At first I was worried that a few hurdles would stand in the way of me enjoying KickBeat. The art style wasn’t quite my cup of tea, the circling aggressors as input markers felt visually messy, and the tracklist featuring Marilyn Manson, P.O.D., Papa Roach, and Blue Stahli (who I’d only heard of due to the frightening amount of Devil May Cry combo videos I’ve watched) could be unflatteringly described as “angry white boy music.”
My skepticism persisted into the music-free tutorial. It made things seem pretty simple at first, enemies hop out of the surrounding group of foes and circle you for about 90 degrees until they attack and you press the button corresponding to the direction they’re approaching from.
Each enemy is color-coded. Yellow enemies attack on beats, Blue enemies attack on half-beats (often in groups of two or three), and Red enemies attack in groups (which requires you to press multiple buttons at once to take them out). On occasion, yellow enemies will have a trail that connects them, which requests that you hold the button after you strike the first enemy and releasing when the second attacks. Beat up a bunch of enemies without taking a hit and you’ll get a score multiplier. Beating enemies will also build up your chi, which works much like Guitar Hero’s “Star Power.” Fill up the meter and activate it to double your multiplier (and make your character transparent) for a bit. Take damage and your chi and health meters drop. Run out of health, and the song is over.
If an enemy has an “orb” over their head, you can press the attack button twice to collect 500 extra points, a chi boost, an increase to your multiplier, a temporary shield that will prevent you from taking damage, or a burst of sorts that will destroy any enemies circling you (these last two can be saved for when you need them). I found it a bit weird at first, since there’s no audio cue that tells you whether you got the orb or not, and putting items in the middle of a rhythm game initially felt counterintuitive. That said, once I got a hold of things, I noticed how the enemies with power ups tied to the music, adding an extra button press to match beats in situations that would be hard to force another attacker into.
The opening cutscene introduced one of our heroes, Lee, locked in a cell and explaining that he was one of the monks tasked with keeping care of the “sound sphere,” which contains all music there is, was, and will ever be. He flashes back to his dojo being attacked and the sound sphere being stolen, and the game begins with him leaping into an arena, surrounded by goons and… I started flailing.
At first I was struggling even on Normal difficulty. Normal even has the game simplify reading incoming attacks for you. It puts pads on the ground to represent which buttons you’ll need to press, and even lights up when your enemies step on them, indicating that the enemy can be dealt with. It even illuminates further when they’re about to attack, indicating that hitting them will result in a perfect strike, which results in more points. Somehow, even with these training wheels, I still took hits left and right, relying on the extra health normal gave me to get through.
I restarted before I was halfway through the song, frustrated and knowing I could do better. As the singer of Pre-Fight Hype rap-rocked his way through the song, I started matching his beats a little bit better. On a certain beat, all of a sudden, the game slows down Lee’s typically speedy enemy-destruction and zooms in on him countering an incoming punch and kicking his enemy away, all synced up quite nicely to things the singer was saying about “causing a reaction” and “lights, camera, action.”
In that single moment of unified stylish animation, violence, and aggressive music, KickBeat captured me. I was completely engaged. The lyrics of the songs that I’d normally find somewhat silly gave way to how well synchronized the songs were to the onscreen combat. Lee would move gracefully from one enemy to the next, toss blue enemies into each other, and simply tear through crowds of enemies as long as I kept my timing on point. Watching my character take down a group of enemies in stylish ways (especially in slow motion) became its own reward. The combination of the action and the music kept me going, whether I was fighting ravers or dodging missiles fired by a hellicopter.
I worked through all 18 tracks of Lee’s story in an afternoon, repeating certain ones to get better star ranks on them. During this time, I realized that if I was able to hit each enemy in a certain section of a song, regardless of whether I grabbed their orbs or successfully pulled off the held notes, I’d get more points for a “Perfect Section Bonus.” I felt like I was on top of the world.
Then I tried Hard difficulty, which is where KickBeat began to take its true shape. The button prompts were eliminated, and for a few attempts at the first track, I had no idea what was going on. However, a quick breather made me realize that the next enemy to attack was illuminated, and the more I simply relied on the music, the better I’d do. As I played through the second character Mei’s storyline (which were the exact same 18 tracks as Lee’s), I also started to see the significance of item-carrying enemies in terms of matching the song’s beat… which was even better for Expert and Master modes, as they demanded that each orb be absorbed so as to not break your combo.
After a few runs through story mode on various difficulties, I tried the game’s “Beat Your Music” mode, which allows you to import your own songs into the game with only a few taps of a button to help find the song’s beat. Perhaps it was user error, but each song I tried had some very off-beat moments in it. When it synced up, it was cool, but there were enough awkward moments (even after multiple attempts to correct my beat-matching) that I went back to playing the game’s regular tracklist before too long. There’s a level of quality to those tracks that I couldn’t quite match with the automatically generated stuff.
Food for Thought:
1. While the game’s storyline is pretty cheesy and has a couple of groan-worthy jokes, I was nevertheless interested to see how it played out.
2. As much as I was skeptical about Zen Studios’s choice of songs in the beginning, I enjoy all of them but one, and the majority of them are stuck in my head as I write this.
3. Although I liked the game’s difficulty curve, people with a more natural inclination towards rhythm games might be a bit disappointed to know that you can’t play a song in free play on any difficulty without having beaten it on that difficulty in story mode first.