Total Games Played
Played in 2023
Recently Played See More
Recently Reviewed See More
The friends of Ringo Ishikawa was a game that took me back to my teenage years, viewed through the sobering & cynical lens of hindsight. The titular Ringo & his friends are a bunch of classic Japanese delinquents, with seemingly no initial higher ambitions beyond their schoolyard gang warfare, entering their final year as students with graduation on the horizon. Despite being a gaggle of petty thugs who smoke cigarettes & have seemingly little interest in their own futures, it's shown as the plot goes on that there's more to each of these delinquents than let's on. Your violent, dumb-as-rocks lackey Goro is a surprisingly talented thespian. Your number one brawler Ken has the talent necessary for a shot at a boxing career in college. Even Ringo himself is a shockingly erudite scholar with an interest in literature, a once-promising career in karate, and is a surprisingly idealistic, loyal, man of virtue. The one thing holding them back is their gang lifestyle & ideas, something that resonated with me as someone who saw this same situation play out dozens of times in my youth.
My own high school wasn't great looking back on it. Violence & abuse were common occurrences, drug use & sex in the hallways was an unspoken fact of life, and basically everyone was a minority of some kind from a low-income background. Lots of people I knew came from broken homes, or were working part-time to put food on the table, or were otherwise struggling with something no kid should've been dealing with at that age, the kind of things that can make studying for your history exam seem like small potatoes. It's a structural issue decades in the making that leads to people getting trapped in places like these, and unfortunately not everyone is able to escape it. Schoolyard fights that escalated into shootings. Football players who graduate with bright prospects only to then get arrested for murder. Kids akin to Ringo's gang members like Masaru or Goro, who have zero sights beyond the now & fully believe they'll be set for a life of petty crime after graduation. The short-sighted violent mindsets people box themselves into that end up spelling their own ends because they can't escape the circumstances that put them there.
I vividly remember hanging out in the parking lot after school one day, and I saw a kid reading a book on the hood of his car. His friends came up to him and immediately dogged on him for this and the supposed weakness such a hobby would project on your image, and he sheepishly put it away in his bag before he left with his friends. It's a small event in hindsight, but it was called back to my mind crystal clear during a scene where Ringo's friends rip into their fellow member Goro for his new vested interest in acting.
Ringo, for all his virtues, for all the books you can make him read, for all the training he can undergo, for all the studying & knowledge you can try to impart on him, still fully believes that his gang of schoolyard bullies is going to last forever, despite it being made rapidly apparent that everyone is starting to move on and find their own callings. Ringo still gets into casual street fights & latches onto his childish notions of schoolyard ethics, of "official challenges" and "rules," even as things spiral out of anyone's control & everyone starts to get in too deep. Much like some of my peers that I saw in my youth, he's a bright soul with potential and promise that is being squandered by his own adherence to violence and unhealthy group mentalities & expectations, and the simple fact is that as the days go by, everyone around him is starting to realize that they need to grow up and move past it all.
Everyone except him.
"Listen up, Phones! The world ends with you. If you want to enjoy life, expand your world. You gotta push your horizons out as far as they'll go."
To truly understand another person is a fundamentally impossible task. No matter how much we can claim to know about other people, we will never be able to truly know everything about a person. And yet, despite the apparent Sisyphean nature of reaching out to people, to remain alone is to deny yourself the true scope of the human experience. To give up on others is to give up on yourself, and consequently, the world as a whole. Despite how much it can hurt to lay your heart bare to other people, we're in this shit together, ain't we? It's only through taking the risk to open up that we can expand our world beyond the boundaries of ourselves, and what better way to represent the difficulty of learning to open up to and understand people than with the most action-per-minute ADHD-ass battle system to grace RPGs?
The World Ends With You is a master-class of the mostly now-extinct maximalist game design philosophy that pervaded the 7th generation of gaming, being a game that makes full use of every single aspect of the DS' unique hardware. Control two characters at once in combat, one with the d-pad/face buttons, another with the touch screen. Match cards, do arithmetic & deal poker hands on the top screen while you tap, touch, swipe, scratch, even scream to attack and cast spells on the bottom screen. It's so gripping and unique that it's virtually impossible to emulate the sheer frenetic energy of the gameplay (which is why, to my knowledge, future ports don't even try to replicate it); a true dedication to hardware & design that makes the unfortunate stranding of this game on the DS almost impressive in it's sheer audacity & commitment to putting every single bit of hardware to use. In picking up TWEWY to idly pass the time during my 40 minute bus commutes to my college campus, I had unknowingly gotten myself sucked into one of the most innovative action RPGs to grace the system.
This frenetic & captivating gameplay is complimented perfectly by TWEWY's period-perfect commitment to the late 2000's urban youth's sense of charm & style. Fighting to a playlist of dozens of unique J-Pop/J-Rock/J-Rap battle themes; hitting the town to buy high-rise skinny jeans, browsing goth fashion boutiques for Scene Kid arm-warmers and knee-high boots to craft a fashion-disaster of a character build; keeping a pulse on the modern trends of the youth culture epicenter that is the Shibuya scramble crossing to maximize your damage output. The under & over-current of youth culture, fashion trends & artistry runs strong through TWEWY's veins, in every aspect of its UI & gameplay systems.
