Kickbeat's use of rhythm-based fighting isn't new. You can trace the game's influence back to the Bust-A-Groove series or Gitaroo-Man, but the sub-genre doesn't really come along often, and it certainly doesn't get released on a portable console. Kickbeat stands out because it is trying to bring rhythm-based fighting to home and portable consoles simultaneously — at a time when rhythm games have found an experimenting home on PC. The question is whether a development house known mostly for video game pinball knows how to branch out.
Kickbeat has a story that is expectedly cheesy. A sphere houses all of the music, and any tune — past, present and future — is created is governed by this sphere and protected by The Order of the Melodic Fist. Unfortunately, the media conglomerate Earth Entertainment wants full control over music and has stolen the sphere, cutting off music from all sources and becoming the only way people can hear any music. As the chosen one, you must rescue the sphere and restore balance to the world.
The tale falls somewhere between being a farce and just being silly. There are a few jokes that fall flat, including the sensei's use of modern technology and the lament that the theft of all music includes Justin Bieber material. The villain isn't exactly what one would expect, and there's even some reasonable drama in the second half. Though the plot is often overlooked in these types of games, it isn't half-bad.
The gameplay follows tradition in that you're still timing your button presses to the beat to land a hit. The only difference is that the beats are symbolized by people instead of buttons or bars. Enemies are sectioned off to four cardinal directions no matter the camera angle, and you can either use the face buttons or d-pad directions to hit the beat. The beats come in different colors to signify the type. Yellow needs to be hit on beat, blue hits on a half-beat, and red means two buttons have to be hit simultaneously. While most beats are single, some are linked together and perform similarly to sustained beats, where you hold down the button at the initial beat and let go at the last linked one. There's an energy meter to symbolize how many mistakes you can make, and its presence makes sense since the game adopts a fighting aesthetic.
There are a few tweaks to the rhythm formula to make this game fit the fighting theme, and they're essential to achieving higher scores. Some enemies come with power-ups over their heads and have to be double-tapped to grab the power-ups, which include 500-point boosts, multipliers, health packs and equippable bonuses. Using up zen, you can do have the equivalent of star power in Guitar Hero and Rock Band, where your multiplier gets a temporary boost. The shield prevents you from losing energy if you're hit, and the shockwave gets rid of active enemies in the vicinity. While you can survive without using any power-ups, you'll need them if you want to get on the leaderboards.
From the start, there are some technical issues that hurt the game. The most apparent is the dynamic camera. Whenever you accomplish a cool move, the game zooms in a bit and reacts. Unlike the cut scenes that punctuate the end of song sections, though, this occurs while the section is still in play, and it's disruptive enough to make you lose track of where you are, miss a beat and break your note streak. The feature can be turned off, thankfully, but the issue is still present when enemies drop in from above or fly toward the screen and temporarily block your view. The note links are also sometimes tough to see, and since that's linked to some bonuses, not seeing it in time makes the player feel a little cheated.
A problem that is harder to quantify is the game's inability to provide an immediate hook. If you think back to some other rhythm games, many provide something that grabs the player's imagination, such as the flat paper cutouts of Parappa the Rapper and the idea of a one-on-one dancing fight in Bust-A-Groove. For some reason, that doesn't exist in this game. It could be argued that the musical selection feels more limited, with the track list mostly consisting of a few unknown musicians, but this drawback turns into a positive since the tracks are a perfect fit for the fighting theme, with the sole exception being Marilyn Manson's "The Beautiful People." It's a good song but doesn't sound like one that makes you want to fight. Perhaps the lack of appeal also occurs because the game starts with some advanced note tracks before easing up in the middle and ramping up in difficulty again. It's a strange curve for any game when the expected path is to start players easy before increasing the difficulty. Whatever it is, the game doesn't click until the fifth song. For impatient people, that's too long.
The game features a number of modes, but getting to them all requires quite a lot of grinding. Story mode lets you take on the tale with the chosen one Lee and then with the master's granddaughter, Mei. What's interesting is that aside from the cut scenes, the locations, songs and enemy patterns are exactly the same. This is made more perplexing by the fact that you can't play as Mei until you finish Lee's story. Unless you're willing to change up the difficulty when playing her quest, it becomes stale.
Replaying the story mode on higher difficulties is also the only other way to unlock the same songs with higher difficulties in other modes. Unlocking the song requires you to play and beat the song in any difficulty level, but unless you play Story mode multiple times, you can only access the songs in one difficulty level. It's burdensome if you want to see how bad your favorite song can get with the difficulty cranked up.
Beating the story once unlocks three other modes. The Visualizer allows you to see what a level with a perfect run looks like with a particular song. Free Play allows you to replay all of the songs in the game. Each mode allows you to change the difficulty, characters and costumes, so you can have enemies beat up other enemies in any costume. Both are fun, but Visualizer is disappointing because it doesn't take advantage of the lack of control by allowing the fight to be presented from different camera angles.
Beat Your Music is a fascinating mode because it allows you to import your own music and lets you fight with it in randomized stages. Other games automatically calculate the necessary beat values, but you have to do some of that work yourself by either getting the necessary info from game forums for your song or using the beat calculator to find that for you. The process isn't very elegant, and it has a few issues with songs that have odd beats, but it works well enough. Surprisingly, the created levels try to randomize enemy placement so the levels don't grow stale, and the only limitation is the free space on your card. Sadly, the stars unlocked here don't unlock anything for the game, and the custom music can't be used in other modes. Still, the extra bit of functionality is always welcome.
Finally, in Survival mode, you face off against endless waves of enemies through the whole playlist until you run out of energy. It's fine enough, but the fact that it won't unlock until you beat the game on all of the difficulty levels means only those dedicated to the game will ever check it out.
Graphically, Kickbeat is pretty close to the PS3 version. The character models are detailed well in their stylized manner, and they move quite well with no visible animation gaffes. The backgrounds are also very well detailed, with the equalizers featuring prominently in each stage without becoming distracting. The rest of the details make them quite attractive, especially when a myriad of colors is used. There are even some dust particles floating around, and the game achieves a nice 60 frames throughout each song performance. About the only thing missing is floor reflections, which feature prominently on the PS3 version.
Interestingly, despite being a rhythm game, the sound is merely average. As mentioned earlier, the song selection is quite good, save for a song or two. While it would have been nice to get a plethora of songs like most rhythm games, what's here is good, and the ability to import your own songs makes up for the small library — even if you can't use your songs in more than one mode. The voices aren't terribly great in the cut scenes, but they aren't terrible, either. They work well enough and utilize the correct inflections, and none of the voices turn out to be grating. The sound effects have no real punch and end up dragging things down. They're appropriately lowered for musical performances to the point that you only hear them during silent song portions. By having them absent during successful cut scenes where you beat down opponents, the scene loses any impact it could've had.
Kickbeat is a game that doesn't instantly click when you boot it up. It may take a few minutes or even an hour or two before you understand what's going on, but once you get it, you can appreciate what it does and how well it does it. Yes, the soundtrack could stand to be a little less dated, and some presentation options could be improved, but the game does well with what it has and is still a fun experience despite those things. For rhythm fans who want something different and a little tougher, Kickbeat is worth checking out.
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