Billed as hybrid of a puzzler and a visual novel with RPG elements, The World Next Door is the first collaboration between Rose City Games and VIZ, with at least two more narrative-driven games on the horizon. The story begins with an explanation of the festival celebrating the brief yet regular occurrence of an extra-dimensional portal opening between Earth and Emrys, a world similar to ours but populated with monsters who are handy with magic. The portal allows inhabitants to travel between the two worlds and as part of the festival a handful of visitors trade places for a day. The player character, a high-school student named Jun, is one of the guests on Emrys. The action kicks off when she spends too long fooling around with her Emryn friends (also all teenagers) and doesn’t make it back to the portal before it closes. Earthlings don’t survive long on Emrys, so Jun and her new friends must find a way for her to get back, stat.
Stylistically, its scary-cute aesthetics are gorgeous and hint at a vibrant little realm with many secrets to discover. Unfortunately the explorable areas are quite small and the doors are locked tight. I found myself wishing it was the kind of RPG that let you barge right into villagers’ homes, night or day, to find them in the midst of an argument or sawing logs in their beds. As it is, there’s a handful of characters outside of Jun’s inner circle that she can talk with, and while they often promise to show her around the arcade or other places in the mall-like market, I never found a way to insert any Emryn quarters during my playthrough.
The World Next Door does introduce a neat combat style: instead of hack-and-slash or turn-based combat, Jun takes down foes in the dungeon-like shrine areas by moving and matching three or more glowing runes on the floor tiles to unleash a variety of magical attacks. Meanwhile her enemies move around the board delivering their own attacks in real-time, so the match game sometimes has to move at a fast and furious pace. I’ve never seen a combat system like this before, so kudos to the devs for thinking creatively, though the mechanic did end up feeling repetitive after the first shrine, and could even get fairly frustrating when there was more than one enemy in a room and I started on the bad end of the luck of the draw with regards to initial rune placement.
With the studio’s promise of the game being narrative-driven, I really hoped it would shine in its story elements, delivered in the style of a visual novel. Unfortunately, the story fell totally flat for me. Once again, the artwork is sublime – the characters look and emote in a style that would be right at home in any of VIZ’s anime series – but the story is thin and tropey and unlike other visual novels I’ve played, didn’t seem to be affected by the few dialogue choices Jun was given. I also never felt like any of the characters opened up or surprised me in any way, another element of the better visual novels I’ve experienced. I got a bead on pretty much everyone from the jump and their personalities plateaued until the end.
Speaking of, the ending comes far too quickly to give a satisfying narrative hit. I don’t mean to say the playing time is too brief – I’m actually a huge fan of shorter games and hope more developers figure ways to deliver fulfilling stories in under five hours of playtime. But due to the characters never really progressing beyond my initial impressions of their archetypes and any plot mysteries being only surface-level, I just didn’t have enough invested to be gratified by the end of Jun’s trip to Emrys.
The World Next Door shows a lot of promise for further collaborations between Rose City Games and VIZ. The combat is unique and the art is out-of-this-world both literally and figuratively. Add a bit of variety to the fights and beef up the writing and character development and it would be a standout title for the Switch. For now, Emrys is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.