Let’s put a pin in it - the combat of NEO: The World Ends with YouThe creators of the fast-paced action RPG explain how they made the game’s fast and fluid combat system, and the challenges they faced along the way.
NEO: The World Ends with You has the amazing ability to turn you into a pinhead.
By that, we mean someone who’s obsessed with pins - special items in the game that imbue those they’re equipped on with incredible psychic powers. These incredible accessories are the heart of NEO: The World Ends with You’s incredibly stylish combat system - allowing our heroes to dance and attack their way round the battlefield at the same time!
Whether you’re firing psychic lasers or conjuring boulders from mid-air, fights are fast-paced, exciting, and super rewarding… and it’s all thanks to the talented developers at Square Enix, h.a.n.d., Inc. and UQIGMO.
With the game on sale digitally (at the time of publishing - check digital storefronts for deal timings), we thought it would be interesting to reshare our deep dive with Director Hiroyuki Ito from Square Enix, Game Director Koji Yamamoto from UQIGMO and Lead Battle Designer Hideyoshi Shimomoto from h.a.n.d., Inc. and uncover the story behind building this one-of-kind battle system, and the challenges they had to overcome along the way.
The power of pins
NEO: The World Ends with You’s creators always knew that pins - and by extension psychic powers - would have an incredibly important role in combat.The developers explain:
“Pins are iconic to The World Ends with You, so our ideas for combat utilized them from the very beginning of development.
“That wasn’t the only reason we wanted them though - we also intended to make this a game in which players could collect lots of different abilities, just like the original The World Ends with You. Pins felt like something that would naturally support this because we thought that players would feel an urge to build their own collection.”
While the pins and psychs offered a connection to the previous game, the team did face questions over how to implement them effectively as a combat system. After all, the original The World Ends with You’s combat was designed for touch-screens and used inputs such as taps and swipes on the screen to activate moves.
The team knew that their new game would be on platforms that relied on button controls, so they had to come up with something different. At the same time, they still had to capture that one-of-a-kind World Ends with You vibe.
Ito says: “Since the previous title used a touch-based system, it had a unique gameplay feel that was unlike any other game. For this title, we faced the challenge of creating a similarly unique gameplay sensation on a standard controller.”
Making battles feel like party time
For inspiration, the team looked back at the previous game, and how battles let the player control more than one character at once.
“In The World Ends with You, there was no need for the player to switch controls between Neku and his partner - you would be able to attack enemies instantly through control input,” says Ito.
“For NEO: The World Ends with You, we expanded on that concept. Having multiple controller buttons made it possible for multiple characters to attack simultaneously - and even more easily than in the first game.”
While the concept was exciting, the team still had to implement it in a way that would give the game that distinct The World Ends with You feel. That wasn’t easy - in fact, according to Ito, it was one of the biggest challenges they faced:
“For The World Ends with You battles, we feel it’s necessary to have a combination of so-called ‘irregular’ controls and compelling gameplay that makes players want to fight battles over and over again,” he says.
“Early on, we thought it difficult to realize that with standard controllers without using any touch controls. But somewhere down the line during development, we came to the realization that we should just go all in and use more buttons that other games.”
Keeping it simple
That revelation was the breakthrough they needed. While far from a conventional control setup, it gave players the ability to utilize multiple characters’ abilities seamlessly, giving combat a palpable sense of pace and flow.
The team also made sure to try to avoid letting things become too complex or confusing to control. Despite the number of inputs, and the incredibly stylish visual effects flying round the screen, battles always remain readable to players - and that’s something that the team worked hard to achieve.
Ito says: “After doing a lot of experiments, we eliminated the need to control the camera during battle, as well as player movements during attacks. Doing this meant we were able to speed up the pace of the game. What’s more, it meant that even with flashy effects, players were able to grasp the general situation in each battle.”
With the basics of combat down, the team also had to develop the many different abilities characters would have in combat. These combat moves - called ‘Psychs’ in the game - come from equipping pins to characters. This allows them to unleash all kinds of effects, from simple psychic slashes, to sparking spears of ice.
“For Psychs, there were existing attacks from the previous game which we recreated in 3D as well as new ones created from scratch for this title,” explains Ito. “For both types, we put emphasis on making sure the input method matched the attack to create a feel-good sensation.
“For example, we have Dynamite Darts, which sends loads of needles through an enemy when the assigned button is pressed repeatedly; Massive Hit, which blasts away an enemy when the assigned button is first held down and then let go; and Laser Inferno, which shoots out a thick laser while the assigned button is pressed.”
With so many pins and attacks on offer to players, it was vital to the team that all abilities were viable. For example, if one attack was found to be superior to others, players could over-rely on it and avoid engaging with the other options on offer.
Ito says: “Creating a balance between the plethora of pins was a very difficult challenge, but we took it on as a very important task.
“We carefully managed each of the pins, testing and iterating it based on the evaluation of ‘attack activation frequency’, ‘reboot time’, ‘attack power’, as well as ‘how easy it is to build up Groove’. Additionally, we developed a special tool that allowed us to analyze testers’ battle play logs remotely, and we referenced these when making adjustments.”
One that got away
The final game contains 333 pins in total. Why that many? According to Ito:
“We made it a goal to create more types of pins than we had in the previous game. In the original The World Ends with You, we had 304 types, which wasn’t a very round number.
“For this title, we decided to aim for this mysterious number of 333 - just as something playful we could do. Even though we included material and money pins in the count, I’m really happy we accomplished that goal.”
Even so, despite the large number of pins in the game, not every idea made the cut. Ito recalls a particular concept that didn’t quite work:
“We considered implementing pins that would allow the player to psychically pull out and throw objects in the city, such as building signs, and utility poles. However, since the combat ended up being so fast paced, we realized that players wouldn’t have the leeway to focus on the city scenery. So unfortunately, we decided to forgo this idea.”
With the game now out in the wild, Ito is proud of what he and the team at h.a.n.d., Inc. have accomplished. The combat system is frantic, fluid, and a lot of fun - and the response from both gamers and critics has been very positive.
But Ito believes what really makes it stand out is its uniqueness. He says: “I believe there is no other game in which the player can simultaneously control the whole party - full of incredibly appealing characters - at this speed.”
If you’re yet to see what he means, NEO: The World Ends with You is available on Switch, PS4 and the Epic Games Store. What's more, it's currently on sale on all digital platforms, with up to 50% off (see digital storefronts for current deal timings).
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