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The Whole Game in My Hand #10

by Michael "txa1265" J. Anderson, 2008-08-03

Games reviewed in this article:

While the first quarter was relatively balanced in terms of releases, the second quarter is dominated by the Nintendo DS in general, and by strategy-RPG releases for the DS in specific.

Nintendo DS – April / May /June Releases

Rondo of Swords (DS) (My Score 3.5/5, Rated E-10+)
The DS has become home to some excellent strategy-RPG's ... and more than a few clunkers as well. Most follow a fairly standard set of rules with the best offering something interesting or innovative to make the dozens of hours you invest feel worthwhile. The same is true for the story and technical presentation: the games don't require much in terms of graphics or motivation for battle, but the best games make you want to experience the story between the battles as much as the battles themselves. So where does Rondo of Swords fall in regards to all of this? On whole it is average, but with some significant ups and downs along the way.



Let me be blunt: the only reason to come to this party is for the battle system. That is because for the most part the game feels like it was originally targeted for the GameBoy Advance and then ported to the DS at the last minute. The graphics are sub-standard for a current release - and while I know that games in this genre don't require much, this stands out as looking like a low-budget port of a SNES game with about three battle animations you will see again and again. The sounds and music are no better: the voice acting is generally lousy and most of the soundtrack is instantly forgettable. Controls are a mixed bag - the stylus is well-integrated into the battle system, but becomes a hassle at other times when the D-pad could have been put to better use. The story is standard fantasy fare - you are the ousted prince of a besieged kingdom and you need to gather allies and retake your kingdom from the evil usurpers. There are some interesting twists and turns that keep you engaged, but there is too little story interspersed in too few cutscenes to keep you motivated.

But if you can get past those issues, you will be treated to a nicely innovative battle system. The game grid looks familiar, but rather than moving to within range of an enemy and attacking, you go THROUGH them to attack. This means you can attack multiple enemies in a single turn. You can also gain benefits from allies by passing through them! Magic has a large range but uses loads of mana, making it impossible to have a mage just sit back and toss destruction from a distance. Of course, enemies can do all of this as well - and they will take advantage of every mistake you make and in turn give you few opportunities to exploit. In a word the game is tough. In between battles you can take on extra quests and buy items using the errand system, which is a somewhat obscure part of the game that isn't very well explained.

As I mentioned, the game is very hard. Fortunately your fallen units don't die as they do in Fire Emblem, so as long as you survive your full army will be available for the next battle. That is a good thing that will keep you from unnecessarily restarting missions again and again to keep units alive. While you might be thinking 'but Fire Emblem made me do that', the difference is that the Fire Emblem games did an excellent job of making you care about each of your units so you never wanted to lose any of them. Your reasoning here is simpler: you need them to survive so that you can survive.

Overall my impression of the game is that it is a bit better than average. Were it not for the unique battle system the game would fall flat on its' face, but since a strategy-RPG lives or dies by the combat system that makes for a compelling reason to grab this one. I could look past the ancient graphics and sound and sometimes dicey controls and hackneyed story for a couple of reasons - the battle system is cool and the game is really hard. I already have an established penchant for games in this genre that hand me my butt on a regular basis. My recommendation is to look at your queue with a critical eye - do you really need something that will swallow up dozens of your gaming hours and deliver only a 'good' experience? If so, grab this one for the best price possible. If not, skip it or at least wait for it to hit bargain bins - which it will do in a few months unless supply is limited.

Drone Tactics (DS) (My Score 3.5/5, Rated E-10+)
Putting the word 'drone' in your title is risky: aside from the intended reference to worker insects, drone is also a verb that suggests going about in a dull and indifferent manner. After the first few cutscenes you will be more in the mind of the latter definition than the former. That is because the game seems to be engaged in some sort of race to have the youngest protagonists that has been going on recently. Where previously people complained about jRPG's where the lead characters were all teens and anyone over twenty was an 'elder', now we have games like this where the heroes are elementary school children. The story was something my younger son loved from reading the manual - the kids are bug-lovers, but the bugs start talking back and ask for their help, eventually bringing them to their homeworld to help save the population from the evil Black Swarm.

