You know that awesome scene in a movie or game where the energy is high and there’s an awesome soundtrack to accompany it? Those scenes where the music adds to the excitement, making the mood just right? Maybe it’s an action scene or a “cool guys doing cool things” moment; Those scenes that you wish you could just experience over and over again. Well, the pinball masters, Zen Studios, have broken free from their comfort zone and into something rather wonderful that accomplishes just that feeling: KickBeat.
If you haven’t been following the title, KickBeat was first announced in 2012 for the PlayStation Vita. After a bit of a delay, it was also announced for PlayStation 3. The game aimed to be an ambitious “experimental rhythm” title, combining two things that a lot of people love: Music and action. A mixture of martial arts and high energy tunes, KickBeat is not your run-of-the-mill music game. Combining an actual story and adventure, KickBeat revitalized what many thought to be a now dead genre. The indies have taken up the mantle! Rhythm and music games aren’t dead, they’re just coming back in more creative forms!
I’ll just come out and say it now: I really liked KickBeat. I enjoyed the heck out of it. I applaud Zen Studios, because it’s very difficult for me to enjoy rhythm games to this degree. With a similar concept like that of Patapon or Theatrythm Final Fantasy, KickBeat expands on that idea, becoming the first rhythm game to feature fully 3D interactive characters as beat matching cues. There are 18 tracks featured in the game which are comprised of drums & bass, hip-hop, and rock. With this mixture, KickBeat brings some popular tunes to gaming in a completely new way.
How many rhythm games do you know that have a full-blown narrative? Not too many (unless you’re into a lot of JPop games like Hatsune Miku’s). Even if you can name a few, KickBeat is the one which stands in the forefront of my memory. Not because it’s a game I played recently; rather because it’s a game whose story I really enjoyed – despite its clichéd nature. KickBeat actually features two stories in one. The main story is about Lee, a young guy who stumbles into a temple for “The Order of the Melodic Fists.” Although Lee’s intention when going to the temple was to catch the eye of a certain girl there, he soon finds out that his destiny is tied to the order as “The Chosen One.” Now Lee must go out on an adventure around the globe to save all of the world’s music from the clutches of evil. The second story’s focus is from the point of view of the character Mei, who turns out to be the very girl who Lee had his eye on from the start. Although they are separate in the game’s menu, Mei’s story is a direct continuation from the events of Lee’s. The whole story is light-hearted and fun, and even at times humorous, depicted through beautiful hand drawn animations similar to that of motion comics and fully voiced dialogue cutscenes.
I will admit though, I enjoyed Lee’s story a little more due to the fact that all 18 tracks are played during his story. When you move over to Mei’s story, you revisit those same tracks, just from her point of view though. So, you’ll be essentially playing the same stages more than once, but at least on your second round with Mei, you’ll probably be a lot better at actually playing the game. I know I was. I know Zen Studios was limited, but hopefully in the future, the stages for divided stories have different music as well. Even with this minor monotony, I enjoyed Lee’s story more than enough to satisfy any lack in Mei’s playthrough. To be fair to Zen, getting more songs is considerably difficult and they did explain this double-dip in the story itself, which I’ll leave for you to find out so as to avoid spoilers.
The most fun comes from the gameplay though. Kickbeat is similar to other rhythm games in the manner that you have to follow cues on the screen. Under normal mode, these cues are seen as the PlayStation button symbols in addition to the on-screen 3D characters. Increased difficulty modes remove the PlayStation symbols and simply leave the 3D characters as the only cues you have on the screen. Your character is in the center of a ring where you have to fight off enemies, making sure they don’t harm you. You actually have a health bar, so if you get hit by missing a cue, you’ll lose health and die if you get hit enough. So you must either touch (on Vita only) the characters or press the corresponding button when they reach a certain point on the screen. Your character then carries out a specific move to defeat those enemies circling around you. There are a variety of enemies who you have to fight in different ways, pushing buttons almost as if they were combos in a real fighter. The diversity doesn’t end there, but there are also boss levels where you’re not just in the center of a circle fighting off waves of enemies. There’s even a stage where you have to protect your master by using Chi and statues to defeat your enemies. It’s pretty cool. In addition to the kicking and punching, you can obtain power-ups which can protect you with shields, give you special energy to gain more points, or blow a wave of enemies away with the single push of a button.
