Developer Zen Studios already stepped out of their comfort zone of pinball sims with the solid CastleStorm earlier this year, and now they are tackling another genre new to them with the rhythm title KickBeat. The game is an interesting package overall, taking standard rhythm game elements and applying a brawler sensibility to the presentation. And while not every aspect of it works, there are still positive aspects to the overall package.
KickBeat does have a main campaign, which is mandatory to play through at least once to unlock several other modes. However, unlike most rhythm games these days, there’s an actual plot to tie things together. The downside is that this plot is pretty weak and forgettable. There’s an ancient order dedicated to protecting a sphere that houses the energy of all music, which an evil corporate mogul screws up for his own selfish needs, and two characters from the order, Lee & Mei, set out to make things right.
Characters don’t have much personality, Lee’s voice sounds overly nasally, and attempts at humor, like a Justin Bieber joke early on, fall completely flat. There are two separate campaigns to play through, with Mei’s being unlocked after completing Lee’s, but the track list is unfortunately the same across both of them, with only a new set of sparsely animated cutscenes to entice players.
Storywise, KickBeat may be a dud, but it’s thankfully the actual gameplay that is the main draw. Each level places your character of choice in the center of a circular arena, with waves of enemies circling around them and moving in for an attack. Enemies approach from the top, bottom, left, and right, corresponding with either the D-pad or the four face buttons on the PS3 and Vita controllers (either set can be used). If the correct button relating to an enemy is pressed at the precise moment, your character will beat that particular enemy to the punch, take them out, and earn points. And seeing how this is musically oriented, you can expect to have the enemy attacks syncing up with beats, lyrics, and instruments for each background song.
At its core, this is no different from such methods as hitting the arrows at the right point in Dance Dance Revolution, or the note gems in Guitar Hero and Rock Band, but the way it’s presented does make it feel a bit more fresh and unique. That said, the game has a noticeable learning curve to it. When you consider factors like the large amounts of enemies, the flashing lights of particular levels, and the fact that button symbols that appear to help guide your input are removed on higher difficulties, you’re looking at a game that even myself, a rhythm game veteran, had trouble mastering on its default difficulty.
Though you’ll probably screw up often for a while after first starting to play, it is possible to get the hang of it, and at certain points, the game can put you into that engaging groove that the best rhythm games create. The song list, while not a clean sweep in terms of quality, still has some good tracks from both iconic artists such as Pendulum, Marilyn Manson, and Papa Roach, as well as some unknown indie musicians.
There are other modes to play besides the campaign, including split-screen multiplayer, but one of the game’s biggest selling points is the ability to import MP3s that you have stored to your console’s memory and create playable levels out of them, Audiosurf-style. A major downside to this feature is that you have to complete the entirety of the original Lee campaign to enable it, and while the story doesn’t take that long to finish, it will frustrate players who are more interested in using their own tracks.
Another downside, at least for myself, is a bevy of technical problems in the PS3 version’s custom track mode that ultimately left me unable to try it out. The first two songs I tried importing didn’t play any sound when their gameplay started, and the third caused the game to get stuck on its loading screen. As a result, I can’t say how well this mode works, but hopefully a future patch can address this issue.
The game supports Sony’s Cross-Buy promotion, meaning that buying the PS3 version will also net you the Vita version at no extra cost. It looks practically identical on both platforms, and plays the exact same as well, though Vita owners also have the alternative option of using the system’s touch screen for gameplay inputs instead of buttons.
KickBeat has numerous problems both in its technical aspects and its presentation, but the actual gameplay is quite fun once you get the hang of it. I’d recommend it to rhythm game enthusiasts much more than novices due to the learning curve, and even then I still want to drop a warning that it takes some practice, but is ultimately rewarding for those who are willing to invest time into it.
This review is based on the PlayStation 3 and Vita versions of the game, which we received for review purposes.
KickBeat has a forgettable story and technical problems, but the core gameplay is fun enough to recommend it to fans of rhythm games.