What is this?
Neku has died but doesn't remember what happened. He joins the Reaper's Game in The Underground, a contest for the dead where he fights to be brought back to life because…losers are erased from existence. No matter how stacked the odds may be in each round, he must overcome every obstacle in order to survive.
How was the first episode?
You want action? You got action! And jargon. Lots of jargon. Also an amnesiac badass protagonist with the social skills of a slug, a girl whose pants shouldn't be staying up, and a lot of other kind of oddball things. Welcome to The World Ends with You.
Quite possibly all of this makes a lot more sense if you've played the game this show is based on. That at least might help with the specialized vocabulary issue that I had with the episode – apparently Players need to form a Partner Pact in order to be able to use Psychs to fight the Noise during their time in Underground, which is a separate-yet-connected realm that allows them to Scan the people still in Realground while they try to complete their quests and avoid being taken out by Reapers. While it isn't all that difficult to figure out what all of this means within the episode thanks to context, it's still a lot of needlessly fancy ways to say “find a partner to fight monsters within the game so you don't die.” Where things get more interesting is in what isn't explained – why, precisely, our protagonists are stuck in Underground in the first place and why Neku doesn't remember any of it.
Figuring this out is the chief inducement to continuing to watch the show. (Or to play the game. Either way.) Neku's lack of knowledge is worrying, especially since he seems to be the only one who doesn't know what's going on – and the Reaper who has it in for him, Uzuki, may have something to do with this. Certainly she's more interested in him than in Shiki, Beat, or Rhythm, although that could simply be due to the fact that he's drastically different from them in his words and actions and clearly at risk of being taken over by Noise, which may turn him into a monster himself. Even more concerning is that not only did he not get any information about the “game” he's currently being forced to play, he also blacks out between missions, which doesn't seem to be the case for at least Shiki, his partner. That seems to suggest that he's fundamentally different from the others, although how is as yet unknown.
On the most basic level, it's clear that Neku's amnesia is just an easy way for the episode to throw a lot of information at the viewers in short order. While that's not great, it's also reflective of the rapid pace of this episode, which takes three of the seven days Shiki says they have to play the game. That indicates that there's more to this story than just what's presented in this set up, so there is promise here. Unfortunately this really does feel like too much shoved in our faces at once, and I can't say that I find the characters anything more than moderately interesting, if not outright obnoxious. (In all fairness, I think Uzuki is meant to be annoying.) I also don't love the thick black outlines on the characters, but that's a lesser evil here. Right now The World Ends with You needs to calm down and slow down just a little, because this is, if not an actual mess, at least a bit overwhelming.