Tuesday, 26 March 2013

TWEWY and AKBT: Sister games

Owing to my recent excursion, I'm left in a Toukyou state of mind. And you know what two games take place in Toukyou, and kept appearing in my mind while I was there? You do, if you read the posts. The answer is The World Ends with You (素晴らしきこの世界、 “What a Wonderful World,” in Japanese) and AKIBA'S TRIP. The former takes place in the fashion mecca of Shibuya, the latter in the geek paradise of Akihabara.

These games are hardly the only ones to take place in contemporary Toukyou (Jet Set Radio, Ryuu ga Gotoku, and Megami Tensei come to mind), but I have a few reasons for singling out this particular pair. Both are action-RPGs. Both feature fantastic stories taking place amongst their interesting, but comparatively mundane settings. Both were highly experimental titles with a lot of intriguing ideas. Both are single-installment games that debuted within the same console generation, on directly competing portable platforms, no less (the DS and PSP, respectively), with each taking advantage of that system's particular strengths. And finally, rather than taking the entire megacity as a basis, both games focus in on one specific area, lavishing it with an affection and attention to detail I haven't ever really seen anywhere else.

In TWEWY, you control two characters at once – one on each screen. The bottom screen is reserved for protagonist Neku, who attacks with a wide variety of touch-screen-driven psychic abilities, while his partner does the same on the top screen per commands from the D-pad. All enemies appear in both iterations of the battlefield; they share a lifebar with their alt-world counterpart, as does Neku with his partner, thus requiring cooperation (ie coordinated multi-tasking from you) to bring your enemies down. This aspect is further emphasized through the Puck, a green aura that gets passed between screens if you keep up a good offensive rhythm. The Puck confers an attack bonus on the character holding it, and it grows in power with each pass, but dissipates if you mess up. This means you have to be able to keep up a continuous assault with one character while not neglecting the other, lest they be overwhelmed. Moreover, if you fill up a special metre, you can unleash a Fusion attack, in which the pair combine forces to mete out heavy damage to all enemies at once. Neku's available attacks are governed by a slate of Pins – as in, like, the metal things that you attach to your shirt to show your political allegiance or whatever. Depending on what you have equipped, you might find yourself pressing an enemy to fire a blast of energy at it, slashing empty space to summon spiked chains, tapping a Pin itself for a quick round of healing, or blowing into the DS mic to have Neku breathe fire. Each Pin has an associated cooldown time, preventing you from merely spamming your strongest attacks, and each one also levels up individually, becoming more powerful or even gaining new properties.

The battle system in Akiba's Trip is less innovative, but based on just as good a concept. Your enemies, the Kageyashi, are basically a clan of hidden vampires, and thus extremely vulnerable to sunlight. Accordingly, in order to defeat them you must rob them of their clothes. The initial stages of any given encounter start out in fairly standard beat-em-up territory, but rather than injure your enemies themselves, it's their clothing you target. Each article – pants/skirt, shirt, and sometimes also some type of headgear – has its own health bar, and once that's been depleted, you'll get a Strip Chance. If your opponent doesn't manage to repel you, you'll rip their clothes clean off their bodies. Once they've been reduced to just their socks and underwear, their exposed bodies can no longer handle the exertion and they slowly burn to death. If you've sufficiently damaged a number of nearby enemies, you can chain together Strip Chances, moving smoothly from target to target like a whirling dervish amongst a storm of steadily increasing nudity. But beware: As a Kageyashi yourself, you too may find yourself on the receiving end of a lascivious onslaught. You'll need to equip yourself with the right combination of clothing, some of which confer situational bonuses, and arm yourself with the weapons at your disposal, which range from everyday items, like a student's bag or a rolled-up poster, right on up to a mythical sword.

Both games have surprisingly strong plots. TWEWY can be pretty overwrought at times, while AKBT is intentionally silly-serious. The former puts you in the shoes of a grimly cocky loner forced to participate in the Shinigami Game. This a strictly partner-oriented affair, predictably setting him down the gradual path of friendship and mutual respect. He and his new partner, Shiki, quickly realise that all the participants in the Shinigami Game are dead, competing to see which team will win a second shot at life. Each day presents a set of goals to achieve and challenges to overcome, but the teams are also harried by the Noise – the psychic manifestations of peoples' negative emotions, normally incorporeal but nightmarishly immediate in the realm the players now inhabit – as well as the meddling of the Shinigami charged with running the game.

