Platforms: PS3 | PS Vita (reviewed)
Publisher: NIS America | Reef Entertainment
The trailers lied. Yes, Akiba's Trip is a game in which you'll rip the clothes off sexy vampires, but that's not what it's about.
It's actually a cel shaded celebration of otaku counter-culture in all of its bizarre diversity and a love letter to Tokyo's trendy Akihabara district. It's big-hearted, anarchic, punk, devastatingly cool and fiercely unapologetic in its desire to do its own crazy thing; a blend of riotous street combat with compelling RPG components and visual novel elements. A little like Yakuza by way of Jet Set Radio, only much rougher around the edges.
All-told, Akiba's Trip is one of the most pleasant surprises of 2014, though admittedly the combat still revolves around ripping people's clothes off. We'll get to that in due time... but for now, note that I said "people," not "girls."
Revealing that you'll spend half your time disrobing hot buff dudes clearly wasn't at the top of the marketing team's priorities!
Our story sees our protagonist (a trendy white male for the purposes of your first playthrough, though numerous custom characters can be unlocked in New Game +) abducted by a sinister corporation that preys on figurine-obsessed Otakus and transformed into a Synthister: an artificial vampire who feeds on life energy, but is vulnerable to being exposed to daylight below the neck. Freed from a fate worse than death by a mysterious girl with a shadowy agenda, you'll take to the bustling streets of the eclectic Akiba district and take back the town from this sinister threat.
You're quickly introduced to the main cast: a group of equally anime-obsessed friends who hang out in a old-school videogame bar. From a tomboyish childhood friend who's determined to prove her worth to an uninhibited transnational CEO, foreign exchange waitress (Kati Raikkonen, a fun nod to the F1 driver) and a fiercely defensive little sister with scene-stealing lines, they're all portrayed as likeable, well-rounded people and fascinating to interact with thanks to the quality of the localisation.
Be in no doubt, this is NIS' most impressive translation and dubbing effort since the original Danganronpa. Dialogue is free-flowing, packed with up-to-date internet slang and memes, and containing none of the awkward sentence construction and syntax that mar the likes of Fairy Fencer F and Danganronpa 2. Most of it is fully voiced by top-tier anime talent, notably including another star turn from Richard Epcar (AKA freaking Batou from Ghost In The Shell), and makes an underlying visual novel with several divergent relationships and romance options a compelling draw.
Though still a little fanservicey at times (a cosplay competition scene especially), the cast is fleshed out enough to feel like real fans enjoying their hobby, not just cardboard cutouts strutting around for our titillation.
Akihabara (Akiba for short) is the real star of the show, though. It's a hyper-realised, colourful cel-shaded playground of real-life electronics shops, manga emporiums, videogame parlours, maid cafes and restaurants -- including genuine flyers and advertisements that ground you in the setting -- an Otaku paradise where every second person you'll run into is a cosplayer, manga fanboy, Yaoi fangirl or gothic lolita starlet performing to a crowd of fans and photographers. Everyone you meet calls out to you with a nickname gained from side-missions or optional objectives, while Plitter, a constantly-updating social network, helps to connect you to what could have been a sterile set of load zones. It feels vital and alive.
More than that, a sense of anarchic riotous fun pervades the entire endeavour. Whether you're proceeding through story missions, undertaking time-limited side objectives (balanced to ensure that you'll need at least two playthroughs to experience all of them) or just patrolling the streets, Akiba's Trip continually throws all manner of hilarious asides at you. You'll be accosted by predatory arts dealers and strongarmed into bizarre questionnaires. You'll crossdress to lure street thugs into hitting on you. You'll play entire fake arcade games to unlock extra accessories, and even optionally run into the dev team to ask for your help in securing a Famitsu feature. Akiba's trip is anarchic, fun-filled and unpredictable, rewarding you for putting in the extra time to roam and explore.
