Developers Zen Studios have melded two stalwart genres of portable gaming in the pursuit of spawning something completely novel. While this is a tall feat for the Hungarian studio, who is perhaps best known for their work on Pinball games, the result is a game mechanic that appeals to both the most grizzled of rhythm veterans; as well as to those who are undisciplined in the ways of the beat.
KickBeat’s main attraction is its story mode. Telling an international tale of Kung-Fu and music, the story mode while at times charming, is pretty bare bones. Characters are largely two-dimensional, and the main villain feels as though he has been lifted straight out of a 1980’s cartoon. Told entirely through motion-comic cut-scenes, the narrative narrowly walks a thin line between overtly silly, and painfully serious. At its best the games humour will have you chuckling to yourself unexpectedly, at its worse; actually… it’s not that bad. That’s the problem, even though Zen Studios have hired professional voice actors and you can feel that they are trying, there’s no avoiding the fact that the story is bland. Thankfully the story serves only to change the aesthetic of each dance floor you visit, and that’s where the game truly shines.
While on the surface KickBeat may seem as though it leans more towards the fighting genre, the fact is that it merely presents itself in that fashion. Truthfully the games mechanics are deeply rooted in the rhythm genre, feeling very similar to recent portable music experiences such as Rockband Blitz.
During gameplay your character stands squarely in the centre of a circle. As music plays enemies appear at all four cardinal points of the screen represented by the four action buttons of the Vita. When enemies are lined up at these respective points you are prompted to attack them. There are a few alterations to the formula. Enemies come in different colours (or notes); some of which hold power-ups that require multiple attacks to cash in, and others require you to use multiple inputs at once. Boss battles bring some variation to the structure as well, having you combat anything from monsters, to helicopters.
Switching the difficulty settings also drastically changes the games dynamics. On higher difficulties prompts are removed, forcing the player to fight using instinctive timing and intuition. A strong comparison could be drawn to the combat system utilized by the Batman/Arkham games on higher difficulties.
Graphically the game is rather impressive, especially when compared to other mobile/portable rhythm games. All characters are rendered in 3D and there are some great uses of slow-mo replays during gameplay. It should also be mentioned that the quality of the cutscenes is surprisingly crisp.
KickBeat is a music game through and through, and even though the action elements may just be set dressing that isn’t to say it doesn’t improve the experience. For example, music games have often felt out of place utilizing gaming tropes such as a life bar, but in KickBeat it fits. Another parallel to the Rockband series is how the game implements “star-power” under the title of “chi”. By correctly attacking enemies (or beats) in successive order you fill up your chi meter. When full you are granted point multiplier for a brief amount of time. It may not seem as though these are extensive differences, but considering how stagnant the music-game genre has become, it’s enough to make the experience feel fresh.
Whereas the gameplay may feel fresh, the soundtrack most definitely does not. Featuring aged tracks by nu-metal bands like Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie and POV, the set list feels as though it came straight from Tony Hawk 2, in the very worst way. I’ll be the first to admit that a fourteen year old me would have loved it, but there’s no escaping that today it strictly feels dated. Music games are largely dictated by their soundtrack. Exactly how you feel about KickBeat will largely hinge on your taste in music, or your ability to tolerate its setlist.
This brings me to the KickBeat’s modes, the best of which are withheld until you’ve unlocked them. After beating Lee’s story mode you then unlock Beat Your Music mode, as well as an alternate story mode starring the female protagonist Mai; who also comes with her own “separate” story. I use quotations because the story largely follows he same beats as Lee’s, complete with the same stages and soundtrack. In order to unlock the games Survival mode you must beat the game on the highest difficulty.
Once you have unlocked Survival mode, don’t think that it ends there. In order to play a song in Survival mode at a particular difficulty level, you must have already mastered that stage on the same difficulty level in story mode. At times the impression this leaves is that the developers sought to pad the meagre story mode by forcing players to replay it multiple times in order to unlock content.
Thankfully the Beat Your Music mode is relatively easy to unlock as it is the true star of the experience.
While requiring some effort this mode vastly improves the overall experience by completely doing away with the games questionable soundtrack. You are able to bring in your own music, set up a “BPM” and create your own customized levels. Creation is fairly simple, push an input to select a rhythm and the system will arrange a corresponding enemy type. Once you have created a few personalized stages you will see the true magic that KickBeat has to offer, and if you are anything like me; you will become addicted.
All things considered KickBeat is the best rhythm game to come out in quite some time. As grating as the soundtrack may be, it is hard to complain when the game offers custom soundtracks via Beat Your Music. Zen Studios should be proud of their first foray into the music game genre, let’s hope it’s not their last.