theology, but it takes cues from Eastern mythology, as well (the Chinese Zodiac, for example, clearly influenced the names of game locations and certain characters). Some Taoist philosophy seems to be shoehorned into the game at various intervals, and at times, the game even seems to relish in a rather relativistic ethic. There was even a point – near the game’s finale, no less – where I feared the game was going to indulge in the Nihilist “kill God” conclusion seen in the His Dark Materials book trilogy (and various video games, such as Final Fantasy XII), I was happily surprised to see that the game does quite the opposite. While the correlation to a Catholic understanding of God’s mercy and love is by no means perfect, the game seems to reaffirm the existence of a loving God rather than deny it.

Despite the fact that the game takes place in Tokyo, Japan, the game’s depiction of Tokyo’s thriving Shibuya commercial district is such that the setting seems authentically Western – in fact, I’d wager that if it weren’t for the fact that TWEWY features prominent Tokyo locals, I’d be hard pressed to distinguish the game’s setting from that of any major downtown city across the North American continent.

The game also benefits from a slavishly transliterated script. This makes the characters seem as authentically "Western" as the game's location, for better of for worse; since features teenagers so prominently, you can probably guess that their language is – well, far from immaculate, to say the least! There’s a fair amount of foul language and a few very mild references to homosexual activity. That being said, I still think that the “T for Teen” ESRB rating is quite appropriate for this game. A teen with a well-formed conscience will, I imagine, have no problems gleaning the many positive fruits of this game’s narrative while leaving the poor ones to rot.

Of course, to focus exclusively on the game’s narrative would be quite silly. What is, exactly, the value of the actual “game” in this “videogame”?

Well, at it’s core, TWEWY is a real-time Japanese role-playing game. The main focus of the game is on combat, where the player controls the game’s characters in some sort of battle scenario. In TWEWY, the player controls the protagonist, Neku, using the touch-screen on the Nintendo DS. Before battle, Neku can equip different “pins” for the fight. These “pins” allow Neku to perform different sorts of attacks. For example, one pin might strike an enemy with lightning, while another will allow Neku to teleport and dodge enemy attacks. More importantly, using the pins is no small order: the aforementioned lightning pin works, for example, by drawing circles on the touch screen, while the teleportation pin is activated by simply poking the screen. Since you can only take a certain number of pins into battle (and you can only use pins a certain number of times in a row), you have to plan carefully before and during each fight.

The game also allows incorporates the fashion motif very well into these battles. The type of clothing Neku wears into battle with effect the way he fights enemies (for example, wearing one shirt will makes his attacks stronger, while another might help to dodge enemy attacks). More importantly, as in reality, clothes all have brandnames. One brand might be more popular in a certain part of Tokyo than another, and the game grants Neku extra attack power if he respects the fashion sensibilities of the area he’s fighting in. It’s a pretty clever mechanic that really added to the authenticity of the game’s setting in addition to making the game more challenging.
As the game player, you’ll not only control Neku, but another character is also at your disposal on the top screen of the Nintendo DS. Here, you’ll once again have the opportunity to equip your character with certain sets of clothing, but you’ll attack and defend against enemy attacks by using the directional pad instead of the touch screen.
The real challenge is trying to control both characters simultaneously! It’s rather difficult at first, but it’s fast, frantic, and fun in a very strategic way. It challenges the player to think critically and quickly - no small feat in the world of video games. And if you don’t want to worry about both screens at once, it’s no problem – the game has adjustable difficulty that allows the game’s CPU to control the top screen for you.

I’ve been playing TWEWY quite a bit since I bought it last month, and, needless to say, I’ve enjoyed what I played. It’s certainly been one of the best $40 I’ve spent in a long while. While by no means is the above description adequate to cover every aspect of the game, I do hope that it sufficiently covers the basics. Feel free to contact/comment if you have any more questions about the game.

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