I can’t find that many impressions of Akane, a game I bought on a whim from the Switch’s eStore, but it seems people are surprised that there’s only one level. Or that there’s no explanation for the intro animation of Akane herself, stood like Oldboy in a lift full of corpses, before the sounds of her bike crash and the title screen. And no explanation for what happened after the (themselves unexplained) childhood samurai training levels to even lead to this point. Or who the peach-pink cyborg boss even Katsuro is. There’s no real end either, as far as I can tell. It’s an infinite high-score game couched within a specific narrative scenario, a tension that’s set up and never resolved.
And I’m so glad I found it! Lots of what I like about it is right there behind the title screen, ready to go when you are. Akane’s stance: Pixel-pose, one-hand-on-hip, red trousers and white hair. Her Akira-style future-bike crashed and in flames. The flickering glow on its tyres. The washes of neon around this Neo Tokyo square. And four Yakuza surrounding you, angry at some never-revealed infraction. Clearly, something has happened. Then you press start and straight away the square of men closes in, straight away Akane is happening.
It sounds basic, but so many times I’m put off by action games that are all style and noise and indulgent kill animations, but without that vitality in their gamefeel, feeling like they happen at a slight remove – a puppet with slack in the strings.
But Akane feels good, alive with the now. Its control latency sliced to a sliver so it’s immediate and responsive when you press A, with a one-frame sword-swipe that doesn’t break your stride, and a slight screen shake as you connect. And the run animation is great, leant forward, sword dragging behind her, vector-sharp like an arrowhead. The Yakuza burst apart with a Fruit Ninja squelch.
And though one hit kills here, there’s a cool-down so you can’t spam the sword; now each press and pivot matters, so that glimmer-spark of reactive, responsive life is not softened by imprecision, by a white noise boredom of mindless button presses and particle effect eruptions. (The bad version of what Girlfriend Reviews calls ‘Diarrhoea Christmas Lights’). Here, both the stick movement and the button play require constant, specific engagement and attention.
To beat the actual challenges (like, ‘Kill a Cyber Ninja Whilst on 50 Combo’) you also have to learn the sweet-spot pace needed to juggle the gun and kill meters, their charges and cool-downs. Imbibing them. Soon treating the short combo window like a metronome, holding off one kill just long enough to be able to reach the next within combo. Sometimes you sync with the rhythm of the (very very throbbing) soundtrack like the teeth on two gears – like that docking scene in Interstellar! – and for a few bars you’re landing shots and slices on the beat, above a synth bass as thick as paste.
I like this! (You can probably tell).
I like a game that isn’t charted in narrative arcs or new environments, but is more a pleasing frequency to engage with, made up of small oscillations of attention and intention: Making sure to shoot after every few cuts, to keep the sword live. Stretching out and curving your movement arcs to suit the constant, in-out Hokey Cokey of crowd control. Trailing gangsters like a pied piper, spotting an angle, then looping round and cutting through like a machete through cane. Syncing with the game and sinking into the game like a playable moodscape as much as a place. Like Lo-Fi beats for the fingers. Like a headspace you make with music and motion, and a zone-note you hit and then try to maintain long enough to just reach the next boss fight with Katsuro, or a 50-man combo.
But it’s suddenly over! In the shock of a pink Yakuza swipe, Or the contrail of a Cyber Ninja’s dash, and everything splits for a second, like the Tik-Tok logo. All anaglyph-without-the-glasses. Then, a results screen splash before the next round, and the small thrill of a new item to try (and then ignore, usually).
There are a lot of small details here, and I’ve found it’s worth pausing before restarting, long enough to spot something new from this one, specific scene, suddenly obvious against the stillness. Dense like a Street-Fighter background but less centred around the fight, a bit more peripheral and ambient and lived-in: The movement of a body in front of a shop shutter; a man bathed in the glow of an arcade machine; the fluorescent fish-fry logo; that bearded watcher on a roof in the south-west corner. I’m still seeing new things after hours of play in this single Street of Rage. I might even spot something whilst in-game, with the little wriggle-room of attention I’ve earned from familiarity.
I like all this too!
The sense of the hinted-at, the alluded-to, the media res. All the gradual things I’ve noticed throughout all the many ground-hog variations I’ve played of Akane’s last night. And I’ve liked having a game that plays like a short, a game-ella, without the need for an up-ramp of progression each round, or any meta-concerns of strategy, or the obligation to include other levels with colours or music I don’t even like, and probably won’t return to. Most of all I like a core loop that is an honest, simple treat. Did I mention I’ve played this one mission for more than 15 hours (!) during lockdown?
I don’t know if Akane is an all-round good game, exactly. (Whatever that means). But it’s a flavour of play I’m glad to have to hand in my Switch library. Nestled along supposedly bigger, fuller Experiences and Journeys, that I now remember as a few details; as a sort of mean of their whole.
Or maybe as their best moments. Or as specific snapshots in my Switch gallery. But often when I replay them (if I even replay them), I choose one favourite level or vibe palette anyway. Akane’s best moment is its only moment, always there, always happening. Her bike in flames. Her sword at the hip. The music throbbing. A space of engaged absorption, untethered from change or resolution; an everlasting, ever-now you make with motion, bought on a whim for 89p.