Kickbeat is the highly anticipated new game from developer Zen Studios, famous for their excellent Zen Pinball series. If you had told me before that Zen Studios’ next game would be a fast paced rhythm action game, I would have thought you were joking, however, that is exactly what you get with Kickbeat. What Zen Studios delivers with Kickbeat is a fast paced, frantic and fun experience that holds its own fairly well against the myriad of rhythm based games on the market, despite a few flaws that can distract from the overall experience. For the purposes of this review, the game was played entirely on the Playstation Vita, though Kickbeat will also see a release on the Playstation 3.
I am going to start by getting the biggest issue with Kickbeat off of my chest: the story. The game centers primarily around a young man named Lee who is a member of a sect. of monks called “The Order of the Melodic Fist”. Their sole purpose lies in watching over and protecting an artifact called the Sphere of Music. Every piece of music that exists in the entire world, in any form, is contained within the sphere. The game kicks off with a group of villains breaking into the monastery and successfully stealing almost every song in the world, including Justin Bieber. Yes, the master of the monastery makes a Justin Bieber reference. As the “chosen one,” Lee is inevitably charged with the retrieval of the sphere. And things only get more ridiculous from there. Obviously, the story is not intended to be taken too seriously. To be fair, it’s to be expected considering the type of game Kickbeat is. Still, part of me had hoped for a mission more suited for the talents of a martial arts master. If anything, the story is a mere distraction from the game itself, which despite a few minor flaws, does not disappoint.
To start things off, there is a training mode which introduces you to the controls and various power-ups you will encounter throughout the game. This mode is optional, though highly recommended as it essentially teaches you the basics of the game mechanics. Then you can hop into Kickbeat’s story mode. At first, you are only able to select the normal difficulty setting (with the other difficulties unlock-able later). After the opening cut scene, you find yourself standing on a circular arena not unlike a compass, with each direction represented by one of the four face buttons on the Vita (triangle being north, X being south, etc). Enemy characters will begin to step out of the background and start circling towards a specific direction of the arena. Once an enemy reaches one of these directions, you must press the corresponding button, and assuming the action was timed correctly, Lee will defeat said enemy. There are three types of enemies Lee will encounter in Kickbeat: yellow, blue and red. Yellow enemies typically attack Lee one at a time, making them the easiest to dispatch. Some yellow enemies will also be linked together, requiring you to press and hold the screen and release on the next enemy. Blue enemies will come at Lee one after the other in rapid succession, requiring you to react a lot quicker than with the yellow enemies. Red enemies will advance with a group of two or more at the same time, which requires you to press two or more buttons simultaneously to defeat them.
Having recently mastered Theatrythm for the 3DS, I was fairly confident going into Kickbeat. My confidence was quickly shattered as the music kicked into high gear and I was quickly pummeled into defeat. I was not familiar with the song which made it difficult to get going. However, once I got a feel for the rhythm and the beat, things started to come together and I quickly transformed from a weakling to a martial arts master. Each button press was timed perfectly to correspond with the beat of the music and lyrics, which makes each battle fun and intuitive assuming you can learn the song. There were a few tracks in Kickbeat that went too fast for me to keep up with on occasion, but the saving grace in these situations is the various power-ups you can collect during a fight. These items range from being mere score boosters to something far more helpful during a battle. The shield, for example, can protect you from blows while the shock wave can clear a wave of enemies from the screen. I have been saved from more than a few sticky situations thanks to these power-ups. What I liked most about these items is the method in which you collect them. Power-ups will appear floating over an enemy’s head, and in order to collect them, you must double tap the button accordingly. This is also tied to the rhythm of the song, essentially making the fight more challenging if you decide to hit every power-up.
One issue that I have with the controls became apparent when dealing with the red enemies. Though this may be an issue with the Vita itself, since the face buttons are so close together. I found myself hitting more buttons than I intended too while trying to defeat a red enemy, thus missing my attack and taking damage. This can become a serious annoyance, especially when playing on the harder difficulty settings. In some instances, the difficulty becomes staggering. There are three extra difficulty settings in Kickbeat: Hard, Expert and Master. Each new difficulty that you attempt makes you painfully aware of certain gameplay elements you might have been taking for granted. Hard mode removes the face buttons from the arena, which forces you to pay more attention to the music as opposed to simply waiting for an enemy to step in to the marked area. Expert does the same thing, but fills in more beats of the song with enemies, causing the battles to become incredibly hectic. The master difficulty setting, however, will put even the most hardcore players’ reflexes to the test. Combined with everything that made hard and expert so difficult, the master difficulty setting features randomized enemy placement within the song after each attempt. This makes it impossible to memorize the tracks. I recommend attaching a lanyard to your Vita as a precaution, just in case you decide to throw the handheld in a fit of rage.
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