In fitting with this focus on youth culture, the story tackles the most pressing personal issue of every generation before, during and after ours: opening up to others. TWEWY's protagonist Neku is a thorny individual who is initially down-right unlikable, uncooperative & borderline malicious in his actions towards his partner & those just trying to help him survive. Put as on-the-nose as possible, his world starts & ends with him, and no one else. But by being forced into the Reaper's life-or-death game, attached by the hip to a wide variety of party members & crazy characters, he's forced to rehabilitate his misanthropic worldview & opinions of other people, and by the end of his adventure, he's dedicated himself to his friends & mankind as a whole. Understanding other people is a difficult & terrifying prospect, but it's only by clashing with others and their values & beliefs, and by making an attempt to help & know those around us that we truly live. The world doesn't just end with you, it begins with you, and it's horizons stretch as far as you are willing to push them. TWEWY is a game that leaves you with a single thought after it's all over:
It's a wonderful world, isn't it?
Partway through OMORI it dawned on me that there's a timeline where this game managed to release when I was in high school and I would've 100% made it a core facet of my personality for years.
OMORI is more likely than not the game that comes to everyone's mind when they think of the quintessential "Quirky Depression Earthbirth RPG", the hypothetical dead horse that encapsulates a lot of people's gripes with the modern indie scene and all it's eccentricities, and, to concede to that stereotyped image somewhat, it's for the most part true. OMORI is part lighthearted and surreal RPG about the titular main character and his adventures in the wonderfully quirky dream world of Headspace, and part mental health story about Omori's real-life counterpart Sunny and his struggles in the mundane reality of Faraway Town with his own mental health and relationships. The primary issue with OMORI however is not really with it's oft-maligned aesthetic or subject matter, but rather the fact that it's a complete tonal mess.
Headspace, as a dream world inside of Sunny's head, is obviously allowed to be a little surreal, as it's where most of the game's Earthbound DNA is apparent, from it's cutesy enemies to it's fun cast of eccentric NPCs and elevated sense of reality where anything goes. It's where 90% of OMORI takes place and is, for the most part, incredibly charming and fun. The tonal issues start to become apparent though when the Headspace sections lead into the Faraway Town segments, where, despite supposedly taking place in reality, still have a little too much whimsy and Earthbound-esque atmosphere. There's still wacky NPCs to talk to and goofy part-time jobs to have, which, while still enjoyable, isn't enough of a contrast to Headspace and doesn't mesh well with the relatively grounded and serious interpersonal drama between the core cast that revolves around grief and loss. It results in OMORI feeling like two disparate Quirky Earthbound-likes being duct-taped together without any real cohesiveness between the two halves, and only causes more issues down the line when the plot in Faraway town starts to actually go somewhere.
Headspace initially starts off as a low-stakes kid's adventure, which is perfectly fine for the Prologue, where it uses that initial impression to disarm the player when they first enter Faraway Town in the real world, but as is soon made apparent, Headspace is pure fluff, a complete nothing-burger that only really serves to pad out the runtime. Compared to the snappy pace and relative brevity of Faraway Town, Headspace tends to drag on for hours at a time with absolutely jack-shit happening, both literally and thematically. The various sprite animations, fancy textbox effects and UI is very charming and appealing at first, but the frequent use of them & their annoying length results in a start-and-stop gameplay flow that delights in wasting your time, and it's an issue that only gets worse as the game goes on, where long stretches of overly-goofy filler plot happen without anything substantive to bite into, that do nothing but pad out the runtime so the game can hit an arbitrary length quota. In addition to this, the idea of Headspace reflecting Sunny's inner thoughts is frankly underutilized, when that connection to the main character's subconscious could've been used to give the lengthy Headspace segments some more weighty thematic story relevance beyond simple visual callbacks to Faraway Town.
Despite the long stretches of nothing filler that feel like having a sugar crash, when OMORI wants to get serious, it can actually deliver more often than not. The subtle underlying horror of Headspace is pretty effective when it wants to be, and the drama of Faraway Town, while coming across like an afterschool PSA more often than not, is actually quite engaging and emotionally competent, but because OMORI is trying to maintain it's pastel Sanrio Lo-Fi Kawaii Future Bass Tumblr aesthetic at all times, this results in even the serious moments lacking punch because of the fact it's edges have been sanded down as smooth as possible for the sake of palatability. This is made most apparent with it's final plot twist at the very end of the game, which, without going into spoilers, is an insanely dark and out-of-left-field bout of tonal whiplash that is not only a massive misstep in the solid framework of the game's plot up until then, but is scrapping against the game's Instagram Self-Care™ Awareness Post-ass final message of overcoming depression and self-doubt by not being afraid to rely on your friends for help. It's way too big of an elephant to ignore and not something you can just drop in the player's lap and treat with the same levity with which the more mundane mental health struggles are in the plot. It's the most frustrating aspect of OMORI by far because I can see how it could work! It's not even presented badly in-game (in fact, the reveal is one of my favorite moment of the game bar none), but it's consistent adherence to the vibe initially established by Headspace ends up dragging what should be a master-class twist down hard.
OMORI is a frustrating, mixed bag of a game I want to like more than I do. It's playing all the right notes, and even manages to tug at my worn-out heartstrings with a surprising frequency, and I can see the appeal behind it; how it's managed to gather such a devoted fanbase that was emotionally wrecked by OMORI's style and presentation. However, it's too bloated, too messy and too toothless to make the landing it desperately wants to make. The video game equivalent of eating raw sugar by the handful.