Credit where credit is due: Acquire didn’t rest on their laurels with Akiba’s Beat. The two Akiba’s Trip titles managed to gain a bit of an underground following in their native Japan and saw a burgeoning, if begrudging, popularity begin to build in the west following their release on PlayStation and PC. It was well deserved; the games told a replayable story filled with quirky characters that earns affection without outright demanding it. The beat ’em up system centered around stripping the clothes off of vampire-like Synthesters to expose them to the sun and defeat them, offering numerous opportunities for shenanigans based on the seemingly endless types of weapons. Acquire could have just made another one of these. They didn’t, instead opting for a lengthy JRPG centered around the infamous Akihabara district in Tokyo.
The story centers around Asahi, a NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) that would prefer not having to worry about anything short of sleeping and consuming geeky delights. Perpetually letting his friends down due to his lack of any self discipline, he is introduced as a person with some talents and the charisma to utilize them if only he were to expend any energy in that direction. That would severely cut into his goof off time, though, so he is less than inclined.
After returning home from disappointing his best friend once more, he stumbles across a strange visual distortion near the subway station. Gaping in wonder, his befuddlement is obvious to another, Saki, who sees the same thing. She, along with Pinkun, her small pig-like thing of a companion, explain that only certain people are sensitive enough to observe the distortions Asahi is witnessing. Furthermore, these distortions are delusions brought about by the strong desires of various denizens of Akiba, derisively called Delusers, and they must be destroyed before they encroach on the real world. After some brow beating, our “hero” reluctantly assists and the first delusion is destroyed. There is an added wrinkle, though. When they leave, they discover that they are trapped in an endlessly repeating Sunday, and only a select few even realizes that the same day is repeating over and over.
As a story goes, there are some obvious influences. The past few Persona games are a prime example, since the desires of the heart being given a physical manifestation is handled in an extremely similar fashion. Groundhog’s Day is also present, and promptly acknowledged. The thing is, all of the familiar tropes are mixed up well here, creating an enticing tale that grows in complexity, while being mixed with a loving tribute (and tender roasting) of the otaku culture that permeates Akihabara and the world at large.
The well done localization helps go a long way to achieve this. Everything about the events and location drips in Japanese culture, which is to be expected, but the localization explains the concepts rather well without coming across as condescending. Using Saki as a foil, phenomena like Maid culture or pervy figurines get covered. This also leads into the well realized characterization of all the heroes. It’s a brave choice to introduce the hero of a sixty hour game as a lazy cretin, but it pays off as he grows and changes as a person. Saki isn’t the nicest either, but also undergoes self improvement and lightens up. The maid Moé, the supposedly incredulous Yomato, budding idol Riku and more are all written with a real sense of personality and depth that makes learning more about them an engrossing experience. The only one that really grates is Pinkun. Meant to be comic relief, she is really quite exasperating, with a handful of one liners that are repeated to the point where one wonders how she would taste after some time spent on the grill. Probably not like milk.
Enjoyment of the story does require a small tolerance for plot holes, though. There are just enough scattered around to become a distraction and drive the player mad should they decide to consider it. One goatse level example comes in the form of a side quest undertaken for Saki. A local figure shop has decided to try to cater to the female market, figuring that they were being under served. Saki takes it upon herself to pass out flyers and encourage fans around the area to check it out. The endeavor is successful, and the shop keeper is ecstatic. Cool. Mission accomplished. Except, Sunday is a constantly repeating entity. Once midnight hits, everyone not sensitive to the effects of the delusions will live the same exact day all over again. Meaning, there was no change for the business. New customers never heard of the place. Saki wasted her entire afternoon achieving nothing.
One element that is missing here that is to the detriment of the experience as a whole are character customization aspects found in the last title. Before, there were numerous stores that all sold different items, making it worthwhile to shop around to find the exact right equipment for just an occasion. Here, though, they all seem to carry the same wares. A clothing shop sells the same shirts and hats that the one a couple blocks over has. Same goes for computer shops for weapons upgrades, and so on. Even the map starts off much smaller, with side streets and alleys slowly opening up as the game progresses.
This feeling of scaling down carries through to another feature the was essential to the charm of Akiba’s Trip: cosmetic customization. Previously, different shirt designs, pants, hats, or whatever was reflected in the appearance of the hero. I took great pleasure in making him look as quintessentially “tough guy” as possible, only to equip the most feminine running animation available. There were even different martial arts styles to unlock and use. This is all missing here, with the exception of some premade outfits that are awarded as the game progresses. It appears to use the same tech, so I cannot be certain why this ended up being removed. Certainly, there is a reason.
The actual dungeon crawling and battles are a bit hit or miss. Starting off, and going through the first few chapters, these elements are almost an afterthought. However, they do pick up quite a bit later on. The fighting system borrows liberally from Bandai Namco’s Tales Of series to great effect. Taking place in real time, players can choose a target and move on a 2D plane towards or away the soon to be defeated monster. The third dimension is available by quick dodges or holding the left bumper for free run.
It’s not complicated in practice, but there is something inherently engaging about chaining together numerous basic attacks and skills while team members rain spell damage from the skies. The only limit is the regenerating AP meter, which briefly halts the chain when emptied. Simple upgrades can be purchased and applied to make this less of a problem. The rapidity of the battles also helps go a long way to keeping things from getting too old. When facing off a boss, or when stumbling into a harder set of enemies, there is also a separate special meter that can be used once full. It allows for unlimited AP when activated and bonus damage based on a song playing in the background. In the end, the fights are just different and exciting enough to make them a highlight.
To my dismay, the same cannot be said regarding the dungeons themselves. Each dungeon is basically a series of dull, right angled platforms connected by ramps, having the appearance of being procedurally generated without any of the benefits. Even the treasure chests are floating grey geometrical shapes devoid of personality. Were it not for the thematically appropriate, and admittedly cool, skyboxes in these areas, they would all be completely interchangeable. This is even more disappointing when compared to the Akihabara map, which is covered in all sorts of cool design touches that give the buildings life.
For all of its noticeable issues, Acquire’s risk to try something new in Akihabara pays off. Akiba’s Beat is a superb game for players who want an anime imbued, character driven experience that refuses to take itself seriously. The very enthusiasm that the makers obviously have for their subject pulses through the title, giving it a true personality that helps it stand on its own. It keeps the rhythm like me behind the drum set: the heart is absolutely in it but the sticks get dropped a few times. Fans of the Persona series and those who enjoy otaku culture and its trappings will find plenty of reason to groove to Akiba’s Beat. Just be prepared for the parts when it loses its tempo.