In 2008, Square-Enix released The World Ends With You stateside. This Action RPG title for the DS is one of the handheld's gems. An argument could be made that this is one of the best third party titles for the DS. It was developed by the Kingdom Hearts team at Square-Enix, which now, at least to me, has a reputation for surprising.
Personally, I didn't see Kingdom Hearts becoming a huge success after seeing the promotional materials, but after playing the first two, I can honestly say I'm a fan. But this isn't about Kingdom Hearts... not yet anyways.
TWEWY takes place in modern day Shibuya, Japan. The main character, Neku, is an aloof teenager who prefers to be alone. He finds himself with a strange pin, and a timer on his body. These are the calling cards of the Reaper's Game, a game that lost souls partake in, in a chance to be returned to their bodies. The "players" are given a task to complete during the day and only have a specific time to compete the task. If they fail to complete the task, they are removed from the game. If you do not have a partner, you will be removed from the game after the first day. There is a week of the Game, and then a winner is named.
So, now that you have a simple plot synopsis, we can move onto one of the strongest aspects, the soundtrack. This soundtrack is a mix of JPop, electronica, and, of course, the required dramatic music. The soundtrack fits the game excellently. The upbeat tracks fit excellently with the setting. Having multiple battle themes means that there's variety among the random encounters from an auditory perspective.
The combat system is rather interesting, and complex. You can control both the character on the top screen and Neku on the bottom. You use directional button presses to control the top character while you use various touch screen controls to move and act with Neku. If you can combo attacks back and forth, you can unleash really strong attacks that affect all enemies. Some enemies switch between the top and the bottom screen, so you need to be careful for that. If you can't follow both screens (like me) there's an option to set the options for the top screen. You can have it go to Auto control right away, or after a few seconds of controls not being input. This is a useful option because you can always punch in the controls if you feel up to it. So for those fights when Neku has nothing to do because the boss is up top, you can control your partner to inflict damage.
Your attacks are done by equipping Pins. Pins can do everything from AoE damage, to ranged attacks, to melee attacks, or even healing. Some pins, like your healing ones, only have a set amount of uses during a battle. If you run out, well... good luck. Others, they have a set number of uses before they need to recharge. So, for example, you could shoot energy balls with one 8 times, then it'd have to recharge for 8 seconds before you could shoot 8 more.
The anime-esque art style may be a turn off for some, but for others, it's a nice aesthetic appeal. Your call on that one.
The World Ends With you is a great game. If you have a DS, I highly highly recommend checking it out. The game runs about 15-20 hours, so it's not an enormous timesink.
Onto the next topic.
SquareEnix, as a developer, has released 20 games related to the Final Fantasy series in North America. The World Ends With You, The 3rd Birthday (3rd Parasite Eve game), Mario Sports Mix (wait, what?), Tactics Ogre; Let Us Cling Together, Mario Hoops: 3v3, Musashi: Samurai Legend, Romancing SaGa, Lost Remnant, and Front Mission 4... those are all the Non-Final Fantasy games they've developed in the last 8 years that have been made available in the United States (I could have missed a few of course).
It appears that they might be stuck with what they CAN do. They need to keep making Final Fantasy games, because the brand power it provides is what will keep them afloat, but it really restricts them, I feel. They can't take too many risks with that franchise because doing so will damage them long term. Though if they can release some games under the radar, without the Final Fantasy tag, they might find some room to experiment and potentially find success.
Then again, that has mostly been the case. In the 90s, Squaresoft released several Final Fantasy games, but they also had popular games like Einhander, Secret of Mana, the Chrono series, and the Parasite Eve series. Hell, they even made Super Mario RPG, which seemed to be predecessor for Kingdom Hearts.
I feel that their own success has painted them into a corner in terms of what they can and cannot do with their key franchises. I feel that they need to keep these side projects up as a way to test out new mechanics and ideas in hopes that they can slowly bring them into the fold of their main series, which is slowly starting to suffocate under its own legacy.