KickBeat Steam Edition
- Street Date:
- January 20th, 2014
- Reviewed by:
- Trevor Ruben
- Review Date:1
- February 2nd, 2014
- Game Release Year:
- Zen Studios
- Zen Studios
Steam Edition reviewed. Keyboard used as primary input method.
Zen Studios is best known for invigorating libraries with an array of dazzling virtual pinball tables adapted from various licenses. Recently, the company has been venturing out with original titles like 'CastleStorm.' and 'KickBeat,' the latter being a rhythm fighter released last fall for the PS3 and Vita. 'KickBeat,' the rhythm-based combat game set to licensed music and Kung-Fu calisthenics comes to the PC as 'KickBeat Steam Edition,' boasting of multiple enhancements to original, including additional licensed music and custom soundtrack capability.
The Game Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
At first glance, 'Kickbeat' might seem a more rhythmic version of the combat from 'Batman: Arkham Asylum' with a little 'Guitar Hero' on the side. Enemies surround you, ready to pounce, a simple directional button press on your behalf the answer to their consistent melodic affront. But no, it's not an attempt to ape Arkham's success by combining it with what Will Ferrell might call Break Dance Fighting! In fact, this is far, far closer to 'Guitar Hero' in the spectrum between the two franchises.
To be more specific, as musical protectors Lee or Mei, you aren't making any sort of combat-style decisions here, you're simply trying to keep up with the rhythm and hit the notes in the order they come. You'll often be given the opportunity to double-tap a button to earn a powerup or point reward, which plays pretty well into the leaderboard, score-chasing element to the game. As we know from 'Guitar Hero,' 'Rock Band' and 'Dance Dance Revolution,' that simple concept can cultivate massive enjoyment. 'Kickbeat,' unfortunately, doesn't get away without a number of faults. It's a fun ride, and if you aren't looking for a particularly deep enjoyment then, despite those faults, you won't regret opting in for the cheap asking price.
The first thing I must note is the soundtrack is not my cup of tea. The music is mostly electronic with the occasional rapper and American radio hit thrown in. It's impossible to know the level of bias cropped up within me as a result, but I went in with an open mind and even came away with a few new Amazon MP3 downloads. Even so, most of my issues with 'Kickbeat' are in the design.
Most importantly, the visual language, while lavish, impressive, and entertaining, lacks a clarity so undeniably important to this kind of game as to render 'Kickbeat' more than intermittently frustrating in its absence. As an enemy circles closer and closer, indicating an impending strike, a color-coded circle appears communicating to you which button on the keyboard or controller you need to push to counter him. Obviously you're countering these strikes to a rhythm, and your ability to time your strikes in conjunction with the tune breeds success.
The fact remains, however, is you still absolutely need to watch for those indicators, and sometimes the game turns what should be a simple process into a chore. Double strikes, when two enemies must be countered at once, aren't differentiated well from strikes in quick succession. The quicker the song, strikes in closer chronological proximity to each other, the worse this issue becomes. The camera bouncing around in near perpetual motion doesn't help much either, however that can be turned off.
More fundamentally hampering to the design, however, is the way the enemy strikes are synchronized with the music. There is no definitive instrument or baseline to which the strikes are matched. Rather, Zen Studios decided to emphasize whatever part of the song was either the loudest or most obviously important in a given section of a song. In Marilyn Manson's 'Beautiful People,' one section has you fighting in sync with the artist's hushed lyrical whispers, while later you'll be punching guys in the face as guitar riffs tear into your headphones. I'd often miss a beat because I was too in sync with one part the many layers in a song while the game switched its emphasis to a different layer. You would think the visual cues might help this issue, but their own vagueness actually make it worse.
The issue with these, er, issues, is they don't really have an immediately apparent solution. It's even arguable that they're a part of the challenge, though I attribute it more to poor design. I think a lot of it has to do with the way Zen chose to display the pertinent information, emphasizing flash when simplicity might've made the experience more enjoyable. The presentation is undoubtedly cool, meshing Mei or Lee's fighting animations seamlessly together, but it needs improvement.
Much like the band-themed versions of past rhythm games, 'Kickbeat's' campaign plays out song-to-song with the occasional cutscene in between. Lee is a young fighter under the tutelage of Master Fu, an old monk who, as the leader of the Order of the Melodic Fist, must protect the Sphere of Music – a metaphysical object containing all the world's current, past and potential music. Naturally, the big bad wants it for himself.
It's a goofy story, thankfully completely aware of its own preposterousness, jumping back and forth between philosophical musings about how one enjoys music and exclamations about Justin Bieber's importance to the music world. It's only when the dialogue collapsed into painfully prolific tropes of honor and finding one's path in life that I wanted to pound the skip cutscene button.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
As I said, the presentation would almost be brilliant if it didn't negatively impact the gameplay. Zen Studios has built an impressive animation system, weaving one attack to another without so much as a hiccup in the dancey nature of it all. Friends and foes alike are designed with that gangly, break-dancer-style athleticism that lets them twist and contort to meet an opposing force with style. The stage designs reflect the story's absurdity with semi-futuristic, mostly insane compositions ranging from Tron-like to 1970's disco camp.
I was also consistently impressed with the cutscenes, even if the dialogue was forgettable by comparison. Presented in a two frames per second, storybook animation style, the artists really capitalized on the opportunity to draw out a compelling scene. I'm not sure exactly what to call the medium, but it felt like a sort-of moving, very dense water color composition. It's unique and at times beautiful. It's easily one of the best parts of the game.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
One of those preferable with headphones games, 'Kickbeat' is full of songs with electric energy. They may not be the most radio friendly, and maybe that's a budgetary concern and maybe it's a conscious choice, but they still work well with the whole idea. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of audio impact to the actual punching and kicking. Lee or Mei smack bad guys like they're wiping their noses, and it sort of diminishes your feeling of badassitude.
The voice acting provides a similar affect, Mei and Lee more akin to teenagers at summer camp than masters at musical fist fighting.
With four difficulty levels, a survival mode and a second campaign – same songs, different story – there's plenty to do after that first run-through. Those so inclined to improve their 'Kickbeat' skills in the higher difficulty will find ample opportunity.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
Outside of the campaign, the most intriguing part of this game is the custom track generator, which syncs up the gameplay with a song of your choosing. It works remarkably well, with anything from Kings of Leon to Daft Punk, however Fiona Apple might not generate the kind of atmosphere the game needs. I only wish the generator allowed me go in and edit each and every moment in a given song, as to develop an experience more akin to the best tracks in the campaign. But that's just a testament to the success of the generator. Unfortunately, I doubt Zen will ever let people upload these tracks. There's legal trouble there.
Among my gripes about the game, which are minor at times and major at other, there is one thing to remember about 'Kickbeat.' It's not a fighting game at all, really. Aside from some weird powerups – a shield and a blast you can activate once collected – nothing about the concept of the game actually differentiates the final product from other beat-matching rhythm titles. A better example of a game melding rhythm with another genre is the 'Bit.Trip' series, where gameplay elements from both sides impact the gameplay. Here it's just a different coat of paint over a repeated concept. Still, 'Kickbeat' is fun when those issues aren't flaring up. It just isn't the deepest experience, nor will it engage you in any way beyond your basic rhythmic romp.
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