Timing is everything. In the world of games that means publishers and developers keeping the likes of Nioh, NieR Automata, Yakuza 0 and Horizon away from the engorged holiday season. This meant those titles got a spot in the limelight they surely wouldn’t have enjoyed in more traditional scheduling slots of September-December.
It also means that if you have a very similar style of game to a particularly big hitter, then you probably shouldn’t release your game within a month or so of the other if you want to be judged on your own merit. Oh, and if it’s also nowhere near as polished as the more popular title, that’s also applicable. Akiba’s Beat has made these latter mistakes by coming a mere month after the Western release of Persona 5, and while such comparison is perhaps unfairly damaging, it’s Akiba’s Beat’s failings as a game that cause most concern. It’s just that coming so soon after the Shin Megami Tensei spinoff’s latest entry really exposes those shortcomings in a far rawer fashion.
Akiba’s Beat retains its Akihabara setting, the heart of Japan’s Otaku culture, but brings little else of the (questionable) substance found in its forebear Akiba’s Trip: Undead and Undressed, moving away from the questionable concept of stripping enemies to their undercrackers in battle. This is a spiritual successor, and with the underwear removal removed, the focus moves to a loosely musically-themed model, but without the novelty value of Akiba’s Trip you’re left with a fairly bog standard JRPG that rarely elicits anything more than mild disdain.
The overarching plot concerns workshy geek Asahi Tachibana, a repeating Sunday, and strange things disjointing reality. You and your ragtag gang must seek to rid Akihabara of anything out of sync with the real world. There’s another world you see, coexisting with our own, and it has dungeons dubbed ‘delusionscapes’ that blend both realities together using people’s twisted desires, and are filled with monsters known as ‘deluseons’ that you must defeat in the ongoing quest to uncover the mystery behind the repeating day. I’ll make no bones about it, it’s painfully clear where Akiba’s Beat it getting its ideas from, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing to do, you need to ensure you have a game to back it up.
Things start with an ungraceful stumble during the tutorial. It takes place in a bleakly white space, funnelling you down straight lines to fulfill simple movement and attacks. Tutorials are condescending (if necessary) at the best of times, but Akiba’s Beat goes with the ol’ ‘Look, aren’t tutorials dumb? Here’s the tutorial’ method, and the tutorial is so devoid of ingenuity or subtlety that it feels as patronising as it does half-hearted.
Then you’re thrust into the game world, and into a rapid showcase of what doesn’t work about Akiba’s Beat. The voice work isn’t wonderful, but certainly not terrible overall (with notable feline-themed exceptions that made me want to corrupt my hard drive out of spite). What let’s it down is the frankly risible writing, and by extension, the localisation of it. When every character you meet gives you an initial impression that they’d be best served by humanely boiling them alive, perhaps they’ve not been written well. It’s great that there’s so much recorded dialogue, but listening to it is far too often an unpleasurable experience. On the plus side, there is a Japanese voice option that alleviates some of the misery. Even then, the cast are little more than stereotypical visages of every anime ever.
Then there’s the combat system. A predominantly action-based style with a few smatterings of turn-based aspects to allow the player to slow down the action and strategize. Action combat holds little in the way of an impactful punch, lending a hollow meaningless feel to running about and swinging your weapon in public, and if you’re doing that in public, it should never be hollow or meaningless. The turn-based portion of the battle makeup is small and simple enough to at least be inoffensively functional, but it certainly isn’t slick or inventive in its execution.
While you can call into question the dubious, eye-rolling nature of the combat in Akiba’s Trip: Undead and Undressed, it did at least lend that game a novel aspect. Here we are left with a decidedly flat, uninspired representation of RPG battle system. It may work for better or worse, but crucially, it is rarely enjoyable.
The (mis) hits keep on a’ rollin’ as we arrive at the game’s presentation. Your time is split between wandering the real world, and battling in the ‘deluseonscapes’, and it’s fair to say each side does feel distinct from the other, but not just for the reasons they should.The ‘deluseonscapes’ are varied and colorful, if not particularly imaginative in their level design. The streets of Akihabara however, come across as soulless and empty, a major misfire for such a bright and bustling place in reality. The general public are represented by brightly-coloured humanoid shapes. That’s not a terrible way to compromise on creating a busy district on a budget. Other, higher profile titles, have done similar things after all, but in Akiba’s Beat it appears that the shapes have merely been ‘placed’ in a random fashion with no life breathed into them. So you essentially wander around streets filled with gaudy mannequins and the odd NPC of importance. For a game that centralizes on the community feel of Akihabara, it sure does a bad job of representing it. Character animation is also pretty basic, as is the general art style. Bad? No, but it reeks of low quality, a sin most of the audiovisual side can be condemned for. A saving grace is a soundtrack that features the odd joyful nugget of audio delight.
Three years on from Akiba’s Trip, Akiba’s Beat is a step back in almost every department. Why does it take repeated long walks across a bland city just to activate even the briefest of scenes? Why does it take fifteen hours before any character is remotely likeable? Why does a sequel feel like it came out before its predecessor? This rebooting of a flawed, offbeat JRPG does nothing to further the series, stripping out most of what made it unique last time round to boil it down and pour itself out into the mold of a far superior title unsurprisingly does not make for a richer experience. It’s derivative of itself, and wholly damaging to any future it had as a franchise.