A brief chat with the creators of the highly anticipated sequel
It was one of the biggest surprise announcements of 2020. After more than a decade of fans pleading and Square Enix teasing, we learned last summer a sequel to The World Ends with You was in development. For those like myself, it was a moment to rejoice. Long had we waited, and even with rereleases of the original title on new hardware with new content, the further away we moved from the debut of the original title, the less confident I became that we’d ever return to Shibuya and the Reaper’s Game.
Turns out, I wasn’t the only one doubting it could happen. Last Monday, I sat down over Zoom with the creative team behind NEO: The World Ends with You to discuss the game, its characters, its story, and how, after 14 years, we were finally getting one of gaming’s most requested sequels.
“I personally felt that I wasn’t sure whether this game was ever going to be finished,” Tetsuya Nomura, noted belt aficionado and creative producer for NEO: The World Ends with You, explained. “There had been discussions that popped up about moving forward with this title, but then, somewhere down the line, it got scrapped. And it was pretty much a continuation of that from there. We’d bring up an idea and then it would be scrapped.”
The starting and stopping of ideas for the title wasn’t the only thing standing in this game’s way. There were also commitments to other titles that took precedent over a sequel to a niche Nintendo DS game.
“Throughout the years, I was busy with the Kingdom Hearts franchise,” Tatsuya Kando, director of the original The World Ends with You, said, “but this was a title that was always somewhere in my head; something I always thought about.”
It should be no wonder that TWEWY managed to keep itself burrowed in the minds of the development team as they work on the Kingdom Hearts series. Both franchises share some common DNA with work on the original The World Ends with You beginning as development on Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories reached the home stretch and Kingdom Hearts II continued along swimmingly. Jupiter, the developer behind Chain of Memories, was brought in to assist with development on the title, further linking the two series. Oh, and then there was Neku and company’s appearance in Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance on the Nintendo 3DS.
Despite not having the sales and worldwide recognition of Kingdom Hearts, The World Ends with You clearly made an impact with somebody at Square Enix as members of the NEO: TWEWY team were able to revisit the title over the years. In 2012, it was ported to mobile devices as The World Ends with You: Solo Remix. In 2018, the game made the jump to Switch with The World Ends with You: Final Remix. Both rereleases were co-directed by Hiroyuki Itou, who returns on NEO as the game’s sole director. Also back from Final Remix is Tomohiko Hirano, who once again serves in the producer role. All four men worked on the original The World Ends with You, and despite their eager desire to return to the series, Hirano said they needed more than just the will to do it to make it a reality.
“There were, of course, player’s voices and a demand for it,” he explained, “but the content of this game is a little different and a little bit out there. We needed to secure an environment where we could focus on this game, so that’s why it took a little bit of time for us to deliver it to you.”
One of the many great things about The World Ends with You back when it released on the Nintendo DS is how fresh it felt. It was new, hip, and vibrant. Nothing about it seemed dated. It was forward-thinking almost to a fault. With NEO, the team wanted to retain that feeling, to create something that could only be made right here, right now. This sequel isn’t filled with long-gestating ideas. Rather, it’s reflective of where we are in gaming today. Had it come seven years ago, it might have been a music game, as Kando jokingly suggested.
While its ideas are in the now, parts of its story will still be tied for the original. There are many loose narrative threads from The World Ends with You and Final Remix particularly that need to be tied up. If you played the Switch release, you’ve no doubt experienced the post-game addition known as “A New Day.” While I will avoid spoilers here, it does introduce new characters and set up some of the stakes we’ll see in the upcoming title. NEO does follow three years after where “A New Day” left off, but those who missed out on Final Remix won’t be left in the dark.
“We deliberately did not name this game as The World Ends with You 2,” explained Kando. “We went with NEO: The World Ends with You. So you can essentially think of this as a completely different game. We have new protagonists in Rindo, Fret, and Nagi. They’re not aware of what’s going on, and that is essentially going to be the same perspective as new players who’ll be starting with this title. So in that sense, it shouldn’t be an issue for new players to enjoy the Reapers’ Game. That said, for players who have played the original, they’ll have a better understanding and a more in-depth view of the game.”
Returning players may recognize more faces than those joining the series with this sequel, but there are still elements that’ll be new to them. Most notably, the changes to the Reapers’ Game itself. In the original, Neku and a partner fought together against the Noise and the whims of the Reapers to make it out of the game alive. In NEO, players will control a team of four as they fight not only the Noise but other teams as well.
“As you saw in the last trailer, you have the Wicked Twisters, which is the protagonist team,” Kando said, “and they’re going to be participating with other teams in the Reapers’ Game. There are going to be multiple teams that fight against each other, and you’ll be able to see the interactions with the other teams, their members, and, of course, the Reapers; and all those different interactions with all of these people is going to be the pillar of the game’s storyline.”
Given the complexity of the original title, there is really no telling where the story will go in NEO. Whatever road it takes, it’s undoubtedly going to reach its destination in style. Some of the flamboyant artistry may be lost in the transition from 2D to 3D, but NEO‘s rendition of Shibuya is still dramatic and visually dynamic.
That extends to the characters as well, with Nomura back on board to create the heroes and villains of this adventure. Like in the last game, they are exceptionally well-dressed and accessorized. Not only do their designs make them prime candidates for the next 10 years of fan art, but they help convey their individual identity, such as Rindo and his mask.
“When we look back at the original game, we had Neku with his headphones,” Nomura said, “and that was kind of his iconic element; that was him shutting out the world around him. When designing this new character, I wanted to create a sort of iconic element similar to Neku. I was looking around the younger generation, and even before the pandemic hit, I noticed that masks were kind of a trend among the younger people in Japan. It felt like people were using their masks to hide their faces and that left an impression on me. When we look at Rindo, he isn’t as reclusive as Neku. He doesn’t shut out the world, but he’s also not the type of person who’s just going to talk with other people. So his mask kind of serves as a sign of his personality as well.”
I can confirm that, despite what we’ve seen thus far in the trailers, Rindo will wear his mask properly at least once in the game. Just don’t expect to see him hiding his face all that much.
Thirty minutes was far too little time to ask everything I wanted to ask about the game, but I think I’ll be fine waiting to have those unasked questions answered until I finally play the game for myself. NEO: The World Ends with You launches on July 27, 2021, for Switch and PS4. It will release on PC via the Epic Games Store at a later date.