But once you get past this you are rewarded in two ways: a deep and intelligent strategy game emerges, and with it a 'mech customization' game with loads of options. The battle system is similar to most turn-based strategy games: you are on a grid, move around, select a unit to attack, and choose your attack type. After your turn is complete, you get to choose your defense strategy: melee units can counter-attack, high defense units can defend, and high speed units can attempt to evade the attack. Adding to the strategic options are 'battle cards' you collect as you go along. These cards are played as a standard action and can provide you with abilities that will heal you or an ally or help turn the tide of battle.

The other distinguishing feature is the ability to customize your drones. Aside from cosmetic touches such as colors and emblems, you get to make more 'meaty' choices such as deciding which drones will come with you, what weapons they'll use and what armor they wear. You customize your deck and even make new cards based on recipes you'll gain as the game progresses. Aside from the main missions you'll complete to move the story along, you can enter the Badlands to gain items and experience pretty much any time you choose and repeat missions as needed.

Technically the game is a mix of 2D and 3D - 2D for the cutscenes, isometric for the world view, and 3D for the battle animations. The visuals are well done overall, with the styles complementing each other and the battle animations and drone characterizations really standing out. The sounds and music are fairly generic and do little to leave any impression. You can control the game with either the stylus or buttons, but the standard button and d-pad is recommended because it is quicker and easier.

Drone Tactics is not the sort of game you'll be telling your friends about based on the story and setting - it is all about the combat. The combat isn't too difficult, but you will find yourself repeating Badlands missions to gain levels because you will find enemies level up much faster than you do. Having optional missions is fun, but having to repeat them in order to make progress in the main mission is less fun. The game features a 2-player wireless combat mode, but would have benefitted much more from a solid WiFi combat mode. Instead, we are left with a solid strategy game that could have been so much more; a game that combines deep strategy and excellent customization and squanders them with a trite story and lifeless characters that 'drone' on and on without the ability to skip the cutscenes. The choice this quarter is between Drone Tactics and Rondo of Swords. Both have solid combat systems but lifeless stories. Rondo of Swords is much harder and this game has better graphics and more options - I scored them the same and put the buying choice on to whether you like games excruciatingly hard or not.

The World Ends With You (DS) (My Score 4.5/5, Rated T)
I had originally planned on using Etrian Odyssey 2 as my feature review, since I was dubious of Mazes of Fate being released. But then I realized I had already used the GBA Mazes of Fate and the original Etrian Odyssey as features, and that this quarter featured a very original game that deserved some feature attention ... so look for the full view on this excellent game as this month's feature review!

Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift (DS) (My Score 4.5/5, Rated E-10+)
If the 'A2' in the name of the game seems a bit silly, realize that this game is essentially a sequel to the 2001 GameBoy Advance game Final Fantasy Tactics Advance - I'll just call it FFTA2 from now on. In that game you played as a young boy who enters the world of Ivalice through a mysterious book. Many found that game too 'kiddie' in terms of characters as well as story and presentation of the combat system, but it was a massive game that was very popular on the handheld. It seems as that the main character or the sequel,Luso , has aged along with the original game - because he feels more like a teenager than a little kid. But, just as before, he gets drawn into the world ofIvalice by a mystical book, and there his real adventure begins.

The handheld strategy-RPG realm has gotten crowded with some high-quality offerings in the past year, so let me place FFTA2 in context. It is heavier on the RPG side of things than most games, with a robust set of jobs and abilities to master as you advance in levels. The variety of jobs allows you to take different amounts of various jobs to unlock some really cool and powerful high-level jobs later on. In terms ofgameplay it falls into the traditional grid-based combat with terrain effects camp. In terms of difficulty the game is pretty easy compared with most others including thePSP port of the original Final Fantasy Tactics and Advance Wars: Days of Ruin.

Perhaps the single most difficult, frustrating and annoying thing in the game is the restrictive law system. It is explained early on as necessary to maintain order, but that doesn't stop you from getting annoyed when it happens to you. I mean, it is one thing when you are forbidden from using reaction skills or fire skills - it is simply a matter of making sure no one in your group has the 'counter' ability and never selecting a fire-based attack. But when the rule is 'no knockback' or 'no missing', that can be much harder to control. Indeed, in one battle I was very close to the end and my fighter hit for a critical attack and caused a knockback - and I got a violation. But this system is better integrated than in the original - for following the laws you get bonus items and a special stat bonus 'privilege'. Breaking the rules means losing that privilege and not getting the bonus items, but no longer sends your fallen clan members to jail.

