Pick-up-and-play games–puzzle games, especially–do well on handheld consoles for this obvious reason: handhelds are generally most often played in short bursts, often while traveling or waiting for something. But is it possible to make an epic, story-heavy RPG, adventure, or action game on a handheld while designing for portability? Crisis Core on the PSP and The World Ends With You on the DS both attempt to deliver such an experience, and I’d like to examine how they do so, whether they succeed, and what level of portability is truly necessary.
(Contains some vague spoilers for the first third ofThe World Ends With You.)
The World Ends with You for the DS is, like its PS2 cousin Kingdom Hearts, very much a game about friendship and teamwork. While both games deal with this theme in a way that’s fairly heavy-handed, only in TWEWY does it result in one of the most unique RPG combat systems in a while.
As a quick overview: combat in TWEWY, an action RPG, takes place on both screens of the DS. Neku, the protagonist, fights on the bottom screen and is controlled using various slashes, touches, and taps of the stylus. Simultaneously, Neku’s partner–for the first third of the game, a fashion-loving girl named Shiki–fights on the top screen and is controlled using the D-pad (or A/B/X/Y buttons for lefties). For Shiki, the combat involves the player hitting directional buttons to follow a path to one of three cards in order to match three cards at the top of the screen; when three cards are matched, a Fusion attack–a flashy team-up attack that damages all enemies on-screen–becomes available.
What really makes the battle system a team effort between the characters is the light puck, a ball of green light that gets passed back and forth between Neku and Shiki like a sparkly tennis ball (or the magic projectiles volleyed between Ganondorf and Link in many of their epic confrontations). In order to send the light puck to their partner, the player must inflict a certain amount of damage before the puck fades away. Continued volleys increase each character’s attack (some enemies can only be damaged when the character has the light puck) and net more experience points at the end of battle. The light puck simultaneously adds depth to the already intricate battle system, streamlines the dual-screen combat by giving the player an idea of which screen to focus on at a given moment, and emphasizes the game’s theme of teamwork and friendship; it contributes to both gameplay and story.
In TWEWY, the two characters fighting together actually communicate with each other, calling “I’ve got this!” and “Good job, Neku!” as the light puck bounces back and forth. This natural battle-chatter is something you don’t realize is missing from RPG battles until you hear it done well.
In a larger sense, the characters become stronger as the relationship between them becomes stronger. As Neku and Shiki face greater obstacles and stronger enemies, they bond over their shared hardship and learn to trust each other. By the end of the seven days of the Reapers’ Game, Neku and Shiki are close friends and promise to meet each other after the Game ends. It’s rather elegant that the gameplay reflects and emphasizes this growing relationship, unlike many games where, because of gameplay design decisions, the player can choose to act in a way that is completely different than what the story dictates the character(s) should be like.
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