Friday, January 2, 2009

My Top 8 of 2008: #1 The World Ends With You

I'm a big believer of personal preference, and since 2008 has ended, its high time to look back at the year and point out the games that grabbed my attention the most. Truthfully, I should be honest and say that I wasn't expecting much out of the games of 2008, but was I wrong or what. Sure, 2007 had "BioShock" and "Portal", heck it even had "Super Mario Galaxy" and "Halo 3", and these are all games that had incredible design, high production quality, and unique input to their respective genres, but 2008 was just as endearing in terms of quality, even if quite a few of my most anticipated were disappointing (more on that in a future blog, trust me).

So lets get this Top 8 of 2008 list started with Square Enix's "The World Ends With You".

"The World Ends With You" is a hip contemporary Japanese role playing game for the Nintendo DS that was released in the US on April 22, 2008. It follows a small group of kids (designed by "the main man" over at Square, Tetsuya Nomura) that are participating in a deadly game through the streets of a hyper stylized Shibuya shopping district in Tokyo. The group is given challenges they must complete over seven days by a mysterious group named the reapers. The story here is very well written and delivers enough surprising moments to keep you engaged, but the battle and equipment systems are where this game really shines..

In TWEWY players control two characters at once, which would seem like a small task except the developers chose to take advantage of the DS hardware by placing them on separate screens. The character on the bottom is controlled via the stylus while the character on the top is controlled using the D-pad. Two characters on different screens may seem like sheer chaos on a handheld (or a sad way to end up cross-eyed), but its actually quite manageable, and there is a setting to let the top screen be AI controlled, which helps. Equipping different pins gives your stylus character a variety of different attacks and abilities, from scorching pyro-kinetics, physical attacks, and projectile based ones as well. Each pin has its own leveling system and initial value for trade ins.

To TWEWY’s credit, the developers managed to add some unique zest to the often-rote formula of JRPs by allowing the player to up the stakes of enemy encounters. Yes, it means facing tougher enemies outside your level bracket, but the results are better items and currency, a plus given so much of this game is centered around buying decisions. This 'commerce' portion of the game is driven by brand names, just like in real life. Different neighborhoods of the Shibuya support different brands of clothes and equipment. Following the in-game neighborhood trends gives you a distinct advantage in combat with stronger resistance to attacks, or the ability to dole out more damage to enemies. If you chose to ignore the trendy consumers of Shibuya, that's fine too, and the game isn't too difficult on you if you don't. Instead, you'll influence the trend yourself by boosting the performance abilities of the brand that you're currently wearing over time, eventually making them stronger and more popular. On a whole, the entire experience in TWEWY is very user friendly and customizable.

Up until this point, I've almost given up on the JRPG genre. Clearly I haven't been interested in enough games of this type for portable systems like the DS: I tried playing the Final Fantasy Tactics Advance a while back and failed miserably to appreciate it. Crisis Core was the same problem again, only on the PSP. A great game should be driven by strong visuals, narrative, and a intricate battle system, that while nuanced, still manages to be engaging for the player and doesn't risk becoming a chore. TWEWY was an amazing experience for me in 2008 from a genre where I expected little change. Give it a go, and prepare for unique experience that manages to shake up the RPG formula in 2008.

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