Memorable Ideas from Forgettable Games - The Level Slider

The World Ends With You
The World Ends With You Cover
Platforms Nintendo DS
Genre Tokyo Hip RPG
Buy from Amazon

Some games are unforgettable. After forking over our birthday money at K-Mart, we bounce all the way home in the backseat of the station wagon, wrestle the plastic wrap away from the box, gingerly place the game in the system, and steady our feverishly shaking hands with an anaconda grip on the controller. We don't let go for hours. And when the credits roll, we tear up a little, knowing we'll always cherish that first time through.

And then there are games that are largely forgotten weeks after release. Niche appeal, scathing reviews, or even just lack of hype can doom a game to obscurity and the Target bargain bin. But even these games deserve a second look...sometimes. Every once in a while, a kernel of brilliance can be found within these steaming piles of mediocrity. The purpose of this feature is to sift out some of these conceptual gems and put them under the microscope.

Today's trip takes us all the way back to 2008, when a game called The World Ends With You dared to eschew every gaming convention it could think of, for better or worse. In the "better" column resides one particularly inspired idea, the Level Slider.

"Forgettable" may be a flawed descriptor for this game. It received nearly-universal acclaim from critics and sold far better than most JRPGs without Dragon, Fantasy, or Pokemon in the title could ever hope to. But good JRPGs on the Nintendo DS are a dime a dozen, and the buzz ended quickly for The World Ends With You.

the World Ends With you Palm Timer HandMore forgettable, however, is just how unique TWEWY is among RPGs. The setting is modern Tokyo's Shibuya shopping district, on an alternate plane of existence reserved for the recently-deceased. Here, the departed play a cruel game hosted by divine entities, where winners are resurrected and losers have their existence erased completely. The player fights for spiritual survival using two characters on two screens with two different control schemes and two completely separate battle systems...simultaneously. The dead characters' valor in battle depends on how their current wardrobe meshes with the fashion trends of the living in each district. The game's style and soundtrack are, appropriately, very Japanese in nature, with a Shibuya youth-culture appearance and plenty of Japanese pop/rock/hip-hop tunes. Even the characters are remarkably unrelatable to genre regulars: the player character is the poster-child for the headphones-obsessed emo scene, one ally is an outspoken fashionista, and a certain opponent speaks almost entirely in calculations and mathematical terms. The game even rewards the player with experience points for not playing the game. To say there's a lot of crazy new ideas going on here is an understatement.

With so many peculiar pieces shoved into one game cart, it's inevitable that some will be met with less praise than others. The otherworldly premise was supported by uneven narrative; sometimes dialogue was far too wordy, yet some plot elements go wholly unexplained during the adventure. The battle system was lauded for its complexity but hammered for its steep learning curve: how often is a player forced to essentially play a different game in each hand at the same time? And the Japanese trappings obviously didn't please the international audience as a whole.

One aspect that should be globally appreciated is the Level Slider, one of several challenge-customizing features in TWEWY. Like most RPGs, the player's characters level up as they are victorious in combat. Gaining the experience necessary to hit a new level plateau nets the player more hit points -- the shared life force between the two characters controlled -- and thus a greater chance of surviving battles. Unlike most RPGs where any or all stats can be increased upon reaching the next level, only HP is affected by the character's level here. The other attributes, like attack, defense, and luck, are upgraded through food and fashion.

the World Ends With you Slider

Upgrading, however, is only half of the story. In TWEWY, the player actually has the option of decreasing the characters' level at any time outside of battle. In the pause menu, there is a yellow slider that can be moved anywhere from Level 1 to the current maximum level attained. If the player has progressed to Level 16, the slider can be placed anywhere from 1 to 16, and the characters' HP slides proportionally along with it.

The gut reaction to this is, "why?" Why handicap yourself?

the World Ends With you pin Menu

The first answer is in the game's reward system. When one completes a battle, there is a chance that the enemies will drop Pins, which act as both coin and cutlass in TWEWY. They are like the weapons and spells in other games, with different battle attributes and abilities assigned to each one. Pins are also the player's only means to wealth, as they can be recycled to get cash to pay for stat-enhancing wearables and edibles, as well as new Pins. By decreasing Level and HP, the chances of acquiring new and better Pins increases. Sure, staying at Level 16 will decimate the frogs that pose little threat to anyone but beginners, but meeting them at Level 1 will yield more valuable Pins.

the World Ends With you Gray Bear BattleIt's not all about material possessions, though. The Level Slider allows players to instantly adjust their desired level of challenge along a spectrum of risk versus reward, in addition to the commonly-seen Easy, Medium, and Hard modes that are offered (also adjustable on the fly). Though the random battles that plague the genre are all but removed from the game, there are still plenty of low-level fights required to progress through the story or advance skills and spells. Without sufficient challenge, these unthreatening encounters are little more than busy work. But every enemy defeated can be seen as a proud victory for a player who dares enter the fray with their HP limited to double digits. The game's battle system is anything but straightforward, but those who master its intricacies will find success even without their sharpest tools in hand. I spent the majority of the game sitting pretty at Level 2 on Normal difficulty, stealing mad Pins from the scrubs and tearing up the streets with my sick-nasty battle skills, but amped up my Level when coming upon a tougher opponent like a Reaper. Conversely, those who struggle with the ambidextrous play style can use every advantage they've earned in every fight.

Challenge is a tough nut to crack for game developers. There's a world of difficulty in finding balances between accessibility and advancement, tutorial and discovery, breadth and depth...and there's a universe of frustration in doing so for the entire gaming populace. The World Ends With You can be rightfully scrutinized for its tough learning curve and perplexing battle system, but the Level Slider, alongside the customizable difficulty and CPU-assist battle option, serves to alleviate the problem of differing expectations. Creating the perfect challenge for every player is an arduous why not let the players do it themselves? It's ingenious in its laziness.

the World Ends With you Group