I’ve been a fan of rhythm games ever since I picked up Frequency on the PlayStation 2 several years ago. There’s just something I really enjoy about the play-along while grooving to the music, and it’s an experience not like much anything else in gaming when it’s done right. KickBeat brings an interesting twist to the genre, transforming the simple ‘push these buttons’ mechanics into a kung-fu action game, pitting the player against droves of enemies attacking in typical action-film fashion. Tasking you with taking foes down one or two at a time, all in the rhythm of the tunes, KickBeat freshens up a quirky genre; but does it do it well?
The first thing I did when I fired up KickBeat for the first time was dive into the in-game tutorial / training mode. This explains the basics of the game with a show-and-try method that gives you a pretty good idea what you can expect on a very basic level; it does not, by any means, actually prepare you for the onslaught of enemies that come with even the beginning levels of the game’s “normal” difficulty (the lowest of several settings). In the tutorial, things are slow, evenly paced, and pleasant. As soon as you kick into the game, though, that’s all out the window and a frantic pace, at times overwhelming, takes over. I don’t mind quick pace – especially in rhythm games – but in the setting of KickBeat, a single miss can lead to cascading failure that piles up quickly, so the jump is jarring when you’re fresh from learning the basics.
I won’t bother digging into the story and all those trappings; while they’re a nice feature to give some context to the enemies and areas you’re in, KickBeat is still a rhythm game at the heart of it all, and the gameplay and music are what make and break the genre. Unfortunately, these are also where KickBeat falls flat for me. Now, I’m a fan of music in general; I’ve yet to find a genre that I universally dislike – or one, to be fair, that I universally enjoy. However, KickBeat‘s jumping between genres, along with the choice of tracks I just don’t think are suited to rhythm games, is poor at best, with strangely off-putting leaps between thumping electronic beats and grating heavier sounds. With due recognizance of licensing availability and the like, I just don’t see a lot of potential in the likes of Celldweller (who are prominently featured), and the decision to leap around in musical style puts a weird lack of cohesive flow into the mix.
Music choices aside, the gameplay is strange and, in some ways, ill-conceived. Picking up power-ups, for instance, requires a double-tap of the requisite button. This works well enough when the enemies are coming up single-file on the beat, but that second tap is nigh on impossible to succeed at when the pace picks up and you’re beset from all sides on half-beats or other elements – which happens a lot of the time. Also, the timing of button-presses to the beat seems to be just a little bit off sometimes; there’s an inconsistency to it, so I don’t think it’s a simple latency issue (which could be corrected with game settings), but rather one of just slightly-off-the-mark underlying processes. Whatever the case, it makes stringing together anything meaningful difficult, and, as I mentioned before, it doesn’t take much to set up a chain of failures that build up.
All that said, I still really like the idea of KickBeat, and I think the innovative take on a genre that hasn’t seen much innovation since the introduction of specialty controllers is pretty cool. I would enjoy the game a lot more if the music made more sense in either the game sense or for the setting presented — there’s some attempt at it in some levels, but it’s not consistent enough to really settle into anything. The graphics design is a high point, and at a projected $9.99 price tag, KickBeat could be an enticing title during one of Steam’s fabled sales – I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s worth that asking bid, though, unless some of these rough spots find themselves worked out; sadly, I daresay the musical selection for the game’s story mode is set in stone, though, and that’s a weakness that’s hard to overcome.
[+Good graphic design] [+Moderately interesting storyline] [+Innovative take on the rhythm genre] [-Confusing/poor song selection] [-Apparent timing issues] [-Jarring leaps between musical styles]