Kickbeat Review (PS3/PS Vita)
Guitar Hero Kung Fu? Dance Central: Kick People in the Face Edition? Audio Surf with ninjas? There’s a lot of different ways to describe Kickbeat, but until you play it you won’t really understand it. It may take inspiration from other rhythm action games, but it blends them to create something unique. The rhythm action genre has become somewhat moribund, so it’s exciting to see a company like Zen Studio’s step up and try something new with this unfashionable genre. They have achieved a good measure of success too, although a number of bad decisions hold Kickbeat back from true greatness.
You’re first impressions are likely to be mixed. Kickbeat’s presentation is good, with well detailed characters and animation. As you play through the tutorial you’ll also quickly realise that this is a difficult game, and there’s a learning curve akin to the first time you picked up a plastic guitar. The tutorial is fairly long, and it has to convey a lot of information about the games systems. Even when you’re struggling to get to grips with your timing, you’ll still be impressed by the Kung Fu action on screen that your button presses are eliciting.
Less impressive are the opening moments of the campaign where you experience Kickbeats story. A placeholder tale of stolen musical energy, Shaolin Monks, temples and ninjas combines with some awkward humour and truly awful semi-animated cut scenes. When a developer uses awful 2D art with poor animation and tries to make it a virtue it’s always painfully clear that they didn’t have the money or resources to craft a proper cut scene. This is always worse when you have amazing character models and animation, making for awkward transitions from ugly cut scenes to lovely in game visuals. Why are you making me watch a half-assed set of comic panels when you could just skip this poorly told story and get me into the game? Static text boxes would have been preferable.
When you get into the actual gameplay you’ll quickly find the awkward story isn’t an issue at all. When the gameplay of Kickbeat hits, it hits hard. This is a fantastically absorbing game, and when you find a song you like and get into a state of flow, it has that perfect combination of music and gameplay. Sometimes they call it synesthesia; essentially it’s a perfect blend of audio and video that takes you into a whole other world.
Just like in a classic Kung Fu flick, you stand in the middle of a ring of circling enemies. Prepared for your enemy to strike from any direction, your avatar is poised to kick some ass.
The enemies attack to the beat of the music, and you simply press a button to hit each enemy as they attack from different directions. The enemies will attack from top, bottom, left or right, and each of the face buttons attacks in one of those directions. Your character acrobatically flips and jumps and kicks from one opponent to the next, with animation that perfectly matches their position relative to the enemies. The really cool part is how fluid and slick this animation is and how your character holds their position. For example, if they are standing on one foot (karate kid style) after hitting an enemy, they will stay like this until your next opponent attacks, at which point they will smoothly animate into another attack. This results in some truly beautiful balletic combat, and watching your character transition smoothly from one attack to the next, all to the rhythm of the music, is viscerally thrilling. Full disclosure: I love Kung Fu movies and rhythm action games so I’m a bit biased, but I think anyone would love the gameplay if they took the time to learn to play.
Although pressing buttons to hit enemies as they approach is simple enough, there’s a lot more to the game. Each button press has to be perfectly timed to get maximum points, with less accurate hits of “great” or “good” successfully hitting an opponent, but earning you less. The enemies often come in different colours to show you when they will attack, with yellow enemies attacking on the beat, blue attacking on half beats and red enemies attacking two at a time, requiring you to hit two buttons.
When the red enemies first appear its a little frustrating, as hitting two buttons with “perfect” timing for maximum points is a little tricky. Sadly, there’s a number of other gameplay features that are similarly unwelcome. Some enemies will have power-ups and bonus scores floating above their heads. To collect these, you have to tap the appropriate attack button twice. This really messes with your rhythm and breaks the flow of the game. It wouldn’t be a big issue if these power-ups and bonuses were infrequent, but in many songs the majority of enemies require this double tap. To deal with this you end up double tapping every opponent, then you get frustrated when a single tap opponent appears and you press the button twice, thus ending your score multiplier. There are also enemies who have streaks of light between them, and to get the most points for these enemies you have to hold the button down for the first enemy, and release it to attack the second.
On higher difficulties you have to successfully double tap the power up enemies and hold the attack button for the enemies with light between them or you lose your score multiplier, making the game lose it’s immediacy and simplicity and making it feel unwieldy and clumsy.
Worst of all, at the higher difficulties you no longer see the onscreen prompt telling you which button to press. This completely ruins the experience, as you are now playing a game that’s less about timing and rhythm and more about spotting which little enemies are about to attack you. At these higher difficulties the game requires rote learning and loses all appeal. It’s a real shame, and shows the developers might know how to craft a good gameplay experience but have no idea how to cater to different player skill levels. I can’t stress enough how heartbreaking this was, because on the first two difficulty levels I was completely addicted to Kickbeat. When I got to the higher difficulty levels the game lost all its appeal.
There’s also some strange issues with Kickbeats campaign. You play through the story first as Lee, a young cleaner-turned-Kung-Fu-guy who sets off to recover a glowing ball of blue musical energy (I think) from some evil corporate type. When you get to the end of his story, it seems you are supposed to play as a young female warrior called Wei. However, it’s not clear if you’re supposed to simply play all the songs again (as they are all now unlocked) or play on a higher difficulty or… what? I had no idea. Eventually I fineshed the campaign with her too, but she has to play through all the same songs, boss battles and stages again. It’s a sign that Zen Studios aren’t really sure how the progression of a rhythm action game should work. Either that or the game is spread too thin and needed a bigger track list.
The songs are a mixed bag. The hip hop included works brilliantly, and even if you’re not a fan of the genre there’s still a brilliant synergy between rapping and solid, predictable beats and Kickbeats syncopated combat. The metal meanwhile is pretty awful (e.g P.O.D, Celldweller) and works poorly in the game. Complex stop-start rhythms break the gameplay up, and the scream-y vocals are awful to play along to. The dance music (e.g. Pendulum), is often enjoyable, but much of it is remixed meaning that if you’re familiar with the original songs you will be thrown off by these alternate versions. Also, music game design 101: don’t include songs with DJ-style scratching in your rhythm action game as it completely messes up the players timing.
Any disappointment you may have at the short and somewhat obscure playlist is offset hugely by the fact that you can import your own music. Obviously this is one of the most awesome things Zen Studios could have implemented, and a generous feature too. This kind of feature could mean they lose out on DLC sales of additional tracks, so I can’t commend them highly enough for this inclusion. Nicely done Zen Studios. Nicely done indeed.
When I first got my hands on Kickbeat I was completely blown away. It seemed like an exciting new direction for rhythm action games and a perfect combination of acrobatic martial arts and music. As I spent more time with it, it slid lower in my affections… but not much lower. Kickbeat is still one of may favourite games of the year. There are a lot of creases to be ironed out, but if Zen Studios made some little adjustments (and added a lot more tracks), Kickbeat 2 could completely revolutionise and reinvigorate the whole genre.
In Kickbeat I remember the moment where I completely fell in love with it. I was fighting wrestlers who looked like The Ultimate Warrior, and I was wracking up a huge combo. I was playing along to some dubstep by The Voician’s, and my whole body was moving. I wasn’t just tapping my toes or bobbing my head. I looked like one of those gamers you see in advertisements or TV programs made by people who have no idea what games are like. I looked ridiculous, bobbing around and rocking out; I was in a whole other world. At its best moments, whether it’s in the epic boss battles or just during the sections where I was playing very well and wracking up huge scores, Kickbeat was one of the best gaming experience I’ve had this year.
4 white reviewers who aint got no rhythm out of 5Kickbeat Review (PS3/PS Vita),