Thursday, February 5, 2009

The World Ends With You: Battle System

While I have certainly been devoting a lot of time to Persona 4 lately (more than 70 hours so far), I have also been spending quite a bit of time playing The World Ends With You, Square-Enix's unusual RPG for the Nintendo DS. The game is a masterpiece. I am almost staggered by how well it blends creativity, style, ambition, excellent gameplay, and a great story. Honestly, I can't believe me it took me this long to give the game a try. Still, if I am going to actually critique the game, rather than just praise it shamelessly, I may as well start by talking about its distinctive combat system.

The most important thing to say about WEWY's battle system is that action occurs on both screens of the DS simultaneously. The main character, Neku, fights on the bottom screen using touch controls, and his partner fights on the top screen using button controls. The two characters remain separate on their different screen for the entire battle, even though they are fighting the same enemies. What is more, the battle occurs in real time for both screens, so enemies can attack both of the characters you are controlling at once and you must fight back with both characters at the same time. Needless to say, actually fighting effectively with both characters at once is very difficult. Actually, I find it totally impossible, and usually end up doing badly whenever I try. The great triumph of this battle system, though, is that you don't really need to do the impossible in order to do well and have fun.

The battle system's greatest strength lies in the "light puck", a ball of glowing light that wanders up and down between the two screens during a battle. While a character has the light puck, that character's attacks are strengthened, and when they hit with a "combo finisher" the light puck moves on to the other character. By keeping the light puck moving between characters with a constant string of successful combo finishers, the light puck's power increases, further magnifying its benefits for whoever is carrying it. Because of this system, the player gains more benefit for simply paying attention to whoever has the light puck than trying to pay attention to both screen at all times. The light puck's glowing beacon turns the game's chaotic battles into something ordered and coherent, and sets a fun, fast-paced rhythm to the battle system that adds a lot to the game.

As a side-note, I should also mention that the game offers a few options regarding automating the character on the top screen, if you really don't want to manage the battle, but I don't use that system so I can't really comment. It is a nice touch, though.

Controlling the main hero on the bottom screen is probably the other great highlight of this game's battle system. Other than a single button used to toggle some of your options, the lower screen is entirely controlled via touch controls, and is probably one of the most intuitive and widely varied versions of such a control scheme that I have ever experienced. You can use a wide variety of simple motions such as touching, slashing, pressing, scratching, and dragging in order to execute a wide variety of commands determined by your equipped "Psych Pins", and the vast majority of these controls are amazingly responsive and reliable. As a whole, the main hero is highly customizable, easy to control, and can easily take part in mobile, fast paced combat against the enemies of the bottom screen with only a relatively small learning curve. Most importantly, the kinds of decisions you need to make while controlling the main hero are fairly simple and quick (mostly involving what pin to attack with or where to move), so it is fairly easy to just pick an attack, execute it quickly, and pass the light puck on to the hero's partner.

Unfortunately, the controls for each of the hero's three different partners are not as easy and fun as the bottom screen touch controls. You control the top screen character with either the four directional buttons or the four face buttons, with different combinations of button presses corresponding to different defensive moves and attacks. This is not bad in theory, but as a whole I find these controls to be terribly clunky and difficult to use. The biggest problem is that you can't see your attack options until you start attacking since they are random, but if you actually pause longer than a second the attack is canceled automatically, and any enemy attack will also cancel your attack, forcing you to start over. What is more, the top screen characters can't move, so they have to rely on precise timing of defensive moves in order to dodge any attacks, and you can't use most of these defensive moves while attacking (and can't defend yourself if you are looking at the other screen). Finally, these clunky battle controls are combined with small minigames unique to each character, so that you have to choose your attacks carefully if you want to complete the minigames and acquire "fusion stars" needed to active the game's powerful fusion attacks. As such, they require you to slow down and think about your moves which would mess up some of the rhythm of the battle system even without the difficult controls. All told, trying to actually earn a fusion star or two with this control scheme is a lot like trying to wrestle a slimy eel, so I mostly end up just button mashing when the light puck drifts to the top screen.

Mercifully, the top screen controls are amazingly well suited to button mashing. The randomness of the top screen controls sabotages any attempt to precisely control the upper character, but it also means that you always have a chance of earning fusion stars even if you just point the character towards an enemy and hit the same button over and over. What is more, the characters in this game can take a surprising amount of punishment, so being unable to dodge attacks is not a severe problem. As long as you don't actually try to do anything too complicated or precise, the upper screen controls actually work quite well. It is certainly a major flaw of the game that it is easier to just ignore a fairly major element of the combat system, though. The game would probably have been better off if the upper screen side of the battle was more focused on actually fighting, rather than running a minigame in order to earn fusion stars.

Still, even with that flaw the game's battle system is a lot of fun. The fact that is works so well even though it is a remarkable departure from anything seen before is very impressive. With a bit more fine tuning, it could have been perfect.

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