AKBT is no more rooted in reality. As the Kageyashi require human blood as sustenance, often killing their prey in the process, the anti-Kageyashi organization NIRO has been formed to deal with the threat. The nameless protagonist nearly meets his end to a Kageyashi attack in a back alley, but his attacker's sister, who disagrees with the general Kageyashi ethos, saves him with a kiss, transferring some of her own blood to him and beginning his transformation into a Kageyashi himself. NIRO picks him up and recruits him into their investigative group, formed largely of locals with deep resources inside the area and strong knowledge of its culture. You set out to begin the long process of putting down a burgeoning Kageyashi rebellion, but as you encounter less militant members you learn that NIRO's perspective may not be the whole truth. In the end, you will have to choose whether to support NIRO and wipe out the Kageyashi, turn over to the rebellion and help them dismantle NIRO, or take a third option and try to pursue peaceful coexistence between humans and Kageyashi.

And all of that is awesome, but those things alone are not what make these two games special. It's that the interplay of plot and mechanics with ambient setting is so masterful and compelling in both cases. They don't merely take place in their respective districts, but are fixated on them. They outright state that there's something special about them, not only in being supernatural nexii, but also in the sense that they're epicentres of humanity and subculture. They go pretty far to have us agree with them, too, drawing out their essences and painting the whole experience with them.

Y'all know I'm a Kansai guy, so this is hardly my area of expertise. But as far as I can tell, the geographical accuracy is admirable, especially in AKBT, for which people have compared screenshots from gameplay to their Akihabara counterparts, with stunning results. Locations like the Sega Building and back alleys are artfully recreated. TWEWY is no slouch either, recreating basically all of Shibuya's landmarks – no small feat for an area of that size – with incredible fidelity, giving us such sights as HMV, 109, Hachiko, and Scramble Crossing. The director said in an interview that you could probably use the game as a guidebook for the area; I don't doubt it. Same goes for AKBT. Much as GTA IV taught me the basic geography of New York (minus Staten Island), these two games showed me how their areas were laid out. All three make their subjects seem like the most exciting place in the world.

That's not even the coolest part. What really keeps me thinking about these two titles, even years after playing them, is the way that they nailed the atmosphere. Everything just feels right. There's thorough research, and then there's stuff you can only transmit through a love of the subject. The game worlds feel inhabited and active; when you meet new people, you believe that they really do live in the area. They dress, speak, and think believably, insofar as they are still fictional. And finally, both TWEWY and AKBT make the best possible use of local culture. AKBT has it easy, of course, with its focus on otakuland, but it doesn't rest on its laurels. In-game anime starring a schoolgirl who transforms into a defender of justice when she removes her glasses; supermarketed, oversexed, ravenously popular teen idols; maid cafes where you can play stupid games to win prizes; the only thing it's missing is video games, but then, it is one. TWEWY is a little less obvious, but the fashion and musical influences are clear, especially the latter. How many other games can you name with battle music like this?

Interestingly, both contain elements of eating and shopping, each of which makes perfect sense, and yet they both focus on one more than the other. AKBT treats food items as mere powerups and healing items, which is fine, but TWEWY tries something new by limiting the amount of stat-increasing ramen and burgers that characters are allowed to eat within one real-world day. TWEWY also uses regular clothing where a mediaevel world would armour, while AKBT can be basically one long cosplay sim if you want it to be, complete with a little sister to wear any clothes you want in exchange for money. Uh, that basically speaks for itself, so I will append no further commentary.

With all of this in mind, is it really possible to say which game is “better?” Well, yes, actually. TWEWY is better. It has cleaner controls, a more engaging battle system, a more compelling narrative, and, although the PSP obviously has far greater processing power, AKBT's 3D graphics are blocky and saturated, making TWEWY's atypical style the aesthetic winner as well. And let's not even get started on the music, because I could do a whole series of posts on just that. Basically, TWEWY is superior in absolutely every way. Just wanted to get that out there. But AKBT still left a good taste in my mouth when I was done with it, especially as the best parts of the game are towards the middle and end. They're both great games.

So please, Square Enix and Acquire. No sequels. Some things are better left as once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Also, know what's fun? Imagining that TWEWY and AKBT take place within the same universe.

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