I can’t help but cringe when I think back to my teenage years. I was still in the closet, spent much of my time playing games and watching anime, and was obsessed with emo music to an almost embarrassing degree. I was real edgy, but also a vibrating ball of anxiety that wanted to indulge in some form of media that truly understood me. I’m still not sure I ever really found that comfort, and I’m still uncovering who I really want to be even today. But I can’t help immersing myself in games that allow me to relive those days, an era that was defined by music, fashion, and a willingness to try and comprehend the world around me as it slowly grew more and more unforgiving.
NEO: The World Ends With You is the closest I’ve come to encapsulating that time period. Taking place three years after the original game, it remains defined by an aesthetic and music that are fundamentally archaic, awash with trends and fashion that feel pulled straight from the noughties. Its beloved predecessor means so much to its small audience of passionate fans because it was so impactful, introducing so many to Tokyo’s fashion scene and a stylish approach to urbanity that made its abrasive concrete jungles feel beautiful, looking past symbols of capitalism to focus on the hearts of those who call this place home.
Tetsuya Nomura didn’t stumble into needless excess with The World Ends With You like he did with Kingdom Hearts. Sure, many of his designs are overzealous and silly, but they feel like they belong in the fictional version of Tokyo they occupy, blending in with its myriad streets while also standing out amongst the crowd when it really matters. NEO, a sequel launching almost 15 years after the original, feels like it’s been pulled from an older generation, bearing all of the graphical and mechanical quirks we’d expect from a JRPG of that era. I’ve only played 90 minutes thus far, but it already feels like a comforting experience I can’t wait to lose myself in.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say I was raised by JRPGs. My parents weren’t especially hands on, choosing instead to throw games and television at me and my siblings instead of opting to engage in these experiences with us. The second I played Final Fantasy 7, I knew this genre was going to become a fundamental part of my gaming life – it was going to influence my taste in film, games, fashion, and even help me discover who I wanted to be in terms of gender and sexuality. Given this connection, I suppose it’s natural to find nostalgic comfort in something like NEO: The World Ends With You. It represents a past I no longer have access to, offering a chance to revisit old experiences while also losing myself in something entirely new.
The game’s evident attachment to the past is definitely a deliberate move on the part of Square Enix, with the company clearly wanting to place the sequel in close proximity to its predecessor so players feel immediately at home, pointing out familiar landmarks and gameplay mechanics that don’t abandon what helped define them. Instead, many of the changes feel iterative, building upon the previous game in ways that feel welcoming and natural. I haven’t seen enough of NEO to determine whether it will be a JRPG classic on the same level of its older sibling, but it absolutely has the potential.
Upon taking my first steps into NEO’s cel-shaded rendition of Shibuya, I was instantly transfixed. It has all of the hallmarks of a tried-and-true JRPG, so genre fans can uncover everything it has to offer and potentially master it long before any newcomers. But perhaps more importantly, the tone and aesthetic leans into something I pursued myself as a teenager. I wanted to be edgy, to stand out as a lukewarm symbol of rebellion amidst a family that failed to understand me because I also couldn’t understand myself. I wasn’t an asshole – if anything I was timid, but I lived out the extreme fantasy of this personality in games like The World Ends With You. In reality I just sat in my room all the time and listened to You Me At Six.
Gaming is often about fawning over nostalgic gems or pushing forward to reach the next technological advancement. There’s seldom any middle ground, or an opportunity to sit back and relax with a new game that embraces the past without being a remake or a remaster that panders to those who grew up with RPG classics or platforming mascots. NEO: The World Ends With You feels like it stumbles into new territory, acting as both a long-awaited sequel to a beloved property while embracing everything that made it so special in the first place. It feels like a time capsule, a game that could have been released ten years ago and felt right at home. The upcoming sequel might not live up to its lofty expectations, but it already means something special to me, and honestly, that’s more than enough.
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