After reviewing the newest tables for its meticulously-detailed Zen Pinball 2, we were in for a totally different experience from Budapest-based Zen Studios when KickBeat: Special Edition hit the eShop. Rather than a realistic recreation of a real-life activity, KickBeat is a zany martial arts rhythm game in which you kick bad guys to the beat of music.
The first thing you'll notice about KickBeat is its surprisingly high production values for a budget release. The clean, easy-to-navigate interface (that supports both button and touch input) sports an impressive online leaderboard right on the main menu; detailed statistical breakdowns and all sorts of different scoreboards throughout the experience will keep competitive players coming back for more.
The set-up is fairly contrived: you play as Lee and Mei, two martial artists from a holy monastery in San Francisco that guards the abstract concept of music. One day, an evil organisation steals "the Sphere" which contains all human music, and our dashing young heroes must go on a globetrotting adventure to save the world, from San Fran to Chicago to Paris to Tokyo to Istanbul. The plot is conveyed through a series of semi-animated still frame cinematics, colourful but predictable. It's all an excuse to get to the lovely meat of KickBeat: the kicking of beats.
The core gameplay is fairly simple. Your character stands on a circular platform as enemies approach, and using the four face buttons (or the D-pad, if you prefer), you kick them all in the face in time with the song. Enemies are categorised into yellow, blue, and red: Yellow Men are the slowest-moving foes, Blue Men move much quicker, and Red Men always appear in pairs, forcing you to press two buttons at once to eliminate them. You can gain power-ups like bombs and shields from foes, which you can unleash with the R button, and performing flawlessly increases your "Chi," which you can use with the L button for a score multiplier. Enemies slowly chip away at your health, and if your health bar reaches zero you fail the level.
It's all standard fare for a rhythm game, but the presentation is what sets it apart. KickBeat is a visual feast, with beautifully-animated characters and all sorts of distinctive locales to dance in, from discotheques to wrestling rings to Turkish baths. Long loading screens aside, there's no slowdown whatsoever, and it can be just as fun to watch KickBeat as it is to play it.
No rhythm game can succeed without a solid track listing, and KickBeat distinguishes itself with a very unique soundtrack, for better and for worse. Instead of falling back on standard Top 40 pop songs and innocuous dance tunes, KickBeat has a distinctively "early '00s hard rock" flavour: a heavy emphasis on industrial and nü-metal (verging on what some would refer to as Butt Rock), with some occasional dance beats and dubstep sprinkled in for good measure. It's definitely not everyone's cup of tea, but at least it gets points for originality. To give you an idea, the most recognisable songs on tap are "The Beautiful People" by Marilyn Manson, "Scum of the Earth" by Rob Zombie, "Boom" by P.O.D., and "Last Resort" by Papa Roach – some tracks we haven't listened to since the days of the N64.
Although the gameplay is straightforward, some of these rock songs don't quite lend themselves to the precision beat breakdowns that rhythm games thrive on; further complicating the flow are the visuals themselves, which are a joy to look at but can often be too busy for their own good. Rather than simple symbols moving across the screen like in Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero, enemies appear onscreen and walk in a counterclockwise motion around the player until their corresponding beat arrives; with up to a dozen or so enemies appearing onscreen at once, it can get hard to follow, particularly on the tougher difficulty settings that don't display any button prompts.
KickBeat features four difficulty levels, ranging from fairly tough to retina-melting. While the standard controls work fine, acquiring power-ups takes some getting used to – certain enemies will have special items floating above their head, and you snag them by quickly double-tapping when you attack them. It sounds easy enough on paper, but managing double-taps while still trying to keep all your button presses on tempo with the music can get frustrating.
True to Zen Studios' legacy, KickBeat offers a bevy of modes. Solo play is split into training mode, story mode, free play, and survival, all of which play pretty much how you'd expect. Story mode is deceptively long – after you play through all 24 songs with Lee, you think you've completed the story, but there's an entire second quest starring Mei which artificially doubles the campaign length... you're playing through all 24 of the same songs over again, just with different cutscenes between them.
Multiplayer mode provides a head-to-head free play matchup between you and a friend, with one playing entirely on the GamePad while the other uses a Pro Controller and gets the TV screen to themselves, negating the need for split-screen – a refreshingly intuitive use of dual-screen multiplayer on Wii U that's been seen in Hyrule Warriors but was missing in Nintendo's own Mario Kart 8. The rest of the time during single-player the same content is displayed on both screens, allowing for off-TV play. It's worth noting that you must unlock KickBeat's multiplayer mode by defeating one of the later bosses in the single-player campaign.
KickBeat is a fairly standard rhythm game augmented by some visual flair and a polarising soundtrack. The attention to detail we've come to expect from Zen Studios is present in full effect, both in the luscious 3D models and in the interface with statistics galore. This isn't a title you'll likely still be playing years from now, but it's a surprisingly meaty experience, and if you're a music game addict or a huge fan of early '00s mainstream hard rock music, you'll love kicking these beats.