Would it be too fanciful and pretentious to say The World Ends With You is an allegory of our modern consumerist society? Probably. But then there aren't many games that demand you're up with the latest fashion to get you through to the next level. But if there's one message that comes across loud and clear in Square Enix's latest role-player, it's that looks matter.
Set in modern day Shibuya (Tokyo), The World Ends With You is part shopping sim, part RPG. The shopping aspect can't be underestimated because there are so many boutiques and so many clothing options you'll be initially overwhelmed. Though obviously not the first game to include customisable accessories, this is the first RPG to build an entire game framework around it. But really, it's not such a daft idea – just think of it as buying a boob-tube with healing properties rather than a vorpal sword +1 against undead.
The contemporary setting is certainly refreshing. It could have felt lightweight but the narrative is so full of verve and unlikely characters that it quickly becomes compelling. Indeed The World Ends With You has a distinctive Matrix flavour with the protagonist, Neku, plunged into a alternative Shibuya controlled by game players known as Reapers. The Reapers set you on missions with time limits. Fail to meet the requirements and you're erased from the game, and life.
This strong premise also sets up some brilliantly original and compelling gameplay features. Because Neku (and later other members of the team) are effectively invisible to Tokyo's citizens, the only way they can communicate is by scanning for thoughts or planting 'memes'. Implanting these suggestions triggers events and connects beautifully with the game's duality theme. Reading the thoughts of random shoppers provides vital clues for missions and also gives the game a wonderful depth and texture.
If this all sounds a bit radical then you'd be right. The World Ends With You pretty much overhauls every RPG convention in the book, but does it with style and panache. The combat system, while totally alien and daunting to begin with, is equally as refreshing and innovative as the plot.
One of Square Enix's goals was to produce a game that used both DS screens simultaneously (rather than the usual top-screen window dressing we're used to) and in this it has succeeded brilliantly. You'll need to hone your multitasking skills because battles can be frantic, blistering but ultimately satisfying.
'Psyche' pins can be collected to imbue your characters with special attacks – the variety and wealth of upgrades is mind-boggling but at the same time beautifully balanced. Hero Neku attacks on the bottom screen with more traditional stylus swipes while side-kick Shiki attack monsters on the top screen via your D-pad button presses.
It's confusing at first but Shiki's attacks can be automated if your reflexes are really shot. But don't give up because the 'Psi card' battling on the top screen is one of the game's stand out features. It's a little like entering commands for a simple rhythm-action game - get the sequence correct and you can set up powerful multipliers and a team fusion attacks for devastating knockout blows.
The creatures you encounter are known as Noise and whenever you defeat a new monster it drops pins (attack and defence items) and goes in your bestiary for reference. Indeed, enter your item menu and you open up a world of collectables and possibilities. From luxury goods that enhance character abilities to food that can be digested for power-ups, there's so much depth to The World Ends With You that it puts all other DS RPGs to shame.
Take the multiplayer wireless modes as just an example. While playing The World Ends With You, you're able to switch on the 'Mingle' mode and trade and barter items from each others' shops. Even if you pass a wireless enabled DS without a copy of the game you're still able to mingle and communicate with them.
Add to this the quirky Tim Pin Slammer multiplayer game, which is a bit like a mating between Robot Wars and Shove Hapenny, and you have an extremely innovative and fun bundle of RPG excellence.
Any downsides? As this is from the Final Fantasy stable you can expect reams of text to wade through. Most of the time it drives the plot expertly but occasionally can meander on for too long and is perhaps protracted for western tastes.
And if all this sounds heavy we should point out that humour lightens the atmosphere and the translation from Japanese to English has been handled sensitively. Enter boutiques and the surly shop assistants can cut you down to size with their quips, but gain their favour by buying exclusively from their store and they will begin to open up, even providing advice on what you should upgrade or key mission objectives.
So yes, maybe The World Ends With You does glorify consumerism but surely a peach turtleneck sweater (defence +1) would turn the head of even the staunchest communist. Whatever the case, if you've ever been put off RPGs because of the orcs and goblins, this is definitely a good place to confound your assumptions.