Akiba's Beat (PlayStation 4) review
"Nerds have never been more boring."
Akibaís Trip: Undead and Undressed was a brilliant little brawler that simultaneously celebrated and poked fun at the otaku culture that has built up around Akihabara. With Akibaís Beat, the same development team decided to take another trip through Japanís nerd mecca, but now the journey takes the form of an action-RPG. It sounds like a great idea on paper, but it never really pans out.
Akibaís Beat opens with Asahi, a college dropout, living the life of a NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training). He spends his days engulfed in anime, manga and other distractions, until he runs into a mysterious door in the middle of Akiba. Here he finds a young girl named Saki, who tells him these doors allow entry into peopleís delusions of what Akiba should be made manifest. She tells him he must be a chosen one, like her, and the two protagonists join forces to take down the delusions that threaten to overrun Akiba.
The narrative is the strongest part of Akibaís Beat, when itís not being sabotaged by meandering dialog and slow build-up. At its best, the story is a think piece on how our perspective changes the world around us, and what might happen if our desired version of reality were to become real. Unfortunately, the game takes far too long to get to the good stuff. Instead, it has the party run around Akiba encountering useless cutscenes that only serve to pad out the length of an already laborious affair.
Despite the central story being too long and meandering too much for its own good, the sub-events featuring each party member are generally great. Fans of anime and manga will find a lot to like here, with deep cut references and a fantastic performance by the dub cast. Itís evident the localization team at XSEED has a deep love for otaku culture, which is celebrated in these little vignettes.
As for Akiba itself, the team at Acquire has once again built a pretty realistic rendition of the famous nerd paradise. Unlike in Akibaís Trip, however, Akiba's presentation is pretty lifeless thanks to more nondescript locations than those featured in the previous game, along with a bunch of motionless silhouettes standing in for the walking, talking NPCs you might remember from Trip. Itís hard to make Akiba boring, and itís a shame Beat dropped the ball on this one after Trip so successfully transported players to a place that felt real and exciting.
If Akibaís Beat were a visual novel, it would be a pretty boring read with occasional specks of brilliance. Unfortunately, it wanted to be an RPG and falls flat on its face in this respect. While the game is technically sound, its mechanics and structure never really rise above mediocrity. At times, they feel like absolute garbage.
At its core, Akibaís Beat wants to be a Tales game, but its action-RPG combat is a pale imitation of the sublime brawls we've encountered in recent entries of Namcoís flagship franchise. This game uses a variation of the system seen in Tales of Xillia, with each character having a set number of actions that replenish after a time, along with special attacks that drain SP. The big difference between Akibaís Beat and Tales, however, is that Tales keeps the action going by providing ways to restore moves and a quick recharge function in case that fails. Akibaís Beat has no such way to restore actions, and it forces a hard stop on attacks when a characterís pool runs dry. The result feels fragmented. I was constantly pulled out of combat to sit back and wait for my actions to recharge. It doesnít help that attacks never feel powerful, with standard enemies and bosses both able to cancel attacks. Your party members, however, are rarely able to cancel most boss attacks in return.
Akibaís Beat also commits the cardinal sin of forcing the player to control single characters or parties youíre either not familiar with, or havenít been able to fully equip with the latest gear. One area in particular had me go through a dungeon with one party before relying on a separate party to face off against the end boss, without sufficient equipment to effectively handle that encounter. The high cost of equipment forces players to prioritize characters theyíre comfortable with, and itís frustrating when the game forces a new party into the picture without prior warning.
Easily the worst part of Akibaís Beat, though, is its dungeon design. While the idea of dungeons based on a personís psyche is nothing new and can be downright wonderful (as Persona 5 proved), Akibaís Beat suffers because it presents mazes with puzzles that force needless backtracking. Not long into the game, players begin to encounter dungeons where they must walk back and forth across mazes far too long and winding for their own good, all to open doors on each side with their respective switches positioned on the opposite side. Such busy work wastes time and is never fun.
The best thing a person can say about Akibaís Beat is that itís a technically sound game. There are never any framerate issues, and it looks about as good as you would expect a low-budget RPG to look. Itís just unfortunate that the seemingly insufficient budget didn't go toward creating a tight 30 hour experience. Instead, we get a game that wastes time forcing players to wander through previously cleared dungeons multiple times, all to access a short cutscene that offers no narrative payoff.
I really donít feel good hating on Akibaís Beat. There are some genuinely good ideas in its narrative, and itís obvious a lot of passion went into both the game's development and its localization. Passion isnít enough to guarantee a worthwhile end result, though. Akibaís Beat is the victim of a low budget, poor planning or (most likely) both. I would like for Acquire to take another stab at the series, since it's so rare to see a game celebrate Japanese nerd culture, but maybe the developers should try to create something more akin to Akiba's Trip the next time around.
Freelance review by Zachary Walton (May 24, 2017)
Zach Walton likes JRPGs, visual novels, horror games and anything that gives him an excuse to drink.
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