Game Reviewby Branden Johnson,
The World Next Door
When I sat down to play The World Next Door, I had almost no expectations, something that rarely happens with a new game these days. I had been impressed by artwork I'd seen, and I knew it was being released by Viz, manga publisher extraordinaire, but that was about it. I certainly did not expect The World Next Door to be a visual novel-action-puzzle game with strong writing and mechanics that let it punch above the weight its $15 price tag would suggest. In a world of information oversaturation, it's great that I can still be pleasantly surprised by something new. It's not perfect, but this debut effort from developer Rose City Games makes a strong case for its development team's future and for Viz's subsequent game publishing endeavors.
Seventeen-year-old Jun lives on a version of Earth that has a neighboring planet, separated from us by an impassable dimensional barrier that only opens every twenty years. It's called Emrys, and it's populated with humanoid, though distinctly alien, inhabitants. Jun is a self-described Emrys fanatic, making online friends with an Emrysian girl named Liza and absorbing as much of their culture and history as she can via the Internet. When the portal opens, she wins the opportunity to visit Emrys for a day, and she jumps at the chance. However, things don't go quite as planned, and Jun finds herself trapped -- and waiting twenty years for the portal to open again isn't an option, since humans can't survive more than a few days on Emrys. That means Jun and her new friends have to find some other way to get her home. The story is a marriage of the mundane and the magical, with bizarre aliens surfing the Internet and attending school, then sneaking out at night to practice magic in ancient temples. There's definitely enough material here for sequels, or even an animated series or comic run (hint hint, Viz).
The first thing you'll notice is the strong character designs by artist Lord Gris. They definitely take some inspiration from anime, but I think they look more like detailed Western comics. It's an aesthetic that is very fitting for the setting, and it's very pleasing to the eye. Each character you meet is completely unique with at least one way out-there trait, like a giant flaming skull head or wings for ears. This extends to the monsters you fight, called Grievances, which all have awesomely twisted designs.The backgrounds you'll explore with a chibi-fied version of Jun and friends are even more elaborate, with bright colors and fine, hand-drawn details. It's one of the things I love about the indie scene -- in the absence of a AAA budget, developers are forced to find more home-grown solutions, and thus we end up with beautiful art like this. One nitpick I have in this arena, though, is that there are only left- and right-facing sprites for all the chibi characters sprites on screen. Moving up or on diagonals uses these same left and right sprites. Other games do it, too, but it bugs me elsewhere and it bugs me here.
To get Jun home, you'll need to conquer the masters of four different shrines. Emrys is a planet of magic, so combat takes the form of spell-casting battles between you and your foes. The way the battle system works, however, is truly special, and it's something I've never come close to seeing before. The floor of each battle becomes, essentially, a puzzle game. You'll move your character around, grabbing different colored runes and switching them to other locations to group them with like kinds. You'll need a minimum of three same-colored runes to cast its affiliated spell, but you can add more for extra firepower. At the same time, your opponent is moving around the arena, either hunting you down or casting its own spells back at you. Managing your HP, dodging attacks, and setting up attacks of your own is very fun. If you're just in it for the story and aesthetics, however, there's an option to make Jun essentially invincible, so you can battle on without the risk of death.
Besides the standard runes, there are also special white runes that can be used to summon your party members to the battle. As you progress through the game, you're given additional slots to add your friends to the battle. Each slot has a corresponding shape. Arrange the white runes on the battlefield into that shape to have your buddy appear and launch a powerful attack on your foes. Every character has a unique ability, so choosing the right party and memorizing the shape necessary to summon them is key.
You'll learn more strategies as you play. For example, the game uses puzzle rooms to teach you how casting spells powers up adjacent runes. The puzzle rooms in general are a nice change of pace, challenging you to either destroy an object using only the runes available or to clear a room of all runes by positioning them carefully on the floor. I only wish there were a few more of these sections. You do have the option of returning to some levels and tackling additional challenges there, but I want even more. It seems like the perfect opportunity for some downloadable content. We'll see if that happens.
Speaking of downloadable content, the developers are promising local one-on-one multiplayer battles at some point in the near future, which sounds pretty cool, but obviously it doesn't exist yet, so I can't say for sure. I'm looking forward to it.
In between visits to shrines, you can take on side quests, which unfortunately amount to little more than talking to one person and then talking to another. This serves to highlight another issue I have, which is the somewhat lengthy load times as you move between screens. It's not terrible, but it's noticeable and makes exploring the town a bit of a chore. At least there are some good tunes to listen to as you traipse around on side quests or dive into combat. There's a richness and emotionality to the music that really complements the colorful and detailed artwork, and it makes the entire aesthetic package all the better as a whole.
As good as the aesthetics are, and as fun and addictive as the gameplay is, I can't escape the fact the game is on the brief side. I completed my first playthrough in less than five hours. Don't get me wrong, you're getting your money's worth here, but I'm left wanting a lot more. Additional difficulty levels would also be appreciated, since, once you've conquered what the game has to offer, there isn't much incentive to go back, at least not until the multiplayer mode is available.
This is a fantastic effort and an excellent addition to your Switch (or PC) library. If Viz can keep it up, they could be as popular in the game space as they are in the world of manga.
Overall : B+
Graphics : B+
Sound/Music : B+
Gameplay : A-
Presentation : A-
+ Fascinatingly unique gameplay concept that's a ton of fun, great writing and characters
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