Steam Early Access Impressions: Double Kick Heroes

Using the power of Metal and some nimble gaming fingers, Double Kick Heroes has you fighting back against the zombie apocalypse in a cheeky side-scrolling shooter rhythm game mash-up. So throw up your devil horns and get ready to rock ‘n roll!

Mechanically, the game sticks to the script laid down by Guitar Hero and other rhythm games. Icons scroll from right to left across a note highway along the bottom of the screen. Properly timing button presses as the notes cross the impact zone causes your car, a Gundillac named Sheila, to fire off shots at the zombie horde encroaching from the left. Timing within the impact zone determines whether you get a Good or Perfect rating for each passing note, which impacts your high score at the end of the level. Missing notes stinks up the song and creates an undefended void for enemies to close the distance on your sweet ride.

Stringing together successive notes builds a combo multiplier and upgrades the Gundillac’s weaponry at tiered intervals, from the default rusty rifle to a shotgun to a deadly cannon at max combo. Missed notes, on the other hand, lower the combo, while mistimed button presses cause the guns to overheat and eventually become unable to fire until left to cool down. Either way, timing is critical–as is to be expected from a proper rhythm game.

The Gundillac drives forward completely on-rails–except for the boss battles, where you are afforded limited control to steer up and down to aim and avoid attacks–while the button used when pounding a note determines which of the car’s two guns fires, each one aiming at a different lane on the proverbial highway to hell. So depending on where zombies are on the road, you’ll want to alternate buttons to switch targeting between the upper and lower lanes as necessary. Default settings have the left and right arrow keys as the primary note inputs on keyboard, or the A and B buttons when playing with an Xbox gamepad. The controls can be remapped as desired.

Each stage lasts for the duration of its associated song, the goal being to hit enough notes to fend off the mad-dashing zombies using the Gundillac’s defensive firepower and survive until the song ends. A timeline bar across the top of the screen shows in real time how far along in the song you are. If zombies are allowed to reach the Gundillac three times, it’s game over. When facing bosses, you must empty their life bar before the song ends. Even if you reach the end of a track with lives in stock, you still lose if the boss has any remaining health.

The chosen difficulty–five different options are provided–further alters the gameplay flow by determining the number of tracks, notes, and zombies that appear, as well as how punitive misses are to the combo system as far as resetting your gun upgrade multiplier. Different secondary weapons become available once multiple tracks are introduced, including a second red track line associated with charging a grenade toss, and then a third purple track line that charges a sniper shot.

The cool thing with the secondary weapon tracks is the way they’re treated more like bonus abilities than mandatory strings of notes that are required to complete a song. Missing notes on any of the ancillary tracks lowers the charge level of the corresponding weapon, but it does not reset your base weapon combo. This adds a layer of strategy when attempting the more complicated note charts at higher difficulties. If you hit an especially tricky part, you can let the bonus notes go by and just concentrate on the standard notes to maintain the gun combo while making sure to keep the charging procession of zombies at bay. You may not get a super high score, but you’re more likely to survive until the end of the song.

The different colored tracks are also associated with different percussion beats. The standard gun notes play kick drum, the grenade notes play snare drum, and the sniper notes play cymbals. So the notes you strike successfully do contribute to the overall music composition.

Most rhythm games suffer to some extent from the inherent problem of having to keep your eyes glued so closely on the notes that you can’t fully appreciate what’s happening in the background. Of course in most rhythm games what’s going on in the background is akin to a music video or visualizer, something that is purely for visual effect but not integral to your direct interactions with the game. As part shooter, Double Kick Heroes is different, because you do need to follow what’s going on in the upper field of play at the same time as you’re watching the notes flow by. You’re usually safe alternating button presses, but sometimes enemies do bombard the Gundillac heavily from one lane more than the other, or wander off into outer lanes to avoid shots until they get closer up on the Gundillac’s rear bumper. This is compounded in boss battles, where you have to watch where the boss and other enemies are lined up on the road, move up and down to line up shots and avoid attacks, and, oh yeah, continue to play notes as they whiz by. It’s certainly not impossible, but it is a lot of visual information to compute. The hand-eye coordination required to be successful at the hardest of hardcore levels is insanely demanding.

Admittedly, I don’t have a better method to suggest, but I do hope with continued feedback and ongoing development Headbang Club can figure out a clearer way to unify the note charts with vision of the action. More so than other rhythm games, I feel like I’m missing a part of the experience when I can’t watch the upper half of the screen. I very much want to see the visual carnage left behind as the Gundillac mows through biker zombies, undead sharks and dinosaurs, metal slugs, and crazed killer chickens while I rip off tasty, face-melting riffs.

It actually might be a good idea to have additional modifiers, independent of the preset difficulty options, allowing auto-steering and auto-targeting to be toggled on or off, so that it’d be possible to still play at a higher difficulty, to enjoy the increased intensity of having more enemies and notes and tracks, while not having the added burden of steering or alternating gun buttons. Just keeping in sync with the notes is challenging enough without the added pressure of switching key presses and steering up or down.

Double Kick Heroes is just launching into Early Access with a projected six months of ongoing development left to go. Currently the game consists of a standard arcade mode featuring a tutorial and progression of 16 tracks that let you jump right into the action; an editor for charting and sharing custom tracks from your own music library (only the track layouts are shared; you have to own the song they’re made for to play them); and the first three chapters of story mode, which follows a ragtag band of Metalheads through a pixel art wasteland on a narrative quest full of weirdo characters, bizarre enemies, cheesy humor, video game and pop culture references, political jabs, and F-bombs galore. It’s kept me busy for a solid six hours overall so far.

Like a Mad Max: Fury Road meets Grindhouse crossover infused with the relentless satirical spirit of Tenacious D, the story mode unfolds across a level selection world map circa SNES era Mushroom Kingdom, with safe house locations serving as narrative intermissions where you can chat with the various band members and other NPCs to continue the storyline and open access to new stages on the map. It took me around two to three hours to reach the “To be Continued” end point. With another three chapters planned, the complete story should be a total riot.

The track editor makes it fairly easy to get a song imported and mapped out with a proper note chart just by listening to the song and placing notes in time with the beat in real time, though more robust options are in place for dedicated users. I happened to have Lorn’s “Acid Rain” on my desktop, which turned out to be a perfect starter track to work with since the song has a slow bassline that’s simple to map out. I wouldn’t share it online, but within a few minutes I at least got a functional custom track up and running with relative ease. Ultimately it would be awesome if the developers could implement a feature to import a track and auto-generate a basic track chart, for those of us who aren’t too keen on level editors. Of course I’m sure that’s a whole lot easier said than done, but I can dream, can’t I?

Even at only half strength in terms of content compared to what’s planned for the full game, Double Kick Heroes is already a head banger’s delight. The integration between the rhythm and shooting mechanics is mostly on point, but just needs some fine tuning and tweaking to bring everything into a perfectly harmonized balance. This early access taste of composer Elmobo’s soundtrack will bust your gut and blow away your eardrums with an eclectic mix of metal spanning subgenres like Harmless Rock ‘n Roll, Beach Metal, Death Metal, Tenacious Rock, Metalstein, and Jurassic Opera. Perhaps the single greatest aspect of the game is its boss alert, which flashes in bold red, “Warning. Motherfucker incoming. No fucking refuge.” Now that’s so rock ‘n roll.

Buy From: Steam for $14.99.

Disclosure: A Steam key for Double Kick Heroes was provided to VGBlogger.com for coverage consideration by Headbang Club.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!