One of the most ridiculed action movie clichés is when the nigh indestructible hero is surrounded by a seemingly endless swarm of foes ready to beat the daylights out of him. Inevitably, an adrenaline pumping song plays as the enemies politely attack one at a time, rather than ganging up on him all at once, allowing our hero to vanquish his foes in elegantly choreographed fashion. Zen Studios, known for their extensive Zen Pinball series, has created an entirely new game inspired by just such moments: Kickbeat.
In many ways Kickbeat seems like a spiritual evolution of the PSP digital exclusive Beats. Like that game, you play by tapping the Circle, Square, Triangle, and X buttons in time with the music playing on the soundtrack. The 18 levels featured in the game's story mode run about 70 minutes total. You will play the story mode at least twice, though, once as kung fu student in training, Lee, and again as his love interest, Mei, meaning the first full play through should total around 3 hours when you factor in the length of the cutscenes and multiple attempts it will take you to clear some levels. You will have to clear the story mode on all four difficultly settings to unlock all of the game’s hidden content, including new characters, outfits, and game modes. It may seem redundant, but Kickbeat tries to make it worth your while playing through the story repeatedly by markedly improving your skills, meaning you can earn more stars based on your accuracy.
The game tries to mix things up so you are not always in a circle about to be swarmed by a long string of enemies. One boss fight, for example, has you providing cover fire for your sensei from above while he harnesses enough electricity to incapacitate the mercenary sent to capture him. Another set piece has you unrealistically fighting a helicopter by repelling its missiles with punches and kicks. Alas, these segments merely provide the same type of gameplay with a different skin.
It's easy to appreciate the thoughtfulness and care that went into constructing Kickbeat’s story mode. The narrative leaves a lot to be desired, sure, but there is an earnestness to it that I found charming. One gripe I do have is with the stereotypical kung-fu master character, which is a lazy caricature. Another issue is that once you go through the story the first time with Lee your second play through with Mei seems overly contrived, as you visit the exact same stages/locations again. But overall the developers successfully seized the opportunity to craft a story that expresses the idea that music belongs to everyone and that music snobs are jerks.
Like Beats before it, Kickbeat gives you the option to play along to your own imported tracks via the Beat Your Music mode. The game will analyze your mp3s and generate a string of notes to play along with. It works as advertised and is a great way to extend the replayability of the title, as well as compensate for those that might find the game’s licensed soundtrack lacking. Fast, beat-heavy music translates best to Kickbeat, so genres like heavy-metal, hip-hop, and techno provide the most visceral gameplay experience in my opinion.
Visually, Kickbeat is at its most impressive when your fighter strings together fluid kung fu combos in sync with the background music. The story takes place across a number of different stages including a wrestling ring, a Parisian nightclub, and the rooftops of Tokyo. Each stage comes with its own variation on enemy character designs, though they all follow a basic framework of yellow for quarter notes, blue for eighth notes, and red for notes you have to hit at the same time. By bettering your performance on each track you can unlock extras. Graphical inconsistencies such as screen tearing and a slowed down framerate are unfortunately present but the good news is that they are also infrequent.
Sound is obviously an integral part of the Kickbeat experience. The voice acting is cheesy but I appreciate that a game like this went the extra mile to have a fully voiced story in the first place. Appreciation of the game’s licensed soundtrack is a matter of personal preference. None of the songs are immediately recognizable Top 40 hits, but established artists such as Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie and Styles of Beyond are present. The licensed tracks are a mixture of hip-hop, electronica, heavy metal and alternative songs the likes of which would sound at home as part of an action movie’s soundtrack. When you upload your own tracks they come through convincingly as if they were always part of the game.
At only $9.99, the game packs a ton of bang for your buck. Because it is a Cross Buy game, you will have access to both the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita versions with your purchase. The content across both titles is nearly identical, except that the PlayStation 3 version boasts a splitscreen multiplayer mode not found in the portable version. Other extras include a visualizer mode where you can watch a perfect run of any track in order to enjoy the music while indulging in the mesmerizing ballet of combat. There are also online scoreboards so you can compare your score with players around the globe.
While Kickbeat is both ambitious and affordable, I did not fall in love with it; gameplay that relies on following onscreen cues for button presses can only be so much fun. Kickbeat is at its best when you get so good at it that you can play along without actively thinking about the next button press even on the highest difficulty. Chances are, though, that by the time you get that good at the game you will have already experienced everything that Kickbeat has to offer.
This review is based on a digital copy of KickBeat for the PSV, provided by the publisher.