If you haven’t heard of Kickbeat before and are looking at the screenshots, you’ll probably get the idea that it’s a fighting game that has something to do with music. On the surface of it, that’s true, but the fighting itself is mere decoration for what is a relatively standard rhythm action title. The game is set around fighting, sure, but the focus is on pressing buttons in time with the music in the same way that you would step on floor panels in time with the music in Dance Dance Revolution.
Your character begins each round stood in the middle of a circle, in a room full of drone fighters. The enemies circle up and head toward one of the four points – up, down, left, or right. When they reach their designated point, they’ll take a step in to make an attack and when they do, you need to hit the corresponding face button on the Xbox One pad to fend them off. Your attacks are generally matched with the beat of the song that’s playing, or on higher levels, with other song parts. Although it sounds simple, there are nuances to the gameplay that make things decidedly tougher than all that. Characters which have a trail running between them for example, are paired up so that you have to press the button to attack the first enemy, then hold it until the second fighter arrives, releasing it at the right point to knock him out also. Red characters attack simultaneously, so you’ll need to hit two or more buttons at the same time to get rid of them. Blue characters attack quickly, sometimes on the half-beat and sometimes even quicker than that, so rapid attacks are required to dispatch of them.
On top of that, some opponents have orbs above their heads that offer extra points, multiplier boosters, power ups, and health pickups. To grab these, you need to double tap your attack. Generally, the double press matches the music as well, so the controls all flow nicely together.
It all sounds somewhat complicated but once you’ve played a few rounds, it’ll be second nature.
Kickbeat provides two story modes which are much the same as each other, barring the fact that you play as a different character in the second, which is only unlocked when you complete the first. The story sees you trying to save music by taking down an evil corporate leader who seeks to control the entirety of the world’s music output. To do this, you play through every track in the game one after the other, with certain stages serving as boss battles. While the boss fights do feature slight twists on the standard procedure, the gameplay mechanic is the same. Whether you’re kicking away rockets to defeat a helicopter, or just beating up enemy after enemy, you still play the game the same way.
The game will be like catnip to those that love a good challenge, mainly due to the incredible level of challenge on offer to those who brave even the second of the four difficulty settings. Some would say that the game is a little imbalanced in that respect, but others will love getting their crampons and ropes out in order to scale the massive difficulty spike that occurs between levels. The default setting is a breeze. Most players will be able to clear the story mode first time without retrying any tracks - unfortunately seeing all that the game has to offer as they do so - but by the time you’re halfway through that next level up, you’ll be repeating stages and failing multiple times. You’ll need to learn certain sections of songs in order to have any chance of beating them, and on the top level even that won’t help you, as enemy directions are randomised. These increases in challenge do provide longevity in a somewhat content-light game.
Sometimes, the failures that occur on any level won’t actually be your fault though, and this is our main problem with Kickbeat. Though the game generally looks very nice, with vibrant colours and some really nice hand-drawn animations going on, presentational problems poke holes in the gameplay way more often than we'd like. With all the lights of the stage that you’re playing in flashing about, it can be incredibly tricky to tell what sort of attack you’ll be facing next. On a stage bathed in red, all of the enemies tend to look red, for example. This means that one of the key indicators as to the next section's timing are all but useless, and will cause you to take damage where a fair playing field would have seen you fight through unscathed. Then of course, when you do face a pair of red fighters, they’ll both kick you down as you’ve overcompensated and are working on the premise that they’re not red at all.
Admittedly, this is only a problem on some stages, but on others there are issues with regards to camera work. There is a reason that other rhythm games generally designate one area of the screen for the list of commands that you’ll need to input, and that’s so that you can concentrate on getting your timing right during complicated sections, without having to have your eyes wandering about the place to find what button you need to press next. In Kickbeat, the commands are shown on the floor surrounding the player, but you’ll find that the camera swings, quick-zooms in and out on beats, and generally does its best to be as unhelpful as possible - sometimes obscuring the commands. You should be working to the beat of course, but in a quick-fire game where attacks can come from all four directions in the space of a beat, you need to be able to clearly see what your next move needs to be. The shifts in camera view may only be subtle at times, but they really prevent you from getting in that super-focused zone of play that the best rhythm games push you into.
The tracklist is generally good, offering up a good mix of styles. There’s everything from the epic opener “It’s Showtime” by Southpaw Swagger, through to club tracks and tunes from Pendulum and Marilyn Manson. Even P.O.D’s “Boom” makes an appearance. On other formats, the ability to “Beat Your Music” has been made available, allowing for you to play against your own songs. That doesn’t appear to be in place here, although there are somewhat embarrassing messages that appear in the loading screens which tell you where to go online to find help with using the non-existent function.
All in all, Kickbeat is an entertaining diversion for a rainy day, but it isn’t what you would call an essential purchase. The idea is good and it all looks very sharp, but over-zealous presentation causes issues with the gameplay at times. There's also something of a lack of content, with only 24 tracks comprising the final set. That won’t last very long unless you get utterly hooked on beating every track on expert level. We'd imagine that most would play through the first difficulty level, maybe give the somewhat entertaining split-screen multiplayer mode a try, and then not go back.