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Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Review: Akiba's Trip: Hellbound & Debriefed (Nintendo Switch)


Review by Matt S.

To save Akihabara - nay, the whole world! - from a growing vampire threat, you've got to suit up, hit the streets, and rip the skirts off school girls. Okay, you've got to rip the pants off businessmen and the shirts off tourists too, but we all know Akiba's Trip's minor notoriety comes from that stuff. Of course, the game's an out-and-out satire, and this "HD" Remake of a PSP title is far too primitive, even with the HD up-scale, to be titillating even if that was the intent. Nonetheless, it does pull off its B-grade anime Troma-style nonsense with great panache and entertainment, and for the narrow band of people that this is designed for, it's a delight.


There is a somewhat serious subtext to the issue. Japan does face an issue with "lock-ins" - hikikomori - with some estimates suggesting that there are as many as 700,000 people living as effective "shut-ins" - people that don't leave home, do whatever work they need from there, and actively choose not to participate in society. The reasons for this are many and varied. Japanese society hasn't done a great job of engaging with the youth in the modern era, and the sociocultural pressure that is placed on people causes a number of them to want to wash their hands of it all, but whatever the reasons from individual to individual, it's considered to be a social affliction, as it costs the country everything from new talent through the working system, through to babies to stem the diving birth rate. Akiba's Trip works on a metaphoric level here. In the narrative, vampires that attack people turn them into hikikomori, and the number of vampires around Akihabara is exploding, so the game is, in a way, personifying a kind of lecherous, malignant ailment and its ability to turn people into hikikomori. Of course, as you delve deeper into the plot things become greyer than that, and the government forces that you are aligned with start to become questionable... but nevertheless Akiba's Trip remains a mirror to and satire of Akihabara's association with hikikomori culture.

With this narrative and theme, the game doesn't take itself seriously on any level, and is more than happy to playfully poke fun at people obsessed with collecting figures, gaming culture, the maids that you find everywhere across Akiba, and the sexualisation that runs rampant through city. However another part of the game is much more genuine, and that is its efforts to highlight the various real-world sights and locations in the city (as well as was possible with the PSP's hardware). You'll go shopping in real-world shops (though unfortunately you never get to go to the second floor and above of the Lammtarra stores... sad face), and wander around real streets, and as primitive as it looks in 2021, I still found it all familiar and I ended up feeling quite nostalgic as I played Akiba's Trip. In terms of the setting, if you were to take Yakuza, and scale it way, way down, then you have an idea of what Akiba's Trip micro open-world, packed setting offers. I don't mean any of this as a criticism, because it's all quite delightful, but it is a little surprising that the developers simply spruced up a PSP game rather than go the full remake route because PSP games... don't simply pop into HD well.


In other ways, Akiba's Trip also feels like a PSP title. The combat system, for example, is enormously simple and quite clumsy, and the enemy AI is quite simple. There is some character customisation (you do end up with a wild range of oddball "weapons" and "armour" drawn from the kind of sights you'll see within Akihabara), but we've certainly seen action/RPG/brawlers come a long way in ten years, and we expect better than this now. But then again, on the other hand, all those modern games don't allow you to rip clothes off people. The big defining characteristic of Akiba's Trip is that, rather than defeat an enemy by reducing their health to nothing, in this game you need to reduce the health of the clothing that they're wearing. Then, when it's damaged enough, you can press a button to rip that piece of clothing off. By taking your opponent's top, pants (or skirt) and headwear, you "expose them to the sun," and, if they're a vampire, this kills them. Otherwise, after completing this process you'll discover that you just stripped a human down, and they run away from you like the wind... one presumes to find the nearest store that sells any kind of clothing.

Don't worry, though! You can determine human from vampire thanks to a handy-dandy camera. By taking a special type of photo, you will be able to tell the vampires, because they'll not show up in the photo. Then you'll know who you can strip away with impunity. All of this is utter nonsense, since stripping people off their clothes to "expose them to the sun" doesn't seem particularly logical when their face, hands, and potentially legs aren't covered in the first instance (and the game doesn't miss the opportunity to make a tongue-in-cheek half-effort explanation of that as part of the satire). And yet it's such great, uncomplicated nonsense, that it never stops being entertaining across the game's run time.

Outside of that stripping, there's a handful of other little activities that you can do in Akiba's Trip. There are a smattering of side quests, which are all worth doing because they layer on to the humour. You can also drop into the local maid cafe to play a series of minigames... which are all terrible but are clearly self away and playing up that terribleness for maximum impact. Overall though, what I liked most about this game, when I wasn't chasing the satire around, is just how effectively this game represents Akiba's unique underground culture. This little quirky, unique corner of Japan has always been a hotbed of fan service, urban rumours, anime, sex and technology, and all of that is represented in this pocket-sized adventure.


I have mentioned the scope of Akiba's Trip a couple of times in this review, and it does bear repeating: while I appreciate that the original PSP title was never released into English, it is surprising that, with all the incredible remakes, remasters and HD re-dos that we've seen, anyone thought this project was a good idea. This isn't like Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne or Disgaea 1, in that a simple HD up-resolution was enough to preserve an already incredible game. This was an enjoyable, but silly little PSP title, and all the HD upscaling has done is highlighted how the developers on the PSP were working with really limited hardware. The game is more enjoyable when playing in handheld mode, because the screen is closer in physical size to what was originally intended, but playing this on the big screen is... very yesteryear. The art itself is quite lovely, from the animated cut scenes to the character art. It's just the in-game stuff needed a complete rebuild to hit minimum expectations in 2021.

As confusing as it is that this game happened at all, I loved having the chance to play it. Akiba's Trip: Hellbound & Debriefed might look like a game that should have stayed on the PSP, but the satire and humour is there, the grainy rendition of Akihabara is still enough to make this homesick otaku miss Japan, and the action remains on the right side of simple and entertaining that you can enjoy it while it lasts. Akiba's Trip isn't going to win GOTY awards, but I sure enjoyed collecting a big pile of skirts.



- Matt S.
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb


Review: Akiba's Trip: Hellbound & Debriefed (Nintendo Switch)
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