Most rhythm games are pretty clear with their musical intentions. Dance Central, DJ Hero, Def Jam Rapstar, Parappa the Rapper, and even music-infused action games like Brutal Legend imply their tastes right there in the title. Kickbeat, you might guess, is a blend of fighting and music, but the style of music is quite a surprise, and it isn’t necessarily a pleasant one.
In Kickbeat you play as Lee or Mei, two warriors of The Order of the Melodic fist, who fight to defend the Sphere of Music, the source of all musical energy. The story is primarily an excuse to blend Kung Fu action sequences with music. Each stage places you in the center of an arena, with color-coded enemies coming in from four sides, who must be dispatched to the beat of a song using the PS Vita face buttons or D-pad.
That premise leaves the game open to just about genre of music. Matrix-esque dance music, dubstep, Wu-Tang Clan, Carl Douglas’s Kung Fu Fighting, the Mortal Kombat theme song, Vanilla Ice’s Ninja Rap, these are the kinds of things that come to mind when blending fight scenes with music. But Kickbeat’s highlights are Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie, P.O.D, and Papa Roach. The rest of the track list falls strictly within that sort of rap-rock, pop-metal mindset.
It’s a genre choice that makes Kickbeat a love-it-or-hate it proposition before the gameplay even begins. For a game that features a story about the importance of all forms of music, this narrow-minded selection can be hard to swallow. Personally, while I find some of these songs to be a guilty pleasure of my teenage years, the chugga-chugga guitar riffs and screamy, tormented lyrics become an earache over extended game time. To make matters worse, the songs don’t mesh well with the story or the visuals, which often go for a Tron-esque light show rather than a grimy moshpit.
The gameplay itself is a lot stronger than the music selection, even if its fundamentals feel a little misguided. You see, whereas most rhythm games are simply exercises in timing and dexterity, Kickbeat’s challenges are often more about figuring out what button you should press next. Enemies circle into your view like a typical Kung Fu fight scene. The game color codes each bad guy so you know when and how to attack — yellow to attack on full-notes, blue to attack on half-notes, and red when you have to hit more than one button. It even highlights the next enemy in white. Still, on higher difficulties or songs with lots of blue guys, the “note-chart” is really difficult to parse.
This difference in philosophy from games like Rock Band, where a simple grid perfectly illustrates what buttons need to be pressed, makes for a unique spin on rhythm games. It gives the game a bit more context, and simulates the feeling of figuring out a crowd of enemies, taking them on as one warrior. At the same time, failing because the visuals are confusing is much more frustrating than failing because you can’t hit the buttons with enough skill. Failure in Kickbeat is made worse when the song you’re stuck on is absolutely awful.
Failure is even tougher to swallow due to how the game doles out content. From the beginning all you have is a tutorial and story mode for Lee. You have to play the first song to unlock the second song (and so on), and you have to finish the entire game to unlock harder difficulties and the ability to play as Mei. From there you get Free Play, but you can’t play any songs you haven’t already completed in Story Mode. When the only way to see new content is to progress past a song you don’t want to hear any longer, it becomes an easy game to turn off.
Kickbeat smartly features the ability to import your own music into the game, and the tool for syncing gameplay to your song is relatively easy to use. The only problem is that there’s no way to put in all those extra touches that the included songs feature. The algorithm the game uses isn’t smart enough to highlight certain parts of imported songs, so even though the beat matches up, the melding of gameplay and music just isn’t there. I understand why the feature is there and operates as it does, but it’s ultimately rendered useless without a way to handcraft the gameplay and share your custom tracks with other players.
There is a cross-section of people who are going to adore Kickbeat — it is a polished, well-made game — but ultimately your musical tastes will go a long way. Hearing the same songs over and over again when you love them is entirely different from hearing them over and over when you hate them. That the game limits how and when you can play each song so strictly may not matter so much if you’re head-banging to each song.
For myself, I found Kickbeat to be more frustrating than fun. When I got into a groove I saw the potential, but was always left wishing for some better songs to choose from. When I was pummeled into submission by the confusing sea of bad guys and cringe-worthy lyrics I pined for all the other great rhythm games I’ve played over the years. If ever there was a rhythm game begging for an infusion of musical variety through DLC, Kickbeat is it.
[Reviewed on PlayStation Vita]
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