It’s fair to say I have a history with rhythm-action games. I rapped COOL with Parappa the Rapper, ruined my legs with Dance Dance Revolution, and played legendary songs with Gitaroo Man. I rocked out with the Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and Rocksmith series. I tapped away with indie titles from Stepmania and Audiosurf through to Symphony. I… well, you get the picture.
I establish my rhythm-action credentials both to make it clear that I really, really like this genre, and because KickBeat Steam Edition is reminiscent of a lot of these titles. Mostly the earlier ones, though all in different way.
For instance: you’ve got a silly plot, sort of like Parappa the Rapper or Gitaroo Man, albeit not nearly as completely insane. Players take the role of Lee, a disciple at a vaguely stereotypical kung-fu temple. In San Francisco. Which is devoted to protecting the Sphere, a big glowing orb that apparently holds all of the world’s music. Unsurprisingly, you don’t get far into the game before it’s stolen by the president of a global music empire who wants a monopoly on all of the world’s music – and it’s up to you, as the Chosen One, to battle your way to his headquarters and take it back.
On the other hand, you’ve got gameplay that’s more reminiscent of Stepmania (read: DDR without the dancemat). You stand in the centre of the arena while enemies circle around you; when they step forward (in time to the beat of the song) you tap in their direction to take them out. Both visual and aural cues are required to get this spot on; button presses have to be timed fairly well, and as they sidle around you, it can be tricky to work out which foe needs to be smacked first. But that’s the basic gameplay: press buttons in time to the music. Or, if you like, punch people in time to the music.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Enemies are also colour-coded; yellow enemies are standard, blue enemies tend to attack on half-beats and need to be hit in rapid succession, and red enemies attack two or three at once, requiring multiple simultaneous button presses to take them down.
And then you’ve got power-ups. Enemies often have orbs floating above their heads, and double-tapping the attack takes out the enemy and gets you whatever’s in the orb. It might be bonus points, or a shockwave that eliminates all nearby enemies, or temporary invulnerability. You’ve also got chi, a bar that fills up both as you batter enemies and as you grab certain power-ups; when full, you can employ it at will to double your score multiplier.
Because this is all about score, really. There are stars awarded for doing well on levels, which unlock new characters and new costumes, but as those appear largely based on score, you’re really after massive numbers. That means getting a massive chain and using your chi at the right time. And that, in turn, is about getting into the beat and tapping to the music.
Your ability to get into the music itself depends entirely on how much you appreciate the soundtrack, of course. Which, uh… I don’t.
Most of the song choices make sense stylistically – fast-paced, “angry” music – but specific selections… well, there’s Celldweller, which isn’t something I’m overly keen on. There’s Marilyn Manson. There’s Papa Roach. Papa Roach. When was the last time Papa Roach could even see relevance with a telescope? On the upside, this PC release (as the game was originally on Vita) adds in a bunch of tracks from the superb platformer Electronic Super Joy, and these levels are among the best in the game.
On the other upside (because I’m very bad at spatial awareness, so things can have two upsides) there’s a Beat Your Music mode which lets you plug in your own tunes and bash away to them. This has you calculate the BPM across three different sections of the song by tapping away to the beat while it plays a 15-second cut, and by and large, it works pretty well. It does seem to have a few problems with songs that rapidly shift tempo, but almost everything I tried worked well. Note to self: Nine Inch Nails good, Vengaboys bad.
The problem is that it’s a relatively slight experience. It’s certainly tricky, particularly on the higher difficulty levels, but if you’re not into the music then you’re stuck with the Beat Your Music mode… which get you no unlocks. Everything looks utterly stunning – the characters are wonderfully animated and the environments are drop-dead – but with only six environments, they get a bit old before you’ve even finished the set of songs associated with each. There are multiple characters, but all share the same animation set. And, most disappointingly, the plot’s ridiculous nature unfortunately drops off a bit as it gets further in.
These are the dangers of a rhythm-action game, I feel. Rocksmith gets away with limited venues and visuals because it’s teaching you how to play an instrument; Guitar Hero and Rock Band had physical interactivity, superb feedback, and an excellent tracklisting. Parappa the Rapper and Gitaroo Man had completely bonkers plots, excellent music, and a degree of variety in mechanics. Ouendan… well, that’s just Ouendan; I’m not even going to try to categorise that. KickBeat, alas, has a mixed tracklisting, a plot that doesn’t stretch far enough into insanity, visuals that get a bit old, and mechanics that mostly just get faster rather than evolve.
KickBeat has two saving graces. The first is the price, as $9.99 is really rather competitive for what’s on offer here, and I’m willing to give a $10 game a fair bit of slack. The second is that, when it works and you do get into it, it still produces that same wonderful connection to the music as all decent rhythm-action games do.
That, I guess, is one of the real joys of rhythm-action games – particularly ones that use licensed music. They give you a way to interact (even if only in the most superficial way) with music; they give you an additional way of getting “into” it. When you find the flow in KickBeat, and you’re tapping buttons to a rapid rhythm, and the screen is responding by displaying a martial artist punching and kicking brightly coloured enemies off the screen… well, it’s as satisfying as nailing a Guitar Hero solo. It’s a shame that KickBeat doesn’t offer much more on top of that, but if the tracklisting appeals (or at least seems tolerable enough that you can get some unlocks) then this is yet another solid way of – in a manner of speaking – playing music.