Sooner or later, however, you'll need to throw down. Sometimes you'll be thrown into arena battles against groups of Synisthers, street toughs or shady corporate hitmen, or whip out a convenient camera app to detect Synthisters hiding in plain sight. Taking its cues from Earthbound and Yakuza, you'll use a staggering variety of bizarre household items and merchandise as makeshift melee weapons, everything from keytars and arcade PCBs to glowsticks and laptops, then use them to attack your foes in combo-driven combat.
Or, more accurately, you'll attack their clothes.
See, characters in Akiba's Trip don't have a health bar. Their clothes do. Headwear, torso outfit and trousers/skirt/dress (your preference!) all have their own hitpoints, whether worn by you or your enemies, meaning that you'll use high, medium and low attacks to damage their outfits and weaken them enough to rip them off. Each class of melee weapon has their own combos, while the need to target specific clothing ensures that you'll need to approach each situation tactically rather than mashing away, at least on higher difficulties. It works well, though an erratic camera and lack of a manual lock-on system can lead to a few clumsy moments, while some of the longer combos feel a bit stiff and lock you into lengthy animations.
Once you've degraded your enemy's clobber enough, holding the corresponding button allows you to disrobe them, then chain your way around entire groups with fluid and well-implented QTEs. All while they attempt to do the same to you.
This sounds like an excuse for voyeuristic fanservice of the most perverted order, and there's no denying that it delivers on that front, but in practice it's so much more than that. Enemies (including bosses) have a 50/50 gender split, meaning that the game feels cheeky, inclusive and anarchic rather than disgusting. This system also provides an unexpectedly realistic way of dealing with enemies, since instead of murdering hundreds of people, you'll literally take their clothes off and watch them run away in embarrassment instead. But mainly Akiba's Trip's combat succeeds because it's thematic and appropriate.
The entire theme of the game is that everybody is the same beneath their material trappings, that Otaku aren't just the merchandise-obsessed fans that many people view them as while simultaneously warning against the dangers of greedy over-consumption, and that everyone is inherently good at heart. This might sound like an excuse, but the strong coherent theme underpins the entire narrative, and makes for an experience that feels warm-hearted rather than sinister or perverse. Akiba's Trip confidently and unashamedly does its own thing, catering to its niche audience in a surprisingly even-handed manner.
I sorely wish that the marketing campaign bothered to communicate any of this. Whether intentional or accidental, putting the stripping mechanics out of context at the forefront of the trailers and adverts has understandably hurt Akiba's Trip in the eyes of many gamers, including our own Brendan Griffiths, who'll justifiably ignore it out of hand.
Beyond the fact that you can't create a custom character until the second playthrough, my major criticisms boil down to technical issues. Akiba' Trip was originally designed for the PSP system and it shows. Akihabara has been sliced into loads of very small zones with lengthy loading screens between them, making navigation a staccatto affair and encouraging you to rely on fast travel rather than walking to missions and taking in the sights on the way. Additional slowdown and long NPC spawn times also mar the Vita version, though not badly enough to make it unplayable. In fact, I'd probably recommend the Vita version as the better of the two.
- Vibrant, fun and infectious atmosphere, combat and exploration
- Unpredictable, cheeky and upbeat personality with noble underlying themes
- Great characters, loads of content and excellent replay value
- Utterly superb localisation and voice acting talent (including Richard "Batou" Epcar)
- Clumsy camera control, lack of manual lock-on
- PSP heritage results in small load zones and NPC spawn times
- Custom characters locked until New Game +
- Still a tad fanservice-heavy in parts
The Short Version: Akiba's Trip is one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. What was marketed as shameful fanservice is actually an anarchic, innovative, big-hearted and even-handed love letter to all things Otaku and geeky, propped up by stunning localisation and a great cast of characters, and that makes up for a fair few clumsy shortcomings with its uninhibited cheeky sense of fun.
If this sounds like your cup of tea, don't miss this left-field gem.