In technical terms the game is wonderfully polished: the translation is flawless, which is amazing for a game that could take you more than 100 hours to work through. Visuals are some of the best handheld 2D work I've seen, and the music is a rousing score with some modern elements. The controls are simple, as is appropriate for a game of this genre. You can select places to go with the D-pad or stylus, and actions in combat are handled by moving using the D-pad and selecting items from a menu with either the buttons or stylus. Combat itself follows the standard pretty firmly: you place your units on the grid, then start battle. Each character from both sides has a slot in the turn system, and when a turn comes up for one of your units you choose to move, take an action, or wait. Terrain plays a great role in attacks as well as movement, limiting the number of steps you can take or levels you can jump. Facing, the direction your units face, also matters quite a bit as you are much more vulnerable to attacks from the sides or behind than you are to head-on strikes. Your actions can include standard attacks, job-based skills, special clan-based skills for each unit that come up on occasion, and situation-specific actions such as searching for items or grabbing treasure.

Somewhere between the four hundred quests, the fifty-six jobs, the innumerable skills and weapons and items and more, you will discover that this is a game you can eaily lose hours playing. Some folks complain that it is still not the complex and mature sequel they want based on the original PS1 game, but I have found this game charming and smart and fun and extremely well done. There is humor throughout much of it, and enough distraction to keep from getting mired in the 'battle now to battle later' feeling that often sinks in with this genre. While it isn't the best strategy-RPG on the DS, it is an excellent game that is recommended for fans of the genre and anyone looking for a fun and challenging strategy experience.

Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time & Darkness (DS) (My Score 3/5, Rated E)
My kids loved the first Pokemon Mystery Dungeon game for some obvious reasons - there was an interesting story based in a setting they loved, the dungeon crawlerworked well based on their love of Fate, and of course they loved getting to play as a Pokemon. In its' second iteration the game takes an approach similar to the mainline RPG's of the franchise: there are two games with slightly different starting Pokemon but that are otherwise identical. In fact there is a note on the game box that it is not necessary to own both versions of the game.

Little has changed since the first game other than the story - you answer questions to determine what type of Pokemon you are, you enter the dungeon and take on quests to gain experience to help you unravel the mystery of how you got turned into a Pokemon in the first place. There are plenty of tasks to take on to gain ranks in the guild, though most are fairly mundane and the trekking back andforth gets mundane.

Another thing that hasn't changed is the difficulty: this is definitely the easiest roguelike you will ever play. There is still a death penalty, but it amounts to losing any money you are carrying and a few items. All of your experience and progress remain. This is clearly NOT a game that is trying to keep up with Shiren and Izuna in terms of dishing out cruel death. There is a clear market for this game: youngfans of the Pokemon franchise. They will have no problem griding through menial tasks just to unlock another Pokemon to use in battle. For that crowd the game is definitely a success - just don't expect anyout outside of the Pokemon fan club to get nearly as much enjoyment from the game.

Mazes of Fate DS (DS) (My Score */5, Rated T)
Another quarter goes by, and still this game isn't out - nor is there any word back from the publishers to my requests. I have had an order entered in at Amazon for some time ... but all that has happened is that the 'release date' has shifted and i still haven't heard. I will play and review it when it comes out - IF it comes out.

Summon Night: Twin Age (DS) (My Score 4.5/5, Rated E-10+)
In my GamerDad review of Summon Night Swordcraft Story 2 I said "somebody hurry up and translate the next one in the series - they just keep getting better and better!" Well, while Atlus never brought any more of the GBA games to an English-speaking audience, they have produced a new entry for the series, this time for the Nintendo DS. And while it is a very different experience from the GBA games, it is compelling and wonderful in many of the same ways as the other games in the series and makes an excellent addition to the RPG genre library on the handheld.

While the GBA games were turn-based, Twin Age is all real-time. The game uses stylus-based movement similar to The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, and it works well. You simply tap the screen and your character walks in that direction. If you tap on an active object - for example a chest or an enemy - your character will attack using the default action: for Reiha that is a magic blast, and for Aldo it is a melee slash. There is loads of dialog as well, but you can use the A and B buttons to speed through that since they generally only display a line at a time. Overall the controls are simple and intuitive and will never slow you down. You actually control an entire party - aside from the siblings, others will join your group and you get to choose who comes along for battles. The AI takes over for these characters in combat, as well as the handling the sibling you aren't controlling, making combat much smoother. Of course the AI characters sometimes do silly things or get stuck or otherwise behave as only AI characters can, but in general the combat flows nicely with the AI handling things.

