The world ended, it returned, and now, because to you, it is born anew.
The 2007 Nintendo DS title The World Ends With You was one of my favorite games during my adolescence. I loved its story, mystery, characters, frantic action combat, and most of all its aesthetic. The angular character designs, bold colors, and energetic multi-genre soundtrack were like nothing I had ever seen or heard before, and have shaped my artistic preferences to this day.
It quickly became one of my favorite games of all time, which made the fact that it ended its ‘shut door and open window’ ending all the more upsetting. Because while the title fared well critically and did decent numbers commercially, it was not enough of a success to warrant a sequel, and despite some waves to stir up interest for a successor in 2012, nothing really came of it.
At least until 2018, when The World Ends With You: Final Remix was released for Nintendo Switch, a remastered and expanded version of the original that I consider to be the definitive version of TWEWY, usurping the original as one of my top ten favorite games of all time. This release made the idea of a sequel far more plausible, but I kept my expectations low, as I’d rather be surprised than disappointed.
In 2020, Square Enix announced that The World Ends With You was getting an anime adaptation, which struck me as… completely insane given how much time had passed since the original release. Still, I was happy that something I loved so dearly was getting any adaptation, and decided that I may as well give it a review when it comes out.
I went into this show with fairly muted expectations, only expecting a condensed retelling of the story, some music lifted from the original, and some nifty visuals that reprise the game’s iconic art style. Which is exactly what the folks at DOMERICA and Shin-Ei Animation delivered!
The World Ends With You: The Animation follows Neku, an introverted amnesiac teenager who finds himself in a parallel version of the Shibuya ward of Tokyo, where he must participate in the Reapers’ Game. A weeklong competition where individuals must complete various missions while fending off otherworldly monsters known as Noise. Paired with the upbeat and stylish Shiki, Neku must learn to trust and battle alongside his partner while surviving this bizarre death game until the final day.
It sounds like a plain premise from the outset, and it is. But seeing as how the story reaches the seventh day by episode 3 of 12, it should be clear to all viewers that the story has some greater ambitions than just being an urban-flavored death game. With each rotation of the Reapers’ Game, the story only grows more complicated, the mythology grows richer, and the cast expands. All as Neku switches out partners who teach him more about the parallel world he now exists in, and inspire him to grow as a person.
Even after all these years, I still quite like the story of TWEWY, though I also consider it to be the weakest element of the original. The Reapers and their organization have a fair bit to dig into, the characters are an endearing bunch, and it definitely succeeds in creating a distinctly cool world. Though, I could levy a fair number of criticisms towards it. The story is lousy with twists and revelations. The true inner workings of the Reapers’ Game are never fully detailed. And while the game makes the ultimate goal fairly clear, the mission-based structure of the game urges players to not necessarily focus on the greater story, and instead focus on smaller, more incidental subplots.
The story of TWEWY was clearly designed around being a video game, which begs the question of how do you adapt something like this? How do you adapt a 20+ hour story and character driven video game into a 12 episode anime with a runtime of roughly 4 hours?
Well, generally there are two approaches. Take the original concept, characters, and story, and rearrange things so it better fits the format of an episodic video series. Or try to adapt things about as faithfully as you can out of respect for the original, making some changes, but nothing that touches the core structure of the storyline. And The World Ends With You: The Animation definitely takes the latter option, for better or for worse.
The anime is an incredibly faithful condensed retelling of the original game, only adding or changing minor things. And in the vast majority of circumstances, I think the anime was smart to change the things it did. I do have some hang-ups, such as how, at the end of the first episode, Neku is possessed by Noise that makes him attack his partner, Shiki. When in the game, he did this of his own fruition, which was an important part of his character arc, as it established just how little he thinks of others at the beginning of the story.
Changes like these are thankfully in the minority though, and they are offset by a deluge of little alterations that I enjoyed. I thought the changes to how the Shiki arc was arranged made for a better story overall. I appreciated the new scenes featuring the tertiary character Eri. And just about anything that was different, while true to what the original was trying to do, is a positive in my book, as it allowed me to see these characters and this setting in a way I previously never could.
I personally consider this to be the biggest draw for fans of the original game. Seeing these characters in a different medium, rendered using more sophisticated technology, and moving in ways that one could previously only imagine. Hearing these characters speak to one another in full sentences. Seeing the streets of ‘Underground’ Shibuya in a whole new light. Looking at the sprite-based enemies from new angles. Watching characters use their powers in more elaborate ways while presenting a nice little ‘spot the reference’ game for fans of the original.
Unfortunately, I doubt that the same awe factor would carry over to a first-time viewer, and when viewing this anime adaptation as just an anime… I don’t think it’s particularly good. It all comes down to pacing, making the story feel right in a 12 episode format, and because the studio behind this project opted to be faithful, certain things simply are not going to fit right.
Take, for example, the relationship between Shiki and Neku. Something that, in-game, was portrayed over roughly 5 to 7 hours, but in the anime, that same content is condensed into a single hour. During their time together, Shiki helps Neku open up and become less asocial, less bitter, and gives him something he values in life. They bicker regularly, yet they steadily grow closer over time, with Neku truly opening up to her after he learns the reason behind Shiki’s happy-go-lucky attitude.
In the game, Neku is more cold, distant, and slower to open up to her. But in the anime, he needs to make a bee-line to accepting her as a partner and a friend, as the show simply does not have time for anything more than a hyper-condensed version of their character arc. Not only is their time together crunched down, but those episodes also need to pull a LOT of heavy lifting, and explain things that were previously tutorialized in an organic manner.
