A week after Hatsune Miku finally hit stateside, rhythm fans had something else to look forward to. KickBeat has been on the radar of fans since it was announced. The big worry was that Zen Studios, known primarily for their pinball games, wouldn’t be the best choice to make a great rhythm game. However, let me just start out by saying they did a bang up job. This is one of my favorite games of the year, and nearly beat out the aforementioned Miku game as the best rhythm game of the year.
So the story goes that all of the music that is, was, or ever will be is inside of a mystical sphere. You’ll play as Lee and Mei, two youngsters who are part of the ancient order that guards the sphere. When an evil entertainment mogul steals all of the music, the duo goes on a quest to save the day. What follows is a silly story that doesn’t take itself too serious and kind of follows the plot of many teen movies. There’s the underdog dweeb who saves the day, the butt-kicking female, the wacky old master, and so on. The big speeches are more than a bit hokey, and the jokes will make you face palm more than once, but it works well enough in context. The game’s big downfall is that you end up playing the through the story at least twice in order to see the whole tale. While it’s a great excuse to go through the track list on a higher setting, it feels like a really cheap move overall.
Story mode functions pretty much how you’d expect. Beat one song to unlock the next, and so on. Beating the game on normal unlocks hard, and beating that unlocks the next difficulty setting. It’s a bit of a pain that you’re forced to move up one rank at a time. If you want to jump up to the highest setting, you’re going to have to play through all three prior settings first. There’s also a free play mode, which lets you use different characters and even play boss fight songs with normal enemies. Online leaderboards let you know how you compare to the rest of the world, which might just egg you on to get better. I know I enjoyed seeing myself, briefly, as a top ten player on one song.
One of the biggest selling points of the game is “Beat Your Music”, which is basically a chance to add your own songs to the game. It’s not nearly as sophisticated an offering as what you’ll see in Hatsune Miku, but it does a decent job. You’ll basically pick a song, tell the game about the beat, and let it fill in the blanks. Unfortunately, there’s no way to share your creations online. You’ll have to visit dedicated forums to check out what other people have done. I should mention, though, that it doesn’t take more than a minute or two to get the song added.
Visually, the game is simple, but looks good. The animations, largely dramatic Kung Fu moves, are nicely done, so that they fit with the nature of the game. It would have been a serious pain if you were unable to kick an incoming enemy to the tune of some Blue Stahli song because an animation hadn’t finished. Motion capture was therefore impossible, so it’s great to see the hand made ones came out so well. The lighting is pretty great, especially in the dance club stage. If there is any downfall, it’s that the camera can often get too busy, making it hard to keep your eye on the action. In two of the boss fights, it pulls out to awkward angles, making it more difficult to see where enemies are coming from. The story scenes were also disappointing, as the drawn art doesn’t do the characters any favors, and using stills instead of animations was a mistake.
The soundtrack might initially seem limited. When you see the list of contributing artists, it’s easy to get hung up on the big names like Rob Zombie and Marilyn Manson. However, there’s a pretty good mix of hard rock, rap, and electronic music offered here. Most importantly, the music fits the tone of the game to a tee. When Blue Stahli shouts “I want to take you down” while you punch some dude in the face, it just feels right. It’s not mainstream stuff, so many people aren’t going to be used to it. I just hope that doesn’t stop anyone from enjoying the game. There are only eighteen tracks, which seems low. However, this is a ten dollar game on PSN. Since you have the ability to add your own songs, I’d say that the number of included tracks is fine. It just gets a bit repetitive when you have to play them repeatedly for story purposes.
The rest of the aural package is largely immaterial. The voices are fine for what they are, and the limited effects are okay. Really, the music is what’s important, and the game pretty much nailed it, albeit not in a way that will have mass appeal.
KickBeat uses a simple system that belies the challenging nature of the gameplay. In this game, you’re not just hitting notes to rack up a score. Each beat you need to hit corresponds with an onscreen enemy that is coming to get you. Timing the beat correctly results in you knocking them six ways from Sunday. Missing the beat gets you smacked. Combine that with a limited health bar, and it’s more important than ever to hit every beat.
There are three enemy types. Yellow enemies are the simplest. You simply press the corresponding button when they go to attack. Red enemies come in groups of two or three, meaning you need to hit multiple buttons at the same time. Blue enemies are the hardest. They attack on half beats, so they come at a rapid pace. There are also yellow enemies that are connected by a wave of energy. For these, you need to hold the button after the initial press and release when the second enemy attacks. Enemies come at you from all four directions, with each direction mapped to a face button or the d-pad. You can use either, or alternate between the two.
The key to keeping the beat is to observe the enemies as they circle in to attack. The one that will charge in next is highlighted for you, but you still need to time your attack. Attacking too early or too late will not get the job done. You’ll also need to keep an eye on what enemies are coming next. If you see a blue enemy coming, it’s good to know how many are coming in rapid succession, and in what order you need to hit them. While you’re surrounded at all times, the enemies are all faded out until they get close enough. Then, the colors inform you of what to expect. While some of the levels have poor lighting that makes telling the colors more difficult than would be appreciated, the system still works.
Racking up a high score is the main goal of the game, and there are several ways to do that. Firstly, you beef up your score by stringing together long combos. The combo meter resets when you get hit or when you miss, which means you can’t simply mash the buttons like a mad man. Hitting enemies builds up your chi meter. Activation boosts your score multiplier, which rakes in points like no one’s business. Then there are power-ups that float over some enemies’ heads. Double tapping the attack button gets you the boost. Some simply add points to your score, while others increase your multiplier, refill your health, give you more chi, give you a shield, or give you a blast that wipes out a bunch of enemies without derailing your combo. These boosts get significantly rarer as you move up in difficulty though. In fact, I never saw a health boost after the second setting.
That brings me to the next point. This is not an easy game. You’ll likely be able to get through normal without much difficulty. You’re able to see the button prompts onscreen, and there are fewer enemies. After that though, you’re on your own for the most part. Enemies will hit harder and there are a lot more of them. On the expert setting, I have lots of trouble. Of course, I can now go through the normal setting like it was nothing. Fans of a good challenge will find this game more than willing to comply.
For some bonus fun, this is a cross-buy game, so you’ll get both the Vita and PS3 versions for the same low price. I love it when they do that. If I ever finally get a Vita, this is going on there and staying on there for a long time.
Short Attention Span Summary
KickBeat is another great entry for the rhythm genre this year. It seems simple at first, but kicking bad guys to the beat of heavy metal and electronic music is simply a great idea. The soundtrack fits the game like a glove, and the challenging difficulty will have you coming back for more. While there aren’t that many songs, you’re able to add your own with little hassle. Add in online leaderboards that dare you to do better, and this becomes a must play for any fan of the genre. If you’re still unsure, try the demo. I bet you’ll love it.