Working through the dungeons involves loads of combat, and given that it all happens in real-time from a top down perspective the execution of the combat system is critical. Fortunately the developers did a masterful job of putting together something that is exciting without ever feeling out of control. You simply tap an enemy to attack, and tap a location to move - pretty similar to clicking in a PC action-RPG. And the comparison extends further - you can setup a 'command palette' with five commands on the left and right side of the screen. These commands are spells, skill attacks, weapon switches, inventory items, and so on. Tapping one of these is like pressing a hotkey in a PC game, which is a really wonderful thing. Just think about it for a minute - you are in a pitched battle, and discover that the horde of enemies attacking you now are weak against Ice and you have a Fire spell equipped. Simply click the Ice spell and then the enemy and attack away. It makes battles an absolute joy - which is a good thing because the game is full of combat.

Another excellent thing about the game is the skill tree. Think of your favorite action-RPG skill tree, and Summon Night will come pretty close. You have a wide variety of skills, plenty of levels, and that wonderful satisfaction of seeing immediate results when you level up a skill. With Aldo you will tend to focus on a single weapon tree, taking other skills along the way; with Reiha you choose elemental attacks and resistances along with support skills. There is also an entire system that allows you to customize your weapons with elemental materials, as well as forge new weapons and armor and other items. You will gather plenty of materials as you travel, so there is no excuse not to experiment with making new items whenever possible.

Quite a wonderful combination for an action-RPG - interesting little story and characters, great controls, pleasing graphics and music, excellent skill system, and fun combat that is varied and challenging. If you want a deep story full of twists and turns, look elsewhere. If you are looking for a game that will kill you at every wrong move, this isn't that game. It is challenging but never too difficult, and the only way to really die is for your entire party to get wiped out. This can happen occasionally with bosses, but then it is a matter of returning to the save you made just before the battle, and either retrying the boss battle or leaving the area to gain more levels and skills. One other omission that is quite glaring is that there is no multiplayer, and every game in this genre really screams for some form of multiplayer. I would prefer online mode, but even local wireless support would have been acceptable. I mean, the game is based around two characters - how could they NOT have included wireless co-op with each player taking a main character? I really enjoyed the GBA games in this franchise, but this game really exceeded my expectations. While I have enjoyed other action-RPG's on the DS, this has surpassed Lunar Knights to become my favorite handheld action-RPG. Definitely worth checking out - especially since Atlus doesn't charge 'Squeenix prices'.

Etrian Odyssey 2: Heroes of Lagaard (DS) (My Score 4.5/5, Rated E-10+)
When thinking of Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard I am reminded of the Far Side comic with stereotypical nerds in Hell with one saying to the other 'hot enough for you?' That is because one of the distinguishing characteristics of the original Etrian Odyssey was that it often felt like the game was saying 'look, I really don't care if you die' while it was secretly thinking 'hehe, this next FOE will take out the whole party in two turns and he hasn't been able to save in an hour ... so sweet!' Yeah, it was brutal - and the sequel is every bit as brutal!

What do you want and expect in a sequel release only a year after the original? For myself, I want what boils down to 'more of the same ... but BETTER'! And that is pretty much what players can expect with Heroes of Lagaard. You get the same old school self-mapping system, augmented with new symbols and tools to help you add more useful details to your maps. And just as in the first game, you really need those maps with as much detail as possible because the areas are very tough and large and full of items that you can't always grab in a single visit due to character limits or just trying to keep your party alive. I didn't expect a major story, since the basis of the game is that you are just one guild out of many that are exploring this giant tree dungeon searching for the mystical floating castle. And that is pretty much the story you get; sure there are tidbits handed out occasionally, but this is not a story driven experience: you are adventurers looking for fortune, fame, and knowledge.

I also expect the game to look and sound a bit better, and again there have been considerable strides made in that area. All of the area look better and are more detailed and feel more 'alive' than in the original, but it is the variety of the graphics that really shines. There are many more areas and enemies than in the original, with high quality art and characterizations to go with them. In the original the sound was good but definitely not of the highest quality, but the sequel has added additional songs and sound effects and improved the fidelity.

