If you're a fan of Japan and its wonderful culture then you'll probably be aware of Akihabara, a district in Tokyo filled with all manner of delights that will get any otaku salivating at the thought of it. It's a haven for geeks with plenty of shops filled with anime, manga, collectable cards and figurines, as well as maid cafés for when you need somewhere to rest your weary feet.
Akiba's Beat is set in this vibrant neon filled district and you get to play as Asahi Tachibana, a college drop-out and self-professed NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training). He's proud of his NEET status and his idea of a busy day involves reading manga, playing video games, and grabbing lunch in Akiba. Of course the game would be a little dull if it was just about watching Asahi have long lie-ins and wandering around Akihabara, so thankfully there's slightly more to it than that.
It's not long into the game before Asahi realises that he's trapped in a time-loop with the same Sunday repeating over and over again. This region of Tokyo is filled with people with really strong passions and desires, and for some unknown reason otaku daydreams and delusions are becoming reality, so it's down to Asahi and his colourful group of teenage friends to nullify these delusions and save Akihabara.
Akihabara acts as the game's hub and you'll be wandering around this area trying to track down information about said delusions. Delusionscapes are rifts in reality that only a select few can see, and act as the game's dungeons. To gain entry to these dungeons you'll need to uncover the person responsible for the delusion and rattle them somehow which will make the door to the dungeon appear. Each dungeon looks very different and takes on its appearance based on the person's delusion. There are lots of different themes such as idol, maid, and even audio and electric appliance dungeons. Although the majority of dungeons have quite simple layouts, the very vivid and twisted visual themes of each dungeon helps to keep things interesting.
The combat system feels similar to the Tales series but a lot less free flowing. Enemies appear on screen and if you manage to hit them first then you'll gain a pre-emptive strike at the beginning of the battle. Once in combat you have the ability to perform basic attacks and skills. In the early parts of the game you'll only be able to hit an enemy four times until you have to pause and wait for your beat meter to regenerate. This makes the combat feel a bit slow and chunky as you'll constantly just be repeating a cycle of attacking a few times, jumping away, waiting to recharge, and then jumping back into combat. You'll just repeat this cycle over and over until all enemies are destroyed. Combat does pick up a bit once you get your hands on some better gear and you can attack for longer before needing to recharge, but it still tends to feel sluggish.
One pretty nifty feature in battle is the Imagination Gauge. While fighting your Imagination Gauge rises, and once it fills to certain points you can power up your character for a brief period of time. If you activate the gauge while it's completely filled then a song will start to play in the background and the stats for your whole party will improve. You can equip different songs and the background and stat changes will vary depending on the song. While the song is active you have an unlimited number of beats, this will make you feel pretty powerful as you'll no longer be constantly ducking away to recharge – instead you can go all out and lay the smack down.
Unfortunately, even with the Imagination Gauge, combat is not particularly interesting; most of the time you'll just be button mashing your way through it with ease. Aiding the repetitive feel of combat is the fact that there are a limited number of enemy designs; the colour schemes will change depending on the dungeon you're in, but they are still quite obviously the same enemies just with different stats.
Although the combat is a disappointment, the real highlight of the game is its characters and story. There's Saki, a very serious girl who spouts all kinds of video game tropes which Asahi makes fun of, and Pinkun, a cute plushy-like familiar with a very barbed tongue who loves to criticise Asahi and his NEET status – as well as Riyu (an idol wannabe), Kotomi (a gothic lolita), and Yamato (the emo geek). You'll meet plenty of eccentric side characters through your journey and it's hard not to feel attached to them as you watch them become close friends and hunt down all the mysteries surrounding the delusions. Watching all the characters interact is entertaining and the writing is quite funny at times. The game doesn't take itself too seriously and regularly pokes fun at itself as it throws around plenty of pop culture references.
It's a good job that the characters are so engaging as you'll spend a lot of your time just watching cutscenes. You'll probably spend more time listening to the characters chat than you will traipsing through dungeons. This is especially true if you spend time completing all of the side-missions, as quests generally involve just running around Akihabara to activate the next cutscene. Fortunately, the character portraits are all beautifully animated with vibrant designs and great voice acting, which really helps to bring the characters to life and make these scenes worth viewing.
You'll spend far more of your time watching cutscenes then you will exploring dungeons and defeating enemies, so while the combat system is quite basic, the eclectic mix of characters and twisting storylines will hold your interest through to the end. Thus, if you think of Akiba's Beat as a visual novel with some light gameplay elements instead of thinking of it as an action RPG, then you'll probably enjoy it a whole lot more.