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The rhythm game genre has enjoyed some popularity in the past with games like DDR, it's many clones, Guitar Hero, and its copycat Rock Band, but most other rhythm games (outside of Japan) have had a fairly niche following. Especially ones that try to do anything outside of having you tap buttons or wail on some gimmicky peripheral to the beat of the song. There have been games that have you "dance fight" such as the Bust-a-Groove series, and more recently Dance Magic, but never have you had actual fighting to the beat of the music.
Enter Kickbeat, developed by the pinball wizards at Zen Studios. That's right, the guys (and gals?) that brought pinball to the iPod generation have made a rhythm game. But don't groan (or stop reading) just yet, as this is actually a very good game and a really fun and original take on the rhythm genre. Read on to find out why.
Before I go into why it's a good game, let me explain what it is, in case you don't already know. Kickbeat can best be described as a "rhythm fighting" game. This tells us two basic things. The first is that it is a rhythm game. The second is that it is a fighting game. To be honest, though, I would say it has more rhythm than fighting, although the fighting is definitely a prominent part of the game, and that is one of the aspects that is so enjoyable about this title.
There is a story that is one kung fu movie cliche after another told in comic book style cut scenes, complete with a kung fu master and evil bad guy, but I won't "spoil" it here, as it is not really important to know the story, as it's just an excuse to get our main characters fighting to the beat. The gameplay is what matters, and it is well crafted, tight, and utterly enjoyable. You start each song surrounded by faceless goons in what looks like a scene right out of The Matrix Reloaded. Then, groups of enemies will come out of the mob and surround you. As each guy gets to where they are about to smack you, they will highlight in white (and a button prompt will appear under them in Normal Mode), and that is when you press the appropriate button (based on what side of you they are on) to smack them first.
It sounds simple, but things are made more complicated (and fun) by there being three types of enemies. There are the yellow guys, which are the basic thugs that come at you one at a time in a usually simple rhythm. Then there are the blue guys, which come at you one at a time in quick succession in groups of two or more. Finally, there are the red guys, that come at you all at once in groups of two or more, and you have to press all the directions they are coming from at once to defeat them. Two red guys is not a problem to take on, but once the game starts throwing three of them at you at once, then the finger gymnastics can begin. It's made easier by letting you also press the appropriate directions on the d-pad as well as the face buttons, but it is still a challenge.
Your chi meter and various power ups, that you can get by double tapping the appropriate attack button on the goons that have different symbols over their heads, round out the basics of gameplay, and you use the left and right shoulder buttons to activate your chi and the available power up, respectively. Your chi makes you glow white and get extra points for a time, and there several different types of power ups, from the shield that makes enemies bounce off of you like rubber, to an attack that automatically kills all foes that are standing around you. There is even a part of the game in Story Mode where you have to use the double-tap mechanic defensively, but I won't spoil anything else about it.
With the fighting being so much a part of this game (the "kick" in Kickbeat, so to speak), you would hope that it was fun, as well as deep enough to offer a lot of replay value. My opinion is that this game gets a resounding "YES!" to both questions. The fun is certainly there, as your character fluidly takes on all comers in multiple directions in a flurry of martial arts badassery, complete with slomo takedown moves that punctuate the fighting at certain moments. There are also several "special" levels in Story Mode where you do things other than fighting the standard bad guys, and these stages really give you an appreciation for just how much the visuals can create a different gameplay experience even using the same basic mechanics.
With the fighting so fun, frantic, and deep, this would be a shallow rhythm game indeed if it did not deliver musicly. Again, let me assure you that this game delivers on that aspect as well. Gameplay wise, the music ties in perfectly with the action, making it as much an interactive music video as it is an action game. The way that the enemy patterns match the beats and vocals of the different songs in the game really makes for a seamless experience where you "feel" the fight as much as watch it. It's hard to describe unless you have actually played it. But there is really a special feeling that you get when you perfect a level, having controlled your fighter as they acted in perfect sync to the music. This is much easier to achieve on the "Normal" difficulty level than it is on Hard and beyond, but that is part of the charm of this game as well. There is always some way you can get better the more you play, and this keeps you coming back and wanting to improve your skills.
Aside from gameplay wise, how does the selection of music in this game stack up? The answer to that is very well. There is a nice mix of musical styles and artists. They go from easily recognizable songs, such as Marylin Manson's "Beautiful People" and Papa Roach's "Last Resort" to virtually unknown Taiwanese rapper Shen Yi's "War Dance". All of the music they selected packs a punch and was a great choice for this game. Even though Zen Studios is relatively popular thanks to their pinball games, they are still a small developer and it was quite a task for them to get all of the songs they did together for this game. There is a lot of licensing work to do behind the scenes, and it my opinion, all that work payed off, as the track list in this game, while probably not having everyone's favorite song in it, feels very complete.
This leads me to the only problems I have with this game. Even though they are very minor, I feel that I should mention them. The first is regarding the "Beat Your Music" feature, where you can add in your own songs to the game. I know that the developers said that one of the reasons that they delayed this game for about a year beyond the original target release date was to perfect this feature, but it still feels like an afterthought. It's not really bad or anything, but you can definitely feel the difference in playing the songs that Zen crafted into the game, with enemy patterns that really match all aspects of each song, and playing a song that you imported yourself, where you are only able to set the beats per minute (BPM) of the song and the game does the rest. It just feels a little flat in comparison, although it is still pretty special to play this game to Carl Douglas' "Kung Fu Fighting". Just use the version from the movie Kung Fu Panda, as the original is way too long at 15 min to use in this game.
The only other issue I had with this game is that, every once in a while, when you miss beats, the game will hiccup and your next few attacks will not be animated, even though you will see the enemies react as if they were hit even though you are just standing there. It doesn't happen that often, but just often enough that I thought I should mention it. But this little glitch does bring one aspect of this game into sharp focus, and that is the love and care and attention to detail that was put into it by this relatively small development team. That even the slightest animation glitch is that noticable in the game is a testament to how well it all works the rest of the time. And that is quite well indeed. Another reason that Zen Studios gave for the year delay was to polish the animation and make everything work as well as possible, and you can definitely see the time that was put into doing so.
In closing, if you are at all interested in rhythm games or fighting games, or martial arts in general, you should definitely spend the measly $10 to get this on your PS3 or Vita. The developer deserves it for all the work that they have put into this game, and you deserve it for all the crap games that you have put up with in the past, as the fun and depth that you will get from this game is sure to erase at least some of your worse game memories and replace them with guys getting kicked in the face to the beat of some heart thumping music. And who knows, maybe if this does well enough, we'll get a sequel that is even better.
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