Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The World Ends with You

The World Ends with You is a weird game in its genre. It's a Japanese RPG with lots of pretty unique stuff. I played it quite recently and sadly cannot agree to its greatness, but nevertheless the combat system there deserves a write-up. Not because it was particularly great but because it was really, really good at keeping the player busy. By busy I mean, really, too busy.

Unlike most DS games I've played, this one really incorporates the two displays into its game mechanics. Usually the top screen is only used for showing some information in a convenient way but not here. In combat the game is literally split between the two screen. The main character is always on the bottom screen, and his ally is always on the top screen. Enemies on the other hand appear on both screens at the same time. Why this is so is explained in-game but I do not remember the specifics. Anyway, this is the starting point to the madness that is playing The World Ends with You: two screens, one character per screen. Here's the punchline: one player-controlled character per screen.

The control scheme is in fact pretty genius. The main character is controlled using the stylus and the ally is controlled with the four directional buttons, or the four action buttons if you are left-handed with your stylus. The main character can be dragged around to make him move. In order to attack, the player must do specific actions with the stylus, depending on what pins they have equipped. These actions are simple: draw horizontal or vertical lines, touch a spot, hold a spot, draw a circle etc. Most of them were simple enough, although one I never figured out how to get it registered. Making the main character move was the harder part. The game is hectic, and more often than not my attempts to drag the main character registered as attacks instead.

So while you are drawing symbols on the lower screen and dragging the main character around to make him avoid attacks - which alone would have been enough for one game's battle system mind you - there is also stuff happening on the other screen at the same time. Pressing left or right starts an attack in that direction, but to actually execute the attack, the player needs to navigate through a combo chart. This involves pressing into the same direction, and possibly pressing up or down at some point, until the chart reaches a card and the attack is executed. Why bother with selecting the route through the chart? Well, each ally has their own mechanic for the cards. This means you don't want to just pick any cards from the chart but actually very specific cards.

So by now are we not only attacking with two characters and trying to keep one alive, but also trying to keep track of what card is needed next from the combo chart. Uh-oh. But wait! There's more! The ally can also take damage from enemy attacks and needs to be kept alive too. Their defensive actions are simple, just press down when not attacking to perform a dodge or a block. However, these need to be timed to enemy attacks, which means keeping an eye on both screens' enemies. Phew, I was totally overwhelmed. I mean, both screens would have made a fine combat system on their own. Playing both at the same time is mind-blowing, but unfortunately also very, very frustrating. The developers were kind enough to provide an automatic mode for the ally which takes over if the player is not touching the ally controls. However, the auto ally is not very good at picking cards or defending attacks, so in tougher battles player attention will be required on both screens.

The system was fun at first with so much to do, but I never got any better at juggling everything at once so when the game proceeded it just got more and more frustrating and I found myself switching to easy more than a few times. I probably should have just relied much more on the autopilot. Maybe. Yes, it's a curious system and really unique. Yes, it would have been a great co-op. However, juggling everything alone was maybe stretching things a bit too far this time. All in all, I can understand the praise the game has received, but it's clearly not for everyone.

The game did have a cool soundtrack. Stuffing all that on a DS cartridge must have been quite an effort.

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