KickBeat sells itself as a cross between a fighting game and a rhythm game. It’s the kind of game I’ve always wanted to play and thought would go well together. Martial arts and dancing are very similar in many ways, requiring both coordination and rhythm, so it seems like a natural fit to add some music to a fight scene.
Unfortunately KickBeat from Zen Studios shoots itself in the foot in a number of ways, so a game with so much potential falls completely flat.
They were Kung-Fu fighting
KickBeat is a rhythm game wearing the skin of an 80’s or 90’s kung-fu action movie. Your character stands in the centre of the stage, completely surrounded by enemies. They attack in time to the music and the player has to press the prompted button to counter them before being hit in the face. As far as premises for games go, this sounds pretty darned awesome.
Mechanically, the game works just fine too. It can tell perfectly well if the timing is bad, good or perfect (as well as a miss), and the button presses match each song’s beat and rhythm quite well. There are also extra points and power ups to collect which help you pass the stages easier and with a higher score which help add a bit of variety to gameplay.
The visuals are also quite nice as well. The characters have a lanky cartoon stylisation, not dissimilar to TimeSplitters 2. The stages have incredibly nice lighting and all the textures and objects look extremely crisp giving everything a neon futuristic look, not unlike something set in Neo-Tokyo.
The story that plays out also uses cool artwork that is a joy to stare at. It uses strong colours and dramatically contrasting lighting to make the visuals pop, like an animated comic book. It wouldn’t surprise me if it turns out the artists are professional comic book illustrators actually.
Unfortunately these are all the positives I could find and they are not enough to hold KickBeat up…
Dividing your attention
Every single problem with KickBeat boils down to one single word: presentation. From audio, to scripting, to the gameplay, it all falls down when it comes to how it’s presented.
During gameplay there is just far too much happening on screen to truly be able to get into the rhythm of the game. Your character is completely surrounded in every stage, meaning you have to simultaneously watch four directions at once. Most rhythm games choose to focus your eyes in one place (bottom of the screen for Guitar Hero, top of the screen for DDR,etc). Watching four points could have feasibly worked but every enemy circles around you before striking, making it extremely difficult and frustrating to work out what order the attack will come in.
On top of the cluster of enemies you have to try to focus on, they also come in a variety of colours to signify the rhythm. Yellow enemies attack on the beat, blue come in quick succession on half beats and red attack from two directions at once. This variation in gameplay would be welcome in theory but is loathed in reality as you struggle to take in all the visual information. Not to mention the power ups and score bonuses mean you have to double tap the enemy, further adding to the confusion which is made worse by the fact that at least 60% of the enemies are double taps.
Then there are the backgrounds (especially in the first two sets of songs) which interfere with your perception. It’s hard to identify whether an enemy is red or yellow if the whole stage is already bathed in red lighting. And in what seems to be a suicidal decision, they made the first variation of enemies wear generic black commando gear, which can only be distinguished by looking at their clothes trimming. Why they made it so hard to start with is beyond me.
KickBeat’s story also seems a bit of a mess. The artwork is great, but it feels like it should be in a post-apocalyptic or cyber-punk thriller story. It looks so dark and dramatic which clashes with the overall tone of the game, or at least gives the KickBeat a darker tone than is appropriate for a rhythm game.
The story could have worked if they played it straight and made an epic (if ridiculous) tale of all the worlds music being stolen. But they throw in the occasional awkward joke or reference to Justin Bieber which I assume is an attempt to lighten the story but just sticks out like a knife in a birthday cake.
Sounds like trouble
KickBeat also suffers from a lack of variety in music. Most of the songs are some form of metal (I’m not music literate enough to identify the specifics but it includes Papa Roach if that helps) with a couple of electronic dance tracks to spice things up.
While there is nothing wrong with that, the songs start sounding the same when you play them back to back. In fact, besides one Marilyn Manson and Papa Roach song (because I knew both songs), I can’t name a single artist or track whose name I can remember.
It also feels like KickBeat missing a lot of sound effects. Your warrior will perform an elaborate take down during songs but there are no sound effects when the punches and kicks land. Similarly, there is no sound of impact when you character is attacked.
When your own attacks connect there is no sound variety either. Regardless of whether you punch their skull, throw them over you or kick them in the stomach, it all used a weak slapping sound effect which can barely be heard over the music. It becomes quite distracting and ruins immersion, basically destroying the illusion of being in a battle.
All these problems with visual and sound presentation meant that I never looked forward to playing KickBeat, and that is never a good sign.
Final Verdict: 4/10
KickBeat had a lot of promise with a solid premise, functional mechanics and crisp visuals. Sadly, it’s confusing visual design, poor usage of sound effects, confused story tone and soundtrack with a limited variety all constantly hinder player enjoyment and make it a frustrating experience.
Fans of rhythm games like Ouendan or One Finger Death Punch might gain some pleasure from the game due to its challenging gameplay spanning four difficulties. Just know that the difficulty does not come from well-paced challenge, but poor design.