On the whole, I felt that the game was very responsive. Pressing the buttons both on the PS3 and Vita worked the best for me, although the Vita has the option of using the touchscreen for those of you who may want to try it. The only issue I came across when playing the game performance-wise was on the PlayStation 3. A minor glitch seems to have caused the game to hide the triangle cue when you use your chi power-up. This glitch only lasts for a second or two and then everything’s back to normal. On the Vita side, there were no issues as far as I could see. The touch screen was responsive, but probably not the best use as my hand was blocking the rest of the screen obstructing my view of the other enemies. Yeah, I have large hands (boo). Although this isn’t an issue, just one pro tip for the Vita: Use headphones as the speakers can not give you the full intensity of the music that you need to feel to really get into the game.
The gameplay is also quite challenging. It takes a bit of time to get used to the various moves and rules that you have to keep in mind when playing the game, but by the time you’re done with Lee’s story on Normal, you should get the hang of it. If you want to try it on hard mode you can do so – but be prepared to melt your eyes out and fingers off. It is tough. A challenge is always good in my book though. This offers quite a bit of replay value to the title as there are four difficulty modes that you can continue to challenge yourself with in addition to rewards that you can unlock as you progress through the different modes of the game. But that’s not all…
The story mode is a fun factor to the game, one I really enjoyed; but Zen also added three other modes that can be unlocked throughout the game. These modes include: Free Play, Beat Your Music, and Survival. Free Play is just as it sounds, you’re able to play any song you want on available difficulties, with different characters (including ones that you can unlock), different outfits, and if you want to make your own playlist, you can do so too. Split screen (on PS3 only) is similar to free play, but for two local players who compete for the highest score. Survival is also as it sounds, but can only be unlocked after you finish the game on Master difficulty (shudders). Beat Your Music is an ambitious section to the game. Zen Studios has given us the ability to take music on our PlayStation Vita or PlayStation 3, music from our own collection, and put it in the game. Using the game’s special program, you can upload your songs and set the beats to match the game. I found this mode a little challenging to get the hang of configuration-wise. I tried quite a few songs and during the gameplay, none really seemed to match up too well. Maybe I just wasn’t doing it right, but I can’t see this working too well for many others either. The music that comes with the game has specially developed stages and battle sequences to match that music, which is why those work so well. Our music that we upload, not so much. It’s a good idea and you might have some fun tinkering around and experimenting, but I don’t see it as the highlight of the game. Maybe future tech will allow this to improve, but until then, this is what we have. Note that in Split Screen mode, you can choose from your own music or story music.
When it comes down to the music selection in the game itself, at first I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I ended up enjoying just about all of the tracks. I would consider myself fairly impartial when it comes to different kinds of music. However, I must confess that one genre of music usually puts me off, and that’s rock/metal with pure screaming. For those of you who feel the same way, I have a warning and a reassurance for you. Although KickBeat has different genres of music, the majority of the tracks are indeed rock, and sometimes hard rock. But don’t let that turn you away. The music fits the game perfectly. Each track fits each fight and character movement. Playing split-screen along with some colleagues who listen to only rap and hip-hop, I was surprised that they were very into the game, enjoying even the tracks with the rock. Zen Studios did an amazing job at getting the music to fit the game and they deserve a lot of props for pulling that difficult task off. I do hope that if the game expands in the future, with possible DLC or a sequel, that there is a bit more of a variety in the tracks, but what they had for now worked just great. Each song added to the energy, action, and excitement to make the game feel complete, just as intended.
This might have just been an experimental project for Zen Studios, but I really hope that they continue with the IP. I see a lot of potential for it. If the story was made into a TV show or movie, I would watch it. If there was a comic book, I would read it. More importantly, if there is a sequel, I will definitely play it. As an indie developer, I know that it must have been a challenge for Zen Studios to obtain the 18 tracks that they used in the game. All the legal processes you have to go through in addition to finding the perfect music to fit the game, I understand why they may have been a little limited this first round. As for any possible sequels, I hope they can expand on the few areas I pointed out above in the review. Well, “Maybe next year.”
Zen Studios were already the masters of pinball games and now they have taken the first steps into a whole new genre that I hope with all my heart, that they continue to explore. KickBeat provided addicting, challenging, and entertaining music-based gaming in a way that has rarely, scratch that, never been done before. I highly recommend this game to anyone who enjoys good music and action. Even if you don’t think you’ll like the song selections, you probably will be bopping your head all through the game. There’s a fair amount of repetition in the game which might get old for some individuals; but overall, the game comes as a complete package with good replay value. I implore everyone to give it a try and give it a buy. KickBeat is kicking some serious rhythm game butt, and I think you’ll like it!
[Note: A free copy of KickBeat was provided for review by Zen Studios]