It's a tall order, but once you really get going and it takes off its training wheels, KickBeat starts to shine -- you just might have to charge through some repetitive content to get there.
KickBeat (PS3, Vita [reviewed])
Developer: Zen Studios
Publisher: Zen Studios
Released: September 3, 2013
MSRP: $9.99 (Cross-Buy)
Set to the backdrop of a relatively hokey (and somewhat endearing) story involving kung fu and music, KickBeat pits you against enemies in a small, circular arena, as they all fall in one by one to beat your face in. Foes come in a yellow, blue, and red variety, which signify different beats -- single, double, and simultaneous beats respectively. As enemies fall in, they'll come at you in a certain direction, which is tied to the placement of a face button -- so, up for the triangle button, left for square, and so on. The moment the enemy steps up (the "next up" is highlighted in white), you hit the appropriate button. It's that simple.
At least, when the game is giving you tons of simple yellow enemies -- notes, so to speak -- it's simple. Then the game mixes things up with quicker notes, enemies with auras that require you to hold a note then release, two notes at the same time (reds), power-ups, and a star-power like mechanic. The Vita has the added mechanic of allowing touch-screen controls, but it's not really a game-changer as I ended up using the face buttons again shortly after testing it.
Unlike most rhythm games, having a health meter on-hand actually makes sense, since getting hit will literally lessen your bar, leaving you one step closer to a failed song. As you're beating up people you'll earn Chi, which functions similar to Rock Band's star power. It helps to earn you more points and is best used when going for a high combo rate.
Some enemies have icons above their heads, which you can grab if you hit the button a second time right after kicking them (which can get really tough when there are lots of blue and red dudes). There's an attack power-up to quickly blast on-screen baddies, a shield to block a few attacks, health, and extra points. Together, all of these mechanics combine into one incredibly satisfying game that delivers enough excitement to keep you going.
If you've played rhythm games before you will want to jump straight into hard difficulty. It rids the screen of the QTE-like button cues and adds a whole new dimension to the game since you have to constantly pay attention and go with your instincts. It's kind of like the harder difficulties in Rocksteady's Arkham games that eliminate the counter prompts -- much more challenging and a whole lot of fun.
The humble Lee is one of the stars of the game's story mode, and he's mostly forgettable, as the gameplay is clearly the focus of KickBeat. The story itself has its highs and lows involving a typical Saturday morning cartoon big bad, but once it was all said and done, I just wanted to play more challenging songs rather than ever go through it again. At first I had a concern over the lack of enemy variety since the first few levels just featured ninjas, but this was alleviated later on in the game as wrestlers, hi-tech soldiers, and more show up for a beat down.
Of course, a rhythm game is only as good as its track list, and as soon as some of you hear what's on offer you may be running for the hills. You ready for some name drops? Marilyn Manson, P.O.D., Papa Roach. Wait, where are you going?! While there are a few questionable rap, rock, and nu metal tracks on offer that'll make you recall your most awkward of high school moments, they're completely tolerable when combined with the strong gameplay foundation KickBeat offers. I wasn't blown away by the less popular tracks, but for the most part I did enjoy them and I didn't feel compelled to quit any of them since I was having so much fun.
After you're done with story mode you can tackle Mai's quest (the second star of the campaign, who basically has the exact same progression as Lee, just with different cutscenes), free play mode, Beat Your Music mode, and Survival. Sadly, all of these aren't on offer right away, as you have to complete the story mode multiple times to unlock everything. My biggest disappointment was learning that I couldn't just play any song I wanted on any difficulty. You have to actually beat that song in the respective difficulty's story mode first.
For instance, I started playing through the story twice on normal, then tackled a few hard songs before I quickly realized that I was more than ready for Master, but I couldn't play my song of choice in Master mode until I beat every level on hard, then completed every single Master stage to unlock everything. It's a really jarring and backwards way of withholding content, especially for rhythm gurus who could even start on Master without working their way through the remedial levels. On top of all this, you have to beat the game nearly four times to unlock Survival mode, which is an incredibly odd design choice.
Beat Your Music is where you're going to get the most legs out of KickBeat though, and it doesn't require too much effort to unlock. If you can't stand the soundtrack, you can import songs, score the BPM, and play custom levels. The way it works is you put a song on your PS3 or Vita, tap a button to "find" the rhythm, and the game will provide an enemy set for it. It's set up very similarly to Audiosurf in that it's not perfect, but it works well enough to keep things interesting and fun.
KickBeat's polarizing soundtrack is perhaps its toughest sell, but if you can overcome it with an open mind and dig into Beat Your Music, there's a really solid rhythm game underneath it that'll have you tapping your feet (and your fingers) for quite some time. I really wish the developers had more content unlocked at the start, but if you have a bit of patience you'll have a blast in no time.
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