My son wasn’t the only one who was blessed by the video game fairy this past holiday season. While the youngest Verboon was rolling in Wii U games and Disney Infinity statues, a Christmas angel delivered unto this grown up gamer a bizarre new PlayStation exclusive that is definitely not for kids by the name of Akiba’s Trip: Undead and Undressed. Some games could be described as the most fun one could have with your clothes on. In this one the fun comes in taking them off. Not like that, though.
It may be written as Akiba’s Trip, but one look at the game’s box cover/title screen sheds a little light on the game’s premise. After all, the Akiba in question isn’t a person so it couldn’t very well take a trip. It’s really Akiba Strip. But before I get to the good stuff explaining this twisted little premise, some backstory for the non-otaku among us. Tokyo’s Akihabara district (Akiba for short) is a worldwide Mecca of hardcore geek culture. It’s an area surrounding the Akihabara station that is densely packed with as much electronics, anime and manga culture, video games, maid cafés, and general Japanese pop culture insanity as anybody could ever want.
I remember a few years back when I saw a preview for a Kinect game where you could explore a virtual recreation of Disneyland and get fake hugs from Disney princesses. Being California born and raised, this struck me as really sad because where I come from, trips to Disneyland are an indispensable part of childhood. No way a video game replaces that. After playing Akiba’s Trip, in which you wander a digital recreation of what’s essentially Disneyland for anime geeks, I imagine this is how Japanese otaku feel about lower class loser gai-jin like myself who will most likely never see the Land of the Rising Sun with our own eyes and have to settle for a video game approximation of their nerd Nirvana.
But to be fair, I doubt you get to strip the clothes off of Goofy in Disneyland Adventures or smack Snow White down with cat paw mittens or a rolled up anime poster while cross-dressing. The opening crawl of Akiba’s Trip promises “a little something to offer even the most fetishistic of appetites” and while it may not be quite that perverse (no girls using cups as props, for instance), it’s well off the beaten path of repressed American popular culture, which is exactly why I had to play it. Anything this insane needs a look.
Okay, the game’s premise: Akihabara has been invaded by mysterious vampire-like humanoids feeding on the passion and greed of the nerds who populate it, rendering them listless and inert. The only way to defeat them is to expose their entire body to sunlight. That means if you’re going to fight back against them, their clothing has got to go. Ready, set, strip.
You play an Akiba resident lured to their doom with a shady job offer promising to pay in rare anime figurines and changed into one of these creatures, known as Synthisters. You’re saved by a typical anime girl in a frilly dress wielding a parasol as a weapon, meet up with your buddies at your hangout game bar, and then set about figuring out how to save your beloved town from the menace along with your whichever girl you play your cards right with.
In most cases, a game where the combat is based around tearing the clothes off of people in public would be the world’s worst idea. Actually, it probably still is. But Akiba’s Trip does a great job of placing its tongue as far into its cheek as possible, making the experience of shopping in virtual Akihabara genuinely fun, keeping away from the pornography that is suggested by the premise, and keeping things equal between genders.
There are at least as many male enemies as female, after your initial playthrough you are able to choose a female avatar if you like, and even the risqué screenshots of the major characters you strip (which you can use as wallpaper for your smartphone menu) are split between male and female characters. Virtual Akiba is populated both by random asshat “playboys” who can be seen being slapped while hitting on random girls and by fujoshi shipping male passersby and pontificating on the finer points of tops and bottoms. That is to say that the game is perverted, but it’s equally perverted, be you man or woman. My kind of progress. It’s worth pointing out that the romances are super tame too, considering.
And I have to say that as a high school kid who used to wish I could hit bullies with a hadoken, I now think it would have been way cooler to strip them naked in public using drunken monkey kung fu or by thrusting my hips at them to make their clothing fly off with telekinesis. But even if you’ve never had fantasies of being Marv in Sin City and telling people “that there is one mighty fine coat you’re wearing” before beating them down and taking it for your own, the story, dialogue, and characters are funny enough to warrant giving the game a shot if you’re nerdy enough even without the awesomeness of free-roaming Akihabara. I mean, who hasn’t wanted to respond to a prissy lady with “well excuuuuuuse me, princess” or hit a villain with “your ideals are bad and you should feel bad” or suggest to a heroine “it’s dangerous to go alone. Take me”? Lame people. That’s who. Go back to your pep rallies and proms, noobs.
In addition to hilariously random pop culture quotes as dialogue options, how often do you see a game story where the whole cast sits down to binge watch an entire season of anime together in preparation for a cosplay contest? Even funnier is the post-binge discussion in which all praises heaped on the show are qualified with the suffix phrase “except for the last episode”. This kind of nerdbaiting always gives me the warm fuzzies.This is clearly a game built for geeks by geeks, and that’s something you see shockingly little of considering video games are our hobby of choice.
The sequences where you converse with your character’s hikikimori sister (which are apparently some kind of minigame I haven’t figured out) are charming as various visions of geekiness dance around her head and the talks have unpredictable (and adorable) results. Never thought I’d be called “3DPD” by a video game character. Another nice feature is the social media app, Pitter, where you occasionally get to see exchanges between various internet users that are almost a little scary in how closely they match message board culture, right down to a character who compulsively identifies herself as a girl and other members calling her a “trap” (not a transphobic slur in that context, as some sites have reported, but a reference to the classic online bait-and-switch pranking that spawned the term).
Although Akiba’s Trip suffers from a low budget presentation spearheaded by the still-effective visual novel storytelling format in place of animated cutscenes, it’s still a fun open world game if you don’t go in expecting Grand Theft Auto: Japan production values. You have a relatively small area to wander and a short story, but that area is packed with awesome and the game thrives on customization and replayability, featuring dozens of stores to shop in and tons of rare items to hunt and optional quests to complete, some of which are hilarious. Plus there are more features added upon completing each difficulty and a ton of free DLC featuring content from popular video game and manga franchises and even more customization options if you get the upgraded PS4 version. But don’t buy the DLC character swimsuits. That’s just dumb.
There’s a lot of respect shown for the bizarre subculture Akihabara represents woven into the diversity of the cast and the goofy story to counterbalancethe mocking ridiculousness of the whole setup. While the villains declare the otaku community wastes of energy and seek to harvest it for their own use at the cost of emptying the nerd race of the passion that gives their lives meaning, our heroes come from differing backgrounds ranging from successful businesswoman to pop idol to neckbeard loser to old timer but are brought together by a certain ownership of what Akiba represents as a place where you can let your freaky geek flag fly without fear of prejudice.
On top of all the insanity of geek culture satire and tongue-in-cheek perversity, Akiba’s Trip is first and foremost a celebration of otaku culture, good, bad, and ugly. There’s a genuine pride in what the community of Akihabara represents that comes through, even if the idea of a woman dressed as a maid calling you “master” makes you cringe (and in my case, it does) or you find Japan’s pop culture to be bizarre (as pretty much everybody does). After all, Akiba is maybe the one set place in the world where you can be a total weirdo without being judged for it. Just don’t go ripping people’s clothes off outside of the game, yeah?