Review: KickBeat

KickBeat

From a Bruce Lee classic to a pulse-pounding sequence from The Matrix, the best action flicks have their own sense of chaotic rhythm. They’re a perfectly timed ballet of punches, kicks and backflips, whether there’s a soundtrack pumping in the background or not.

Zen Studios, the pinball-game developers who’ve been on a bit of an, um, diversification kick over the last year, take that sense in an interesting new direction with KickBeat, a modest but challenging game that meshes rhythm game sensibilities with a fighting game aesthetic. Like your music loud and your games brutally difficult? Then you’ve come to the right dance floor, grasshopper.

There’s some silly introductory nonsense about a gifted teenager named Lee who’s been conscripted to protect a magical sphere that contains all the music in the universe. What he’s really here to do is lay the graceful and rhythmic smack down on what feels like a Bataan Death March’s worth of enemies, all of whom stalk and attack in the same circular patterns. Standing at the center of an arena, you’re charged with coordinating Lee’s attacks by pressing the face buttons in time to the rhythm of whatever industrial-metal track is currently thumping.

It sounds so simple and straightforward, but KickBeat’s so much more complicated than that. Sweet Jesus, this game is challenging. For starters, there’s no “easy” setting, and beating levels even on the “normal” setting is insanely difficult.

Enemies come in three colors, and attack accordingly—sometimes in pairs (double-button push!), sometimes in chained attacks that require you to hold and release a button, and sometimes, in a particularly nefarious twist, on the down- or the half-beat of the music. Unlike rhythm games like Rock Band and Dance Central that are more about aiding and abetting your rhythmic zen, KickBeat’s all about distracting and confusing. Start with the crowds of enemies shuffling around the sides of the arena, awaiting their turn to attack you, or the action cutscenes that interrupt the flow and force you to re-set your concentration level. (The latter can be turned off, thankfully.) On the game’s harder difficulties, you’re not even given QTE visual prompts to help your timing when the attacks start coming at fast-and-furious speed. Yikes.

KickBeat packs a ton of visual information on-screen, and we’re not just talking about the dance club mob of ninjas, wrestlers and super-soldiers. You’re actually standing on your health and chi level meters — the latter’s what lets you unleash power-up special effects — since they’re the yin and yang of the symbol in the center of the arena. You can recognize potential power-up pickups by the icons hovering over your enemies’ heads, but snaring those is tough as hell, too — just try double-tapping your buttons when you’re about to be punch-kicked from three different directions in the next second.

Rhythm games are really about the tracklist, and KickBeat’s is, bizarrely, parked in the mid-‘90s industrial-nu-metal section of the mega-mall, where Papa Roach and Rob Zombie are still dealing with their anger issues. The setlist only runs 18 tunes long, which means the lack of track diversity catches up with KickBeat pretty quickly — especially given that it’s not uncommon for it to take ten-plus tries to complete some of the levels. If you can somehow manage to survive the story mode, you unlock the ability to use your own music in the game, which opens up all sorts of new possibilities, and will easily be the thing that keeps people punching, flipping and kicking. Just know that you’re going to have to break your thumbs to get there, and you may never get Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” out of your head again.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Clever new addition to the rhythm-game genre
+ Beat the story mode, and you can use your own music
+ Artistic design packs a ton into a small space

Cons:
– INSANE level of difficulty may scare off some players
– Short setlist

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 3 via PSN (cross-buy title)
Publisher: Zen Studios
Developer: Zen Studios
Release Date: 9/3/2013
Genre: Rhythm
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.