Somehow we accepted that rhythm games could only use geometric abstractions to inform the timing of actions, but KickBeat replaces these with goons to pummel and the results are refreshingly fun. You play as Lee or Mei, two cardboard cutout characters in a fight to protect… something. The story is not really important and doesn’t get in the way or improve anything. No matter your motivation, what’s clear is that you need to beat up hundreds of goons, and you need to beat them up with impeccable timing.
At first, the fighting/rhythm mashup mechanics can feel a little overwhelming. Your enemies encircle you, and in a specific sequence step into one of four quadrants represented by your action buttons. There are color-coded baddies, which inform how closely they can group, and if more than one can attack simultaneously. After a few songs, these rules seamlessly meld into your subconscious, and you can effectively groove into a Zen-like state that only good rhythm games afford. The note charts and timings of each track feel dynamic and fine-tuned. Each time a song drops a deep hook or a heavy beat, the corresponding skull bashing feels great. The difficulty scales well, and you feel yourself improving to the same tune as your opposition. Boss encounters provide slight variances to the core gameplay, and actually provide a decent change of pace.
In KickBeat, gamepads are not only supported they are strongly recommended. Because of the difference in spacing between WASD and the intended cross pattern of the action buttons, one can’t effectively get into the groove on a keyboard as well as with a controller.
As for the actual soundtrack, it’s difficult to comment on given how subjective musical taste can be, but I found the quality of songs varied wildly. You get a fair share of clumsy nu metal and rap rock, but you also have some well-crafted electronic, and some competent dub-step. What’s surprisingly missing is “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Stevens. Zen Studios, how did you miss this? Altogether, I’d say the soundtrack manages to have more good than bad, but some of the lower quality tracks have a tendency to bring you back down to earth.
Luckily, the bundled soundtrack is just the start, and you can import any song from your MP3 collection. However, don’t expect a fancy automated import tool. You will be required to tap a button to the beat of each song in order to calculate the BPM of that track. Additionally, the note chart created for each song will only be based on the timing of the beats - no fancy progressions based on the actual notes or melodies, just timed commands. It’s a feature that breathes a little more life into the original game, but not enough to keep you coming back for more.
As a devotee to rhythm games, I was excited to see if KickBeat could manage to deliver a new experience to a genre that has recently felt flat. It’s concept of using hoards of thugs as beat-fodder is more than a gimmick and provides satisfying play, but an inconsistent soundtrack, poor character design, and a weak track importer unfortunately keep KickBeat from being a true contender.
Final Score: 6.5