Akibas Trip: Undead and Undressed Review (PS3)
Andrew Reid is alive, dressed and about to tell you about a very odd game.
Woe. Woe to the PR manager who got handed the task of justifying the existence of Akiba’s Trip: Undead & Undressed to an English-speaking audience and, probably after half a bottle of scotch and a quarter-season of Genshiken, settled on, “it’s satire!”.
The thing is, Akiba’s Trip does not particularly satirise Japanese nerd culture; in fact, it doesn’t satirise much of anything. All of the main characters come across as normal human beings with a passionate (but not self-destructive) love for their hobbies. There is no comical exaggeration in its faithful recreation of Akihabara Town, the “otaku mecca” of Japan. A few missions have you beat up someone who takes things too far, but every hobby has “that person”. A social media parody called “Pitter” acts as a greek chorus to events, but the game neither approves or decries the kind of netspeak conversations or personalities that dwell on it. The closest the game comes to making a barbed point is an optional mission where a large group of idol singers are (rightfully) staging a protest against the horrific and exploitative practices of the Japanese idol industry; one of their fans tasks you with silencing them “for their own good”. I did chuckle when one of the forty-eight idols complains that it is impossible to stand out in a group of that size, and then the ensuing fight recycles the same six generic NPC models.
So what *does* Akiba’s Trip actually say about the titular district? The first thing that will strike you is just how much branding there is. Corporate mascots greet you as you enter their stores. NPCs hand out real advertising leaflets for real businesses, which went so far in the Japanese version as to include addresses and opening times. Each loading screen is an advertisement. Actual trailers for games like “The Legend of Heroes” and “Disgaea 4: A Promise Revisited” blare from television sets. Certain missions task you with sightseeing, equivalent to a mission set in New York City that asks you to tour the Statue of Liberty and then pop over to the closest Gap. There is no background music, only the ambient sounds of storefronts piping out anime theme songs and promotional videos. With the videogame arcades closed off to you, the most meaningful activity Akihabara offers is to shop. To spend money and fill up your in-game encyclopedia with items you don’t need and will never use for the sake of a complete collection.
There is a really interesting in-game conversation about how Akihabara has changed over time. It started as a farmer’s market and ended up specialising in imported modern technology, which drew the kind of tech-savvy crowd that would later become interested in anime and manga. As interests changed over time and corporations realised that they could cash in on unfulfilled adults with large amounts of disposable income, the district changed to one drowned in branding, consumption and socially-acceptable vice. This is a district with huge stores offering fetish equipment in street-facing windows, and streets buzzing with costumed schoolgirls advertising local businesses for minimum wage. Akiba’s Trip doesn’t just confirm that Akihabara is a centre for branding; it reinforces the absolute fact that Akihabara is a brand in and of itself, and one that is being advertised to you, the player. Forget anything the game tries to say about geeks and geek culture: this is the real, unflattering insight at the heart of Akiba’s Trip.
The game is at its best when it focuses on real people with real problems. Take Nana, the younger sister of the main character. She’s quiet but intense, loving yet abrasive (in the way that siblings tend to be) and genuinely funny thanks to some great voice acting. But she’s also a shut-in, a social phenomenon known in Japan as a “hikkomori”. By taking an interest in her life and talking to her like a normal human being, you can slowly coax her out of her shell and back into the outside world she has rejected. Eventually, the reasons that led to her self-imposed exile come to light, and you can help her down the right path to facing them. It’s a simple, satisfying and human storyline that does nothing to demean or take advantage of the character. Another highlight of the story is when the cast decide to ignore the main plot and instead engage on a joyful eighteen-hour binge of magical girl anime, a wonderful and funny bit of character-building for all involved.
Hm? What *is* the main plot, you ask? Uh.
Do I have to talk about the stripping?
Naked people are funny. That’s the joke. There are quasi-vampires going around and you defeat them by exposing their bodies to sunlight, which means you have to strip the clothes off them. This is a strangely equal-opportunity affair: young, old, male, female, all must be made naked because bums know no discrimination. It’s stupid, cartoony and rarely sexual (aside from all the suggestive moaning from your female targets). Some boss characters get “oh no my clothes are being torn off” stills, but said pictures are present for both your male and female adversaries*. After a while it gets a bit old, but then you unlock ludicrously-advanced methods of stripping people (like Drunken Fist or John Wooing the clothes off them) which makes it absurd enough to be funny again.[* In doing research for this review, I found out that the original game only had “oh no my clothes are being torn off” pictures for the six female boss characters. In the name of sexual equality, the American localisers approached the Japanese creators and got them to include equally-explicit stills for the six male boss characters. Kudos. (source)]
It’s not a great fighting game. Your primary tactic will be mashing one of three buttons and trying not to get surrounded and stun-locked. There is a button that allows you to dodge, but I rarely found it useful. Sometimes you tap the L1 button instead of holding it down, telling your character to holster his weapon and stop fighting. You need three seconds of uninterrupted peace to switch back into battle mode, which is hard when you’re surrounded by attacking enemies. (And yes, you can do the fighting sections with one hand.)
It’s not a great RPG. You are frequently asked to find quest NPCs: however, the draw distance on character models is pathetic and it takes between five and ten seconds for them to load when you reach a new area. Sometimes they just don’t spawn at all, for no reason. A lot of your time will be spent wandering and backtracking, approaching every single generic NPC in the hope that their name is highlighted in quest-friendly red. There is no map for individual areas, the assumption being that you know the real-life location of every Akihabara store like the back of your hand. The setting is so small that it would have been well within reason to include seamless transition, but instead, every area is blockaded by a loading screen. That said, fans of paper dolls will be thrilled at the number of clothing items and the wealth of customisation options that are unlocked after you complete the game.
It’s not a great plot. There are very few plot twists or subversions. It’s about vampires. We are told that they feed on human life energy, but we never see this happen or any consequences of it. (Compare this to Persona 3, where the number of affected NPCs increases dramatically as your enemies increase in activity.) There are four routes that change the events of the last act depending on which character you are closest to, but the value of this divergence is dependant on how often you can slog through the first two acts again.
Times are sad when the weakest parts of a game are listed as “everything to do with the main plot and gameplay”. But by chaining the title to “Undead & Undressed”, XSEED have made it *about* the absolute worst parts. There’s no satire or fun to be found in stripping people of their clothes, and no meaningful commentary in “lol this train nerd thinks he is a train”. The real observations are found not in provocation or titillation, but in subtle and less marketable places. And that’s a damn shame, because Akiba’s Trip does offer grains of genuine insight: the state of modern Akihabara as a blaring commercial juggernaut, and the simple joy of having friends with a shared interest.
If only it stripped out the “Undead & Undressed” parts.
2 Brostars out of 5Akibas Trip: Undead and Undressed Review (PS3) ,