And in case you didn't get my subtle hint, this sequel is every bit as hard as the original. In fact, I would say that it was harder. I know that in the original I was prepared for my first FOE when I met it (even though I died), but here I was helpless for quite a while. There are now different types of FOEs- some that patrol specific routes, others that chase you, still others that can actually chase you through certain boundaries that stop normal FOEs, and others that only show up in first-person view. And in general surviving a battle with a FOE isn't a guarantee until you are several levels above them. You no longer get experience for defeating FOEs, they just drop items that can be used in making some of the most powerful weapons and items available in the game. That makes deciding to avoid some of them a bit easier, but it is still a trade-off that bothers me.

The thing that made Etrian Odyssey one of my favorite games of 2007, and makes the sequel one of my faves of 2008, is that it combines solid DS game design with modern RPG features that brush across cRPG and jRPG conventions and an old-school sensibility into something that is both original and familiar at once. It is truly hard - but it is hard based on a solid and thoughtful design, not a set of 'die and retry' principles found in so many action games these days. Because of the difficulty it is not for everyone - some people just don't like the constant punishment the game provides, or require a more indepth story filled with fleshed-out characters. None of that is on offer here. This is a game that has you roll up your characters, grab your stylus, watch your inventory and character status, and get to exploring! And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Nintendo DS – The DS RPG Outlook for the Next Quarter

I have noticed people asking about things that were listed in my 'coming next quarter' list, so I wanted to make it clearer what was coming down the pike so people could know what to expect in the next article.
  • Sid Meier's Civilization Revolution (early July)
  • Final Fantasy IV (late July)
  • Gauntlet (August) - wifi including voice chat
  • Harvest Moon Island of Happiness (July)
  • Izuna 2: The Unemployed Ninja Returns (July)
  • Sonic Chronicles: Dark Brotherhood (September) - Bioware
  • Spore Creatures (September)
  • Dragon Quest IV (September)
  • Naruto: Path of Ninja 2 (September) - believe it!

Sony PSP – April / May /June Releases

God of War: Chains of Olympus (PSP) (My Score 5/5, Rated M)
While this game isn't an RPG, I simply couldn't pass it over when writing this article. Put simply it is one of the best two or three games on the PSP and the single best looking handheld game ever made bar none.

The God of War series is a third-person action game series based on Greek Mythology. You play as Kratos, a former Spartan captain who has become a servant to the gods. Chains of Olympus is a prequel to the two PS2 games, taking place a decade prior to the events of those games but after he has become a servant to the gods and unwittingly killed his own wife and daughter in a purging of a city that was part of an act of piety to Ares. Since those events he has felt manipulated and used by the gods and has sought escape, but has found only more tasks and deceit.

The gameplay consists largely of combat sequences, puzzles and connecting cutscenes. As you battle your way through, you gain experience that allows you to level up your weapons and attacks. You can also find hidden chests with items that allow you to permenantly increase your health and magic levels. Playing the game reminds me of a somewhat less brutal 'Blade of Darkness' with better puzzles. The game is rated M for the brutal violence as well as nudity and sexuality (there is a signature 'sex minigame' near the beginning, and many of the gods are shown topless).

God of War: Chains of Olympus is a short game, but makes up for it with loads of things to unlock and plenty of replayability through different difficulty levels. And it executes with near perfection - the controls are amazingly simple and effective, the framerates and load times are stunning given the awesome graphics, and the camera rarely goes someplace that doesn't make sense. If you are an older teen or adult and own a PSP, there is simply no reason not to buy this game.

Sony PSP – The PSP RPG Outlook for the Next Quarter

This is going to sound familiar ... but I got nuthin' here. There isn't a single PSP RPG or strategy-RPG or even strategy game listed as being released in the next three months - heck, even Civilization Revolutions is skipping the PSP! Hopefully there will be something good enough that come September there will be *something* to review for the PSP!

Well, this has proved an interesting few months, almost entirely dominated by the DS. It is interesting that the PSP has moved into what are calling a 'software slump' that Sony attributes to concerns over the platform ~18 months ago. It is also interesting that that the system is doing very well in Japan based almost entirely on the Monster Hunter franchise. ... now let's move on and take a look at The World Ends With You in some more detail.

