Here’s something you don’t see all that often: A late PSP game which never made it outside of Japan, resurrected on modern formats for an international release.
While Sony’s first handheld never quite took off here in Europe, it was huge in Japan. Coming off the back of a Monster Hunter fuelled boom just over a decade ago, Akiba’s Trip is one of many bespoke PSP games made specifically for the Japanese audience.
I managed to go hands-on with the first few hours of the Switch version of this remaster, and it’s certainly been intriguing for reasons beyond the circumstances behind its belated release.
As you’d expect, Akiba’s Trip takes place within the streets of Akihabara, a district within Tokyo that’s transformed over the years to eventually represent a variety of anime and video game-related subcultures. It’s a townscape with an awful lot nestled between various intertwined streets and alleyways, making for an interesting backdrop not only for the game’s beat ‘em up style combat, but narratively as well.
The game opens with you getting bitten by a Shadow Soul (read: vampire), duly transforming you into one. You’re then saved by a government group who seeks to control these vampires from behind the scenes. Naturally, you’ve no choice in the matter and you’re coerced into eliminating the Shadow Souls.
You see, according to the agency, folk bitten by Shadow Souls become ‘NEETs’ from an aversion to sunlight and their inhibited ability to return to normal society is a threat to the Japanese economy.
While this introduction is played entirely seriously, it’s not long until things lighten up and you’re learning how to strip clothes off your enemies – I went for a bloke wearing a giant bear suit as my training target.
Indeed, most of the early game is spent honing your stripping skills through combat. There’ll often be a target to eliminate, and you’ll go and strip them bare. As expected from developer Acquire, Akiba’s Trip’s combat system is an idiosyncratic affair that manages to capture the feeling of tearing off layers of clothing while also featuring beat ‘em up style combo attacks.
Mashing one of three face buttons will deal blows to your foe’s head, torso or legs, one per region. Hold down a button, however, and you’ll lunge forward and reach out to strip a garment, your success dependent on how much damage you’d dealt to it. The sheer amount of time this animation takes leaves you quite vulnerable to attacks, particularly when fighting groups of enemies where it’s easy to get battered at from all sides and stripped off to sunlight-induced death.
There is a pleasing weightiness to it all, but the combat honestly has also unfortunately proven itself to be rather shallow in these opening hours. New fighting combos and skills must be purchased from stores, yet money is hard to come by.
There are however signs of promise; one early mission forces you to disguise yourself as a band member, forcing you to equip certain clothes and use a guitar as a weapon. More variation like this would go a long way toward eliminating this early repetition.
Outside of combat, you’ll also spend the early game scoping out Shadow Souls using a special camera, as well as visiting various shops to kit yourself out with sturdier apparel and more menacing weapons. It’s this exploration around Akihabara itself that leaves the game feeling rather empty and devoid of character, because it’s also where its PSP origins are unflatteringly laid bare.
In porting this title to Unity Engine, Acquire has retained much of the visuals from the upgraded version of the PSP original, Akiba’s Trip Plus. As such, the game is littered with hideously upscaled artwork, characters and buildings which were clearly never designed to be displayed in HD.
Even more disappointing is the removal of the store licenses from the original game. They once added authenticity to your surroundings, as you might spot a billboard for Weekly Famitsu, or run into a SEGA Arcade or a branch of used game store Trader. These have been replaced by some rather uninspired parodies instead which don’t communicate the same appeal as the originals.
This game’s sequel, which did release outside of Japan, did a significantly better job at bringing exploration of Akihabara to life through its visuals. This puts this technically older title in a difficult place because it’s releasing seven years after its sequel.
And yet when it comes to capturing the atmosphere of Akihabara, what surprised me the most in Akiba’s Trip so far is how dedicated it can be toward presenting the various subcultures that the place had become known for bringing together. There are main characters in the early game who will talk passionately about their interests, be it their fondness for ‘moe’ characters, old computer hardware or idol groups, and why they think that’s important. It really comes across as rather genuine.
From its first hours alone, then, Akiba’s Trip is unapologetically its own unique thing. The question is whether the more idiosyncratic elements develop further in the game continue to set it apart from not only other games, but its shinier PS3 and PS Vita sequel and its more authentic recreation of the Akihabara landscape.
Akiba’s Trip: Hellbound and Debriefed is due out 23rdh July on PS4 and Switch.