I have vivid memories of wandering through delis and dollar stores in my childhood neighborhood. I would make my way to the back of the stores, and in these dimly lit corners of the establishment would be toy sections, lined with the most bizarre bootleg and knockoff creations imaginable. Sets of action figures combining off-model Power Rangers with poorly painted Marvel heroes in a package titled “Super Buddies”, or 12-piece military toy sets simply labeled “COP MEN”.
These off-brand, under-budget manifestations of manufacturing hell were an amalgam of ideas tossed together in the hopes of grabbing the attention of consumers thirsty for the real deal, but in their poor state of existence, were more likely to be laughed at for their similarities than praised for them. I bring all this up because, in many ways, Akiba’s Beat ends up being the video game equivalent of these toys.
Akiba’s Beat is a strange product, because despite being a standalone first-entry, it isn’t a new IP at all. Akiba’s Beat is a spinoff or spiritual successor to the two game Akiba’s Trip series, but aside from the setting of Akihabara and a heavy dose of pop media references, Trip and Beat are wildly different entities.
The narrative and personality of the game rely heavily on Japanese contemporary culture, and if you aren’t already well acquainted with that part of the world, the game does very little to bring you up to speed. Even the term NEET, which stands for “Not in Employment, Education or Training”, is never clearly defined in the game, so if you jump into this with only a vague or non-existent understanding of the things in the game, you’ll have to play catch-up with contextual clues and inferences to keep up.
Unfortunately, it isn’t really a story worth keeping up with. Most of the characters are unoriginal archetypes, and no subtlety is shown in how they are written or developed. On one occasion, in the middle of a dungeon, the protagonist essentially asks a new party member what their backstory is, and the character happily dumps their entire emotional backstory for us, just 15 minutes after having joined the party.
The flow of the narrative is equally hampered with issues. The balance between combat and narrative is heavily skewed, and the padded nature of the story scenes doesn’t help with that at all. I would regularly spend almost a full hour going through visual novel story scenes and overworld fast-travel that could have just as easily been wrapped up in a quarter of the time if there weren’t so much filler in the writing. Take a shot every time a character says the word “delusions” and you’d end up dying of alcohol poisoning before the end of chapter 2.
At the very least, there’s a few moments of genuinely entertaining personality in the writing – one character name is localized as “Chunk Widebody”, for example. There’s also a nice balance between Eastern and Western references and jokes, a notable example being a cheery idol-girl referencing Ghostbusters right before fighting the terrifying ghoulish manifestation of her inner anxieties.
In a way, one of the main characters of the game is the city of Akihabara itself. Sort of the Times Square of japan, Akihabara (or Akiba) is a mecca for all kinds of culture and media, from anime and manga to video games and music, and much, much more. I went there during my trip to Japan last summer, and as soon as I walked into the world of of the game, I noticed two things. Firstly, this is a shockingly perfect recreation of Akihabara. where every store and station and street is identical to the real world counterpart, with copyrighted names cheekily changed around. Secondly, it’s ugly as all hell.
Shockingly, the visuals of this game ended up feeling significantly downgraded from Akiba’s Trip. The environment is drowned in bloom and brightness, and all of that light bounces off the round and undefined character models in an incredibly unappealing way. Environmental NPCs are static, single colour models, and while it initially seemed like a neat artistic choice, it very quickly ended up seeming more like a budget trick that also ended up making the world feel hollow and lifeless. It’s a doubly bizarre choice when you consider that the previous game had crowds of fully modeled NPCs wandering the world constantly.
It would be nice if the gameplay made up for all these flaws, but it really doesn’t. Beat operates on a JRPG system similar to the Tales series. You explore 3D dungeons, and upon bumping into a monster, get transported to a real-time battle arena with your full party present. You have one button for normal attacks, another button for skills, and the ability to use the thumbsticks to mix and match different variations of each, on top of a third button for dodging/jumping/blocking.
I’m a sucker for real time action in JRPGs, but not like Akiba Beat’s. Despite the core DNA being there, Beat fails the execute any of it in a satisfying way. Animations are awkward and clunky, and characters jump like they’re on the moon, yet dodge and block like they’re trapped in quicksand. The combat has no snappiness to it, and I couldn’t remember a single time I was able to successfully pull off a block or dodge, when my character consistently took an awkward pause before and after each action.
Soon into the game, they introduce a system called Imagine Field, and a character explains it as fighting to the beat of music in order to do better in battle. I was so excited when I heard that, because I love it when rhythm-timing is incorporated into the combat ofgames. Imagine my damn surprise when the Imagine Field tutorial happens, and it’s nothing to do with this. No, Imagine Field is a simple meter you fill up by dealing damage. Upon filling it enough, you can activate it to start playing an anime song of your choice in the background while gaining a damage boost until the song is over. That’s it.
Very little of the game or the combat presents any kind of well-designed challenge or any kind of risk-reward payoff. Combat is one-note and repetitive, and the flaws are only amplified in boss encounters, which are often difficult, but only because of their damage-sponge nature.
Akiba’s Beat is a bad game, but it’s an even worse sequel. So many aspects of the previous game, Akiba’s Trip, are abandoned or watered down in this title, from the downgraded graphics, to the lack of customization, the poor characters, and more. Akiba’s Beat abandons it’s roots, instead trying so desperately to fill shoes far too big for it. Like the Chinese knockoff Transformers toys in my local deli, Akiba’s Beat attempts to emulate many big franchise without the budget, skill, or style of any of them. You will buy it for a steep discount and know exactly what you’re getting into, or you will laugh at it and walk away before buying the game it tries to be.