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Review: Kickbeat: Special Edition Spruces Up Its Rhythm/Combat Formula

Rhythm games are still alive and kicking and, when it comes to Zen Studios’ genre offering for the PlayStation 4, “kicking” is a more accurate description than you might expect. Kickbeat: Special Edition hit the home console today, offering up an adrenaline-fueled mixture of music and combat that’ll have you carefully tapping buttons in order to lay the smackdown on countless enemies.

Kickbeat originally launched for the PlayStaiton 3 and Vita, coming from a studio perhaps best known for its involvement in the virtual arcade space (Zen Pinball), Zen Studios. This latest version of the game still bears the $10 price tag, but throws in some shinier graphics and a few new songs to entice newcomers and returners alike.

Rhythm games aren’t exactly a new fad these days, but that didn’t stop Zen from taking the genre in a completely new direction, abandoning plastic peripherals and anime idols in favor of some classic kung fu action. Kickbeat still requires you to keep up with a never-ending flow of button prompts but, instead of simply being rewarded with a “Great” rating or a cheer from the crowd, your actions will result in a virtual brawl timed to the music.

As Kickbeat’s slimmed down price suggests, you shouldn’t go in expecting a song roster pulling together dozens of hits. But that doesn’t mean that the 20-song lineup won’t do the trick just fine, offering up heavy-hitting rock tracks and bass-fueled club mixes that fit the game’s fisticuffs quite nicely.

You’ll likely notice a handful of the soundtrack’s artists, including Marilyn Manson (The Beautiful People), Rob Zombie (Scum of the Earth), Papa Roach (Last Resort) and the unexpected, yet equally appropriate, POD (Boom). These more familiar faces are joined by the likes of Pendulum, Blue Stahli, Southpaw Swagger and, new to the Special Edition version of the game, enV. Even if you don’t know them now, I can’t say enough good things about Kickbeat’s selected roster. Every tune fits the game’s combat rhythm mechanics perfectly, complete with screaming guitars, slamming drums and enough computerized beeps and boops to OD a rave fanatic.

I also have to give a special nod to War Dance, by Vietnamese rapper, Shen Yi. Popping up near the final portion of the single player campaign, this insane number was wholly unexpected and utterly fantastic. It’s the kind of song that makes you jump online and buy a copy for your iPod, and it’s the best single offering in the 20-odd song roster.

In case you missed it, yes, Kickbeat has a campaign. The story is a silly tale about a love-struck janitor who becomes the chosen defender of all music. As Lee, you work for Master Fu and a special order of monks known as the Melodic Fist. Their job is to guard the Sphere of Music, a mystical ball of light containing every song ever created. This all-powerful artifact gets stolen by Radio Earth, an greedy organization that wishes to expose the world to only the music it sees fit. It turns out Lee is the only person in the Melodic Fist who is in tune with the true rhythm of the universe, and so is tasked with doing a bit of globetrotting in order to retrieve the Sphere.

The main purpose for Lee’s trip is to take him to the various arena’s you’ll get to turn into battle arenas, including a wrestling ring, a dance club, a Turkish bath (No, really) and a Tron-like realm within the Sphere itself.

Complete Lee’s story and you’ll unlock a campaign for his love interest, Mei, which completes the wacky tale. The real reason you’ll want to play as Mei, though, is to unlock even more outfits for your playable characters, and challenge the game at a higher difficulty level, of which there are four.

The campaign mode is complemented by a short but sweet suite of additional features, including tutorials, a split-screen mode and the ability to tackle an endless gauntlet of music and fighting.

And it’s that fighting that sets Kickbeat apart from its fellow rhythm games. With your character standing in the middle of the arena, enemies will circle in from the outside, stepping up to logos representing the four Dualshock 4 face buttons to make an attack. Your job is to tap the correct button at the appropriate time in order to make an attack first. Some enemies will be linked by a bar of light, requiring you to hold down the button on the first attack and release it for the second. Others come in at off beats to keep things interesting, and still other come at you in groups of two, requiring you to tap two buttons at the same time. Each enemy type is color coordinated, and many will also have glowing emblems floating above their head, requiring you to double-tap the button to claim the power-up or point boost.

You can trigger these power-ups with a tap of the right trigger, giving you a temporary shield, a health boost or an area clearing burst of energy. You’ll also earn Chi for landing enough well-timed hits, which can be triggered for a temporary point increase.

All of this button mashing is complemented by a wild fight taking place in the center of the screen, with your character bouncing from enemy to enemy to complete attack chains. It’s something wholly new for the genre, but it comes at a cost. It can frequently be tough to tell which of the circling enemies is going to attack first, and occasionally your attacks will send an enemy flying toward the camera, blocking your view for a moment. The camera also moves from side to side a bit for dramatic effect, but occasionally a group of enemies that are circling in will block your line of sight and, again, make it tricky to tell which enemy is going to attack next.

It’s not a perfect execution, but once you get the hang of the mechanics and start to memorize a song, the occasional obscured view becomes less of a hindrance. And since the frantic, sometimes jolting camera is used to further enhance the fight sequences, it’s a decent trade off if you aren’t too obsessed with perfect runs. The action is also complemented by occasional pauses that allow for more dynamic fight moves, and the environments serve as glowing, pulsing, energetic settings for the brawls.

For the asking price, Kickbeat is a pleasant distraction that should keep rhythm fans busy for quite a few hours, despite a less meaty set list. The mileage will grow exponentially if you’re the type of person who likes to try the much harder difficulties on a quest for perfectly executed, expert runs. Considering the newer home consoles are basically devoid of the genre at the moment, fans should definitely give it a gander.

Players: 1-2

Platforms: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Wii U

Developer: Zen Studios

Publisher: Zen Studios

ESRB: Teen

Rating:

Ryan Winslett

Staff Writer for CinemaBlend.