by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
Rhythm and beat 'em up
KickBeat, developed by Zen Studios, seems like it was ripped straight out of the early 2000s. It’s a rhythm based game with bright lights, fast paced techno music, and four way directional controls that are hardly a far cry from the Dance Dance Revolution machines that dominated my local arcade during my early teenage years. It isn’t an overly complicated game, relying on the same handful of mechanics regardless of progression or difficulty level, but it’s got an interesting enough premise to set it apart from most others in its genre. Instead of dancing or just hitting beats, players use their rhythm and timing to fight hordes of enemies in over-the-top martial arts duels. Unfortunately, a few flaws hold KickBeat back from greatness and keep it tied down in the nets of mediocrity.
The core concept of KickBeat isn’t terribly complicated. Players control a Kung-Fu fighter who stands in the middle of a circle while a gang of baddies attacks them to the rhythm of the song being played. Enemies come at the player from either the direct top, bottom, left, or right of the middle circle, and the player must hit the corresponding direction at precisely the right time to defeat that antagonist and avoid taking damage. I personally found the game’s directional mechanic to work a lot better when I connected my Xbox 360 controller than my keyboard as the gamepad buttons both matched the screen better in layout and in color (each direction matches the A, B, Y, and X buttons), but there is certainly nothing broken about traditional controls for those without both options. Take too many hits and you’ll fail, forcing you to restart the song from the beginning. There are a few additional features that make it a little more complicated than that, but for the most part this formula remains unchanged for the duration of the game.
Side effects may include: Sore thumbs
As is the case with most rhythm based games, KickBeat’s gameplay can actually get pretty frantic and nerve-wracking despite its premise of “hit a direction.” There are a number of different enemy types, represented by colors, that each attack a little bit differently. Standard yellow enemies attack on down-beats, blue baddies attack on half beats, and red foes attack two or three at a time, requiring simultaneous button presses. It’s easy at first, but when swarms of all three start coming in you almost have to go into “the zone” and rely on your twitch instincts to process both visual color information and aural cues from the music to pull off complex directional streaks. There just isn’t time to manually watch every enemy and consciously plan what you’ll be hitting. Other elements at play include orbs that appear above enemies’ heads that can be captured by double tapping their direction to collect health, bonus points, or temporary offensive/defensive power-ups. The only thing that really matters is piling up a huge score multiplier by landing consecutive hits without being hit, so utilizing orbs, powerups, and chi (a meter that fills up with successful streaks to temporarily double your multiplier) takes some strategy to reach the tops of the score board.
Despite there being fights going on literally the whole game outside of the cut-scenes, calling the gameplay in KickBeat combat really isn’t very accurate. While correct button input results in impressive looking Kung-Fu being unleashed on those unlucky enough to stand in your way, there aren’t different attacks, you can’t manually move around the screen, different enemies don’t require certain strategies, etc. It’s all just eye candy. KickBeat could have just as easily been a rhythm-anything game and it wouldn’t have played any differently. I understand that the game is trying to be a rhythm game and not a brawler, but as long as the concept is there I would have really liked it to at least play into the gameplay a little bit beyond acting as a cue on when to hit a button.
Reliable core mechanics that work well. Enjoyably over-the-top 'tone'.
Soundtrack leaves something to be desired. “Combat” is disappointingly shallow.