Anybody who watches The Animation without playing the game should be able to follow the core plot beats and learn who these characters are. However, I don’t think that it is done in a manner that would allow people unfamiliar with the source material to get what the big deal is. As I say this, I in no way mean to insinuate that the studios responsible for this adaptation did a bad job. On the contrary, I cannot imagine a significantly better 12 episode anime adaptation of The World Ends With You, and I think they did a fantastic job doing what they set out to do. It’s just that their objective did not necessarily correlate with creating a good show. Or in other words, there’s only so much that one can do while changing so little.
That being said, there is ultimately more to an anime adaptation than just its story, and The World Ends With You: The Animation absolutely delivers when it comes to its visual presentation. TWEWY was a game with an immediately striking visual aesthetic, featuring sharp edges, thick outlines, and positively oozing with style. Character designs, monster designs, world design, it is all confident, distinguished, and makes the game stand out in a sea of similarly looking anime stuff. It is such a core part of TWEWY that I’d say that, if there was one thing to get right with an adaptation, it was retaining the look of the original. And the folks at DOMERICA and Shin-Ei Animation did a positively phenomenal job. Because not only did they reprise the look of the original, they took it to the next level.
One of the first things that was clear about The Animation was that it was using a mixture of 2D and 3D animation. I was a bit apprehensive about this news, given the lackluster reputation 3D anime has garnered. Based on the final product though, I think the studios did a good job balancing their approach. The bulk of the show is in 2D, featuring excellent on-model renditions of the familiar cast of characters, moving in ways and presented at angles previously unseen in the source material, along with backgrounds that pay a similar level of respect to the world. It’s more or less exactly what I would have imagined when given the prompt of a TWEWY anime way back when.
Meanwhile, the 3D only comes into play during the battle sequences, where the characters shift between 2D illustrations and 3D models as the encounters play out, and the Noise are always rendered in 3D, which goes to give them an appropriately otherworldly and uncanny look. The encounters are fast, dynamic, and you can practically see the labor hours that went into crafting each of them.
However, due to runtime constraints, these encounters are often on the shorter side and, when viewed separately from the source material, don’t really make a lot of sense. In the game, characters had access to psychs, psychic abilities that they channeled using equippable pins. And while they carry this idea over into the show, the script does not do a good job of explaining how these psychs work, or why characters can do certain things.
Neku simply has the ability to shoot fire, lightning, and other things from his hands, because that’s what the animators wanted to animate. Yes, everything Neku does has some relationship to the original game. However, if you were watching the show with no knowledge of how the game worked, you would probably be confused as to how, why, and what Neku, and other characters, are doing with their psychs.
Once again though, I do feel the need to praise The Animation for simply managing to capture the style and look of TWEWY into a new dimension like this. Though, I think the one part about this transition that makes me the happiest is something that I should be able to take for granted. The color.
I’ve previously complained about the use of color in modern anime, and it’s a subject I always struggle to talk about in detail. It’s a complex thing and I lack the knowledge or vernacular to properly articulate what I dislike about it. But the shading, color spectrum, and general color choices of many modern anime series just do not look right to me.
The most succinct way I can think of to describe this is that… I feel that modern anime is trying to match the lighting of real life, even though real life lighting sucks! I like my shading flat, my colors saturated, and I only want to see the character colors go off-model if there is a good reason for it! And by God, that’s what TWEWY delivers!
Admittedly, it is not all colorful, as the backgrounds and background characters have a grayish hue to them… just like the original did. The main characters are in another world, so it makes sense for the background to look surreal, distant, and apathetic. Meanwhile, everything in the other world, everything in the Underground, is popping off with color. Just watching these vibrant characters move around and do spectacular feats warms my heart, and makes me wonder why, oh why, don’t more anime aim for something so bold and so beautiful.
In regards to the visual presentation, this adaptation gets full marks from me, as I cannot realistically imagine an anime adaptation of TWEWY looking better. Unfortunately, I cannot share the same sentiment with its soundtrack. Despite its jamming source material, The Animation plays it conservative with music, using a few passive supporting tracks for dramatic effect, reprising a few songs from the game during pivotal moments, and keeping things relatively quiet during most of its runtime.
I get why this is the case, as music licensing in Japan is a nightmare and the production companies probably wanted people to listen to the voice acting, not the music. But… come on, you cannot take a soundtrack that slaps this hard and not play it in the background. And if doing so would not be ‘anime’ enough, then maybe it’s anime who is wrong. It certainly wouldn’t be the first, or last, time.
To put a pin in this review, The World Ends With You: The Animation is a great adaptation created by people whose love and respect for the source material is evident in every minute of its duration. Despite this, I do not think it is a particularly great show. If somebody judged the original based on this anime alone, I doubt they would quite understand what made the original a cult classic, and why Square Enix developed a sequel so many years after the fact.
For anybody who is not familiar with this series, I would strongly encourage experiencing the original game first. Whether it be via the DS original, the quite good mobile port, or the definitive Nintendo Switch version. … Or you could also just watch a playthrough if you think the controls are weird (which, to be fair, they are).
If you are familiar with the original, or perhaps just want a refresher after having played it years ago, then The World Ends With You: The Animation is a pretty great time. It takes what the original was trying to do with its presentation and storytelling, and fleshes it out with higher production values and more dynamic visuals. Truly making the most of modern technology and the medium of anime.
Or to summarize this thing with a brief tagline: The World Ends WIth You: The Animation is for fans only. If the style or concept interests you, check out the source material, then watch the anime.