Handheld RPG Review - The World Ends With You (DS)

My opinion of Square Enix has dramatically improved with the release of a single game. Previously I looked at them as a solid developer of new games within their stable of franchises (Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest), updater of classics from those same franchises, and combiner of those franchises with other licenses (Kingdom Hearts). But apparently there is still room for some innovation there, as their new game The World Ends With You proves. The game has many elements that would fit nicely within their existing franchises, but make no mistake - this is an all-new property, and one that deserves to be mentioned along with best games they have ever made.

We're definitely not in Kansas anymore!

The game takes place in modern-day Tokyo, in the youth fashion hotspot of Shibuya. You play as Neku (prepare for cliche onslaught), an angsty, sullen and introverted teen with spiky hair who awakes with amnesia and has a bad attitude towards everyone he meets. He is soon joined by Shiki, who is friendly and talkative and overly perky and wants to work together. They learn that they - along with others they meet - have been thrown into a game in which they have to complete a different mission each day for seven days. Failure to complete a mission can lead to being 'erased' - and early on Neku and Shiki witness a pair of players being erased and simply disappearing. Of course, none of this changes Neku's sullen loner attitude.

The story flows perfectly alongside the battles and missions. Graphically the story unfolds using comic-book style panels along with some standard cutscenes. The look is stylish and distinctive, and the attention to detail is superb. You are constantly popping into 'introspection mode' where you see into Neku's thoughts and gain some insight from other characters about what is happening. It is smart and stylish and really draws you into the characters and story - even if you really don't like many of the characters! (as a parent I found that I wanted to rip the headphones off of Neku and tell him to stop being so rude and disrespectful) The various graphical presentations flow together nicely - from a 3D world you explore to the side-scrolling battle areas, everything fits without feeling jarring when you move from place to place. It isn't the most advanced game technically, but it maintains a consistant and distinctive style throughout.

Be cool or be cast out!

The cultural flair of the game extends into the equipment system. What you wear defines who you are - or more specifically, it allows you to add armor, attack and other bonuses to your characters by wearing certain items. It isn't so simple as dropping on chainmail, however - you need to watch for the fashion trends in each area, as what is popular in one area might be passe in another, and wearing something that isn't 'in' can actually lower your character stats. The most important fashion accessories you will obtain are pins. You start with one that allows you to scan your surroundings, which lets you into the minds of people on the streets and also lets you see enemies. As you go along you gather more pins, including combat pins, healing pins, and all sorts of other offensive and support pins - all of which are referred to as 'psych pins'. You choose from all of your pins and garb which to equip before entering battle just as you would choose weapons and armor.

Missions in the game are given out as part of the game, which is run by the 'Reapers'. You will encounter Reapers as you travel through the game world; some will work with you and help you past impediments for the price of completing small tasks, while others will do everything possible to block you from completing your missions. Either way, you are in for some combat. Combat is integral to completing missions and consists of fighting 'noise'. Noise can take just about any form, from frogs to who knows what, and represent the general enemies you will face. Of course there are bosses as well, but most of the time you'll be scanning and fighting noise. When you scan the area, noise will appear, and you simply tap them to engage in battle - there are no random encounters here. Combat is real-time and occurs on both the top and bottom screens simultaneously, with (initially) Neku on the bottom screen and Shiki on the top screen. The bottom screen is controlled by the stylus and the top screen using the d-pad. Sound crazy? It is - at first! During the early missions you will get started fighting on your own, using only the stylus to both attack and move in the side-scrolling combat screen. Later you will get to control Shiki using the d-pad in a DDR-style button-matching system, and eventually you will have the ability to control both screens or choose to control one while the other character battles automatically.

If the music's too loud, you're too old!

Given the protagonist constantly wears headphones (and is even called 'phones' by a couple of characters), it is not surprising that music is central to the game. It is key to setting up the different areas and carries battles and other interactions along nicely. The soundtrack can be purchased separately, and it is excellent - there are loads of techno and j-pop tunes that feel like they fit perfectly into the cultural flow of Shibuya. It has quickly become one of my younger son's favorites. There is some voice acting, which is excellent, the only wish would be that there was more. The dialog is very well done, full of slang and jargon and fully appropriate for what you would expect to be coming out of the mouths of teens.

