Narrative-heavy stories with defined characters can often inspire loyalty to different virtual characters and a desire to get to know them better. The World Next Door, a visual novel with match-3 puzzle battles, is one of those games. As players try to help Jun, a young human woman trapped on the magical world of Emrys connected to Earth via a portal, return where she belongs, they also get a chance to get to know the six otherworldly people she can befriend. However, while these relationships do seem to take cues from games like Persona, they don’t offer the same sort of depth.
The World Next Door begins with Jun, a human woman from Earth, winning a contest that will allow her to go through a portal to Emrys, another parallel world. This chance happens once each year for a festival, with only a select few getting to cross-over. While contact isn’t possible, the internet allows people from one world to speak to another, and so this means Jun had the chance to spend the day with Liza, her best friend who is a spirit, and other Emryns. After a trip to a shrine to teach Jun magic goes wrong, they get back to the festival square to find the portal has closed. Jun, Liza, and Liza’s friends must go on a trip to Emryn’s shrines to power up the portal and its connected sword, so Jun can go home before prolonged exposure to Emrys kills her.
Liza’s friends quickly become Jun’s friends, with Cerisse, Horace, and Rainy immediately teaming up to help Jun investigate the shrines and get home. (Eventually, two other characters join the group.) Since Jun is something of an Emrys enthusiast and everyone is pitching in, The World Next Door starts giving people chances to get to know and respond to one another. During the visual novel segments, players can choose different responses to certain conversations, with the dialogue with other characters changing in response. The morning before each Shrine investigation, the game allows you to text three people. You don’t actually get to choose responses for these portions, but it does provide a chance to touch base with your favorite people. Each major character and some NPCs also have side quests tied to them, which can be carried out in the time between Jun deciding the course of the day’s events with her allies and heading to the next shrine. It is also possible to bring up to four people into a shrine with you and equip them to specific rune layouts, allowing Jun to use their special ability in a fight.
A lot of these activities are rather superfluous. Most of the morning text conversations involve some variation of Jun saying to someone, “Hey, I’m up. Ready to head out today? I’ll meet you outside.” You don’t really get a chance to know more about the six allies during these talks. Most of the sidequests are rather rudimentary and fall into one of four categories. You talk to someone, you find an item and give it to someone, you talk to someone in a series of locations (perhaps spread out over multiple days), or you are transported to an area of a previously visited shrine with someone to either solve a series or puzzles or take part in a series of battles. You might learn that one person has a crush on someone else or discover an assignment someone is working on as a result of these sidequest chains, but it doesn’t really feel like the connection between Jun and that character grew any deeper as a result. Which is a shame, because the art direction is great, the characters do have personalities that make you want to get to know them, and the plot hints at their depths with the conversations they have with one another.
The World Next Door does not deliver meaningful payoffs. I focused my attention on two characters, Horace and Rainy. I texted with them every morning. I made sure I completed their character-specific sidequests. I always brought the two of them into dungeons with me. However, it didn’t seem like these actions had an effect on the ending. There were some scenes with Horace in the endgame, but autosave system and inability to create and maintain separate save files made it impossible to see if these were caused by my choices or were a normal part of the plot. (I suspect the latter, but haven’t finished a second run yet to check.)
This is also an issue with the ending in general. Before heading into the final dungeon, there is an opportunity to make a decision. I used the Nintendo Switch backup save system to preserve a save before that choice. When I went into The World Next Door and chose the option that sent me to the last dungeon with the second option, it resulted in extra exposition at one point. Once the segment with that character was done, the game proceeded as normal.
The World Next Door‘s relationship system is promising, but doesn’t deliver. The characters here are a lot of fun and have some great looks to them. The problem is, there are a lot of opportunities to develop relationships here, but there’s no real sense of pay-off. The text conversations with people don’t reveal any insight into their background or personality. There are no extra scene for speaking to someone every single day at every opportunity or completing their quest. It mimics the spirit of Persona-style relationships, but doesn’t offer the same sort of commitments or rewards. It almost feels like The World Next Door is a prequel to a larger, bigger game, designed to introduce the cast and worlds before an adventure where the decisions will carry a greater weight.
The World Next Door will come to the Nintendo Switch and PC on March 28, 2019.