Platforms: PC, PS3, Vita (Cross Buy)
Developer: Zen Studios
Publisher: Zen Studios
Ratings: T (ESRB)
On the face of it, the idea of putting kung fu and a music-based rhythm game together sounds a little bizarre. Kickbeat is in fact a good and surprisingly addictive game, with an interesting concept that has been generally well executed. Unfortunately, there are a number of problems that prevent it from really standing out – while it turns out to be a good rhythm game, it’s also less successful as a beat-em-up.
The basic premise of the game is pretty straight forward; you are a young acolyte monk who has been tasked with recovering the “sphere”, a radiant object which embodies the spirit of every song in the world, though that never felt particularly relevant. Basically, you achieve this by defeating your enemies in kung fu sequences performed in time with an overlaid music track. Its a musical rhythm game, expect you’re not making music, but rather using music and rhythm as a means to deal damage to your enemies. It’s actually a very neat idea which, despite my initial uncertainty, led to a quite fun, sometimes downright enjoyable, often infuriating, game experience.
Much of the initial challenge is offset once you basically filter out the visuals and focus tightly on what is happening immediately around your character, and when you listen closely to the music. But that difficulty never really goes away, which unfortunately can, at times, make it a bit of a grind. Especially in the later levels and at harder difficulty settings, there was a sense that you could only beat the levels by practice, rather than skill. It is, in other words, a little bit too hard – unless that’s your thing, then it can be very infuriating. Moreover, because of the amount of activity going on at any one time, there are a lot of ways to get put off. With better design and a better arrangement of what you see on screen, this could have made it a much more enjoyable, yet still challenging, experience.
The rhythm combat itself has a number of extra elements which are designed to help you tackle the challenging combat – these include power ups and health bonuses which enable you to cling to life while unleashing more powerful area attacks that can take the pressure off, even if just for a while. It’s a nice extra touch but when you’re really playing fast, it’s easy to forget them in the rush. At the same time, the combat half of the music-fighting equation felt like it had received less attention, and was in the backseat to the music. If you’re looking for a beat-em-up, this isn’t it.
Its visuals are nicely rendered and smooth, even for lower end systems. This is essential for a game where you need to pay minute attention to what’s going on around you. There are some very nicely rendered and well timed slow motion sequences which add a sense of wow and accomplishment to a successful combo attack. Basically, it looks great and fun and vibrant. There’s also a good depth and replay value in order to achieve those coveted five stars for each level, to boost your points and to put yourself onto the leader boards. It’s a game that definitely repays time invested. Or rather, you have to invest the time to beat it.
My problems relate mainly to the often grindingly difficult gameplay and steep learning curve, and also the perhaps too overloaded arena on which you perform your fight/dance sequences. After you go beyond the “normal” difficulty you lose the coloured circles which guide you to where your next assailant will appear from. For a little while you’re thrown into disarray while attempting to make sense of the mush and rush of attacks that rain down on you. This is a little frustrating, and I believe there could be perhaps more attention to how information and actions appear in this arena. While you know you should be double kicking to snag bonuses and health from approaching enemies, this can quickly dissolve into an unhappy mashing of buttons and, quickly, death if you’re not on the ball fast enough. That being said, it is oddly addictive despite the challenge, but it is almost always an uphill struggle.
Its music is, understandably, an important part of the game. The tracks are all equally head-nodding and catchy and, when you succeed in chaining attacks together in time with the music, produce a genuinely satisfying effect which left me responding with a smile and a nod. And while this is a very effective and interesting mechanic, there were times when it felt as if the attack patterns were not really in time with the music at all, which caused me to occasionally draw out of the game as my ears and brain tried to match up with something that wasn’t quite there. For the most part this wasn’t the case, and it was actually very smooth, but there were moments of removal which spoiled the experience.
In terms of actually playing the game, physically, I’d definitely recommend playing Kickbeat with a peripheral rather than the keyboard; the keyboard is just less responsive and too poorly designed to suit the tight clustering of controls that you need for a game like Kickbeat. On a number of occasions I pressed the wrong key, only to ruin my entire sequence, or slipped my fingers to the wrong command and sent my character flailing in the wrong direction entirely. I’d also recommend playing with headphones. Mainly because it looked like I’d taken a suddenly alarming interest in house music.
If you are into challenging rhythm games which require a high level of manual dexterity, and you have a lot of time to invest in practising and learning the levels, then you’ll happily get on with Kickbeat’s anarchic and unusual contribution. It’s good looking, fun, and has some head-nodding music and ideas to play around with. At the same time, it has some pacing, design and difficulty issues which could be managed and adjusted in order to broaden the game’s appeal. It’s not for everyone, but it is definitely worth a look if this is a genre that you’re even faintly interested in.