The great big book of everything, with everything inside ...

So how difficult is the game? Just as difficult as you want. As I mentioned, you can choose to control both screens or only one. You can also adjust the difficulty in several ways, and can also adjust just about anything you need to interact with throughout the game. You can choose to level up Neku or spend time leveling up your psych pins to make things a bit easier as well - that part of the game is fairly standard. The ability to control everything about the game and also to save pretty much anywhere, is a really cool feature that you get used to very quickly, but appreciate the moment you return to most other handheld games with inadequate save points and inflexible settings that don't quite work well enough.

You might have noticed that I mentioned that you got one mission per day and that the 'game' lasted seven days. If you are a math savant you have already figured out that means there are only seven main missions and therefore we're not talking about a Baldur's Gate sized epic here. That is certainly true, and I would estimate that it took me only about a dozen hours to make it through - and that was with the difficulty set to ensure a reasonable amount of 'game over' screens from failed battles. But the game is loaded with replay value - and not just by using different sets of clothes and pins. Completing the game once allows you to replay chapters in any order, and also provides you with a set of requirements for each chapter to unlock secret information about the Reaper's Game.

The World Ends With You is largely a single player affair, but there is a lot that can happen outside of the single player game. First, if instead of just putting your DS to sleep to take a break from the game you quit and power off, your pins gain experience in your absence. That is a nice little touch - but it goes further. There is a small multiplayer mini-game called Tin Pin Slammer that you unlock as part of the main game and can compete against up to four people wirelessly. It is a simple little game that can be both fun and annoying, and allows you to earn special pins with bonus features to use in the main game. Then there are a bunch of 'wireless proximity' bonuses. Get in range of another DS with The World Ends With You in it and you can trade items. Get in range of a DS with any game with wireless capabilities and earn bonuses and experience for your pins.

You can quote me on that ...

  • I just met you. I don't like you. And I don't give a rat's ass if you think I'm rude!
  • ARGH! Just LOOKING at you makes me cringe! That loose button on your shorts! That's it, Neku- OFF! Take them off!
  • Or is it? Oh no... I feel my inner emo stirring. Must...fight...emo...urges...
  • Any tree can drop an apple. I'll drop the freaking moon
  • FOIL! First, Outer, Inner, Last!
  • I guess you're just an ass. All of the time.
  • Come back when you grow a pair!
  • Who the hell approved that costume? Dude's got a ram on his crotch!
  • Dude, she's making fun of you.
  • Full of fail, as usual.

Is it the End of the World if I don't play The World Ends With You?

If you own a DS and are a RPG fan, your path is clear - make your way to your local game store and buy this straight away. Somewhere between the excellent presentation, flawless story-telling, deep gameplay, and overall innovative feel you will realize you are playing one of the best handheld RPG's ever made, and one of the best games of the year. The World Ends With You is at once a part of much of what Square Enix and other jRPG makers have produced and also a fresh break from the formulas those games seem destined to continue. It is distinctive and quirky, and the teen-world j-pop feel is not likely to please everyone. But if you can step out of the sword and sorcery world for a bit you will be rewarded with one of the coolest games you'll play this year.

Pros and Cons

+ Captures the essence of classic Wizardry and Bard's Tale games.
+ Fun combat system.
+ Flexible difficulty
+ Interesting characters
+ Nice wireless bonus system
+ Good music and voice-acting
- Combat can get chaotic
- Only one save slot.

Final Score and Game Info

It is amazing to me that Square Enix managed to take what could easily have become a mediocre and cliched game and turned it into an original and excellent RPG. It isn't perfect, with the occasionally chaotic combat causing some problems, but it is one of the best handheld RPG's released to date and one of the best games of the year. You want to see how Neku will manage to grow up and learn to work with and appreciate those around him; want to learn about the Reapers and their game; want to explore the world and gain as many pins as possible. You will enjoy the fun feeling of wandering near WiFi devices and getting a bonus, of switching off your DS and gaining benefits from THAT; you will appreciate all that the game does to make this an experience that doesn't feel like a tweaked remake of every jRPG that has come before it. For that alone this is something that DS gamers should try - and I believe that once you try it, if you give it a chance you will get hooked and want to see it through to the end.
Score: 4.5 / 5 Stars
Box Art