Zen Studios is best known for Pinball FX2, but this week they released two totally different games for Xbox One: CastleStorm: Definitive Edition and KickBeat: Special Edition. KickBeat started out on Playstation 3 and Vita, finally arriving on Xbox One today in this new edition.
If music games are usually too sterile or non-violent for you, prepare for a beating. KickBeat is a martial arts rhythm featuring an authentic Kung Fu movie-style story and plenty of hard-hitting music to fight to. This Special Edition shakes things up with an expanded soundtrack. Just prepare for a few beatdowns as you adjust to the game's fierce learning curve.
Defend the music
Kickbeat's story mode unfolds through motion comic-style animation with fairly good voice acting. As the game begins, we meet Lee and Mei, two students of Master Fu – the leader of a fighting monk sect called the Order of the Melodic Fist. The order guards an artifact that literally controls all of the music in the world. When the evil Radio Earth organization steals the artifact, only Lee and Mei can get it back.
Despite the silly premise, I found the story interesting. When you get a new cinematic after three fights or so, it feels like a genuine reward. The actual story is divided up into two halves, the first following Lee and the other his female teammate Mei.
Kick (Butt) to the Beat
Before you even think of beginning the story mode, you'll need to stop by Training Mode first. That's annoying, because in most games you can jump in and expect any necessary tutorial information to be revealed as you play. Here, you can probably make it through a few fights on your own, but without learning the finer mechanics in Training, you'll find yourself unable to progress before long.
Each level of KickBeat consists of the hero standing in a circle and fighting all oncomers. This lasts until that level's song ends or you run out of life. Sounds like a beat 'em up, plays like a music game. Let me explain…
After circling around you, enemies will only approach from the four cardinal directions. Each of these directions represents the controller's four face buttons: X, Y, A, and B. When one of your aggressors steps forward, that button label will appear under his feet. That's the time to hit the button, which will knock him out. (Alternately, you can use the d-pad.)
It's okay to hit a little too early or late. You'll get less points and a message indicating the discrepancy, but you'll initially be more worried about survival than high scores. Score determines your star rating though, which contributes towards unlockables and Achievements.
Managing the hordes of foes
Tap the button when an enemy steps forward – sure, that's not too tough. Things get hairy when differently colored enemies join the gray. The bad guys get different skins for each area in the campaign, but their colors are what set them apart. They come in three varieties:
- Yellow: Standard enemies, not too tricky.
- Blue: Enemies that attack from different locations in rapid succession.
- Red: Enemies that attack in groups of 2-3 simultaneously. Miss any member of a red pair or trio and you'll take a hit.
It doesn't matter so much whether an enemy is blue or yellow, but those red guys are a priority threat. The problem I have with the reds is simple: the colored outlines of the enemies are just too hard to see. I often take hits from red enemies before I can even realize they're red. Colorblind players would have an even harder time.
The other issue difficulty-wise is that watching the circle and determining the proper order of attack simply gets too hard on the higher difficulties (and sometimes even Normal). Most rhythm games like Dance Dance Revolution give you time to glance at upcoming beats as they scroll across the screen. Here, you just frantically evaluate the four points of the circle and hope you don't mistake which enemy comes next. Not intuitive.
Also, some pairs of enemies have a colored ribbon between them. You have to tap and hold the button when the first foe steps up, and release when his companion takes his turn. Not so bad.
Some enemies have items above their heads. To actually get those items, you have to double tap the button instead of single-tap. That takes some fast fingers, but it's a rewarding mechanic. Rewarding until you accidentally double tap and enemy without an item and get penalized with a miss. This game is tricky on the brains, yo.
Tap the Right Trigger or Bumper to activate items like the shield, and Left Trigger or Bumper to start a brief score multiplier.
Unlockable modes, multiplayer, and music
Reaching a certain point in the campaign will unlock Survival Mode. Playing song after song until you run out of life sounds fun enough… But for reasons not known to mortal man, Zen locked Survival to the highest difficulty level. It is far too tough to be fun, essentially making the mode worthless to most players.
You'll also unlock a local 2-player mode after defeating the helicopter boss (surely a nod to Jet Set Radio). Choose between the two protagonists and whichever enemies you have enough stars to unlock, and then play a song together (no story here). The screen is split vertically down the middle so that each person a separate group of baddies to bash. Unfortunately, the smaller view makes it even harder to see those bothersome red enemies.
You can also unlock a Visualizer. Choose a few vaguely defined variables and a playlist. Then watch and listen along as the computer fights to the music. It's actually pretty entertaining, as long as you like the music.
Speaking of the soundtrack, the 24 songs come from 11 different artists. They tend to be hard rock or rap, styles that fit the game well. On the other hand, six electronica tracks from enV made the cut too (all originating from a game called Electronic Super Joy). I love 'em. A good soundtrack all in all (especially given the game's budgetary limitations), but "Everybody was Kung-Fu Fighting" should have been included too.
Most of KickBeat's 40 Achievements will take no small amount of skill to unlock. You have your typical music game goals like five-starring all the songs, and doing so on the higher difficulties. The higher difficulty Achievements are going to be beyond the reach of many (including me). Beating the final battle on one of the highest difficulties without taking a hit? I don't even want to think about it.
Kickbeat is a really clever concept. You can tell the devs put tons of love into mechanics, character animation, and story. It pays off with a great vibe. And the game is really fun on Normal Mode, once you get over the learning curve.
I fear that some players will skip the tutorial or never get a grasp on some of the mechanics, even if they don't skip it. The gameplay could have used more fine-tuning so that the higher difficulty levels and Survival Mode would be fun instead of nigh-impossible for many of us. Perhaps we'll get a more refined sequel someday.
I'm glad to see Zen making new types of games, especially creative ones like KickBeat: Special Edition. If you like music games and can handle a challenge, grab this one and start saving the music.
- KickBeat: Special Edition – Xbox One – 880 MB – $9.99 – Xbox.com Link