KickBeat: Special Edition Review – PlayStation 4

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This is my fourth time reviewing KickBeat in the past year.  The first two times were for the PS3 and Vita versions and this past January I reviewed the Steam Edition for PC.  This time around Zen Studios is bringing their delightfully original rhythm game to next-gen consoles and dubbing it the “Special Edition”.  After spending several hours with the game I was surprised to find out just how special it really was.

KickBeat is an oddity at best; a button-tapping game that for those who play Dance Dance Revolution without a dance mat will know exactly how it works.  In fact, after a few hours of jamming on the face buttons and D-pad I had to wonder if this game wouldn’t be better with a dance mat.  At least I would be getting some exercise.

It’s been quite some time since I’ve played a music game. One only need look at the layer of dust on my Rock Band instruments to see that I, much like the rest of the gaming world, has moved beyond the music game genre, but KickBeat tries to lure you back with some flashy graphics and cool karate animation.  It even has a story, crazy as it sounds.  Apparently all music that has ever existed or ever will exist is kept in this giant crystal orb.  Naturally, a corrupt music executive steals all the music and you must retrieve it, which is exactly what you’ve been trained to do as a special member of an ancient order charged with protecting the orb.  Prepare for the biggest battle against music theft since Metallica took on Napster.

A three-part tutorial eases you into the concepts of the game which are remarkably simple in theory but fiendishly difficult to pull off in reality; especially on the harder settings. You will travel the world fighting in various nightclubs, wrestling rings, a rooftop helicopter pad, and other venues.  Regardless of the setting all arenas are circular and you will find yourself in the center surrounded by literally hundreds of henchmen and the occasional boss.  Enemies come in three colors; blue, yellow, and red with each color assigned to a specific type of beat.  Yellow are whole notes, blue are half notes, and red enemies will always sync up on the corners for a two-button combo kill.

As the pulsating mosh pit throbs to the beat of whatever track is playing, enemies will politely wait their turn, approach the inner circle and begin their circular path around the player leading to a cardinal spot on the ring that matches to a corresponding button and/or D-pad direction. You also have “sustain notes” that are indicated by two fighters linked with a yellow motion blur.  You tap and hold on the first enemy and release on the second for a successful takedown.  I found that if you could train yourself to split the directions between the two sides of the controller some of the diagonal combo presses were easier to pull off.

While you can finish a level by merely clearing away the total sum of all enemies you’ll probably want to go for high scores and rankings on the leaderboards. This means timing your presses precisely for that “perfect” ranking, and anything less than perfect is indicated with a +/- to indicate if you were early or late.  The button prompt will flare up at the perfect attack time, but you’ll end up working off of instinct; especially if you go for the hard or expert modes that remove those button prompts entirely.

You also need to collect power-ups, which 90% of the enemies seem to be carrying into battle. These floating icons indicate if you will earn bonus points, refill your health, Chi, or shield, and require you to double-tap the button to defeat the enemy and steal their power-up.  It’s a clever concept that adds a lot of unexpected difficulty since double-tapping really throws off your rhythm.  When properly fueled you can trigger your Chi to increase your combo bonus scores or activate a shield to block a few attacks.

Of all the versions on all the platforms I’ve played KickBeat the DualShock 4 seems to work the best with flawless response times. I was racking up killer scores on my first few rounds and I haven’t played the game since January.  The double-tap also seemed more responsive allowing me to collect many more power-ups.

KickBeat is all about the gameplay. The story is forgettable and while I enjoyed the artistic cutscenes on my first pass through the game I won’t be watching them on future replays.  You start off playing as Lee and can eventually unlock the female character who is admittedly more “fun” to watch.  In fact, there are quite a few unlockables in the game that require you to earn gold star rankings on each level in each difficulty, even to unlock the right to play that same song on a harder difficulty.

A music game is only as good as its music and that was my biggest obstacle to overcome in KickBeat. Aside from Marilyn Manson’s, The Beautiful People I didn’t recognize a single song in this game, and to make matters worse I am not a fan of the genres they chose.  P. O. D. , Papa Roach, Blue Stahli, and Celldweller are nowhere to be found in my everyday listening rotation.  I must confess that after four versions of the game and a year later I am warming up to the track selection and am now enjoying over 90% of the music.

If you don’t enjoy the included music then the Beat Your Music feature allows you to import your own tracks and use the simple interface to track the BPM and then play custom levels. KickBeat takes on a whole new dimension when you start playing it to tracks like “Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting” or “Click Click Boom” or fire up some DJ house mixes for some great gameplay with a real beat.

The Special Edition adds several new features and improvements on the original PS3/Vita game – those same features were previously available in the Steam Edition.  In addition to the new music there is now an Advanced difficulty in Free Play and Beat Your Music unlocks much earlier in the game so you can start playing around with your own music library.  The difficulty curve has been smoothed out a bit as to make the game a bit more approachable and rewarding as you advance to the higher levels.

Perhaps the biggest or at least the most noticeable improvement for me was the graphics. Zen Studios continually blows my mind by releasing PS4 games that always seem to edge out the PC versions in this area when everything in the back of my mind tells me the PC should be superior.   In side-by-side comparisons the PS4 was clearly superior to anything that has come before it.  KickBeat Special Edition will blow you away with its fluid martial arts animation, flashy nightclub lighting, and visually stunning venues.  The hand drawn cutscenes look better than ever and offer a strong temptation to not hit that Skip button.   For the first time ever I played KickBeat in 3D and I only have two words – MIND BLOWN.  The static nature of these arena venues make the 3D work very well during combat and really enhance those camera pushes.  The only time the 3D effect was lost and had to be regained was when the game broke away for an automated finishing-move cutscene.

Maybe my ears were hallucinating but I’d swear KickBeat Special Edition sounded better on the PS4. Every track – even the ones I didn’t care for – all sounded so much cleaner as if they were being presented at a much higher sampling rate.   The surround mix was pleasing, and I was getting some crazy LFE action from my subwoofer.  I also played the game using my Sony Pulse Elites with the Music configuration which provided an experience beyond words.

When I first played KickBeat last year I thought that the game was coming in too late in the music game cycle to be a success, but judging from the response and activity on those leaderboards there are apparently a lot of people who still like rhythm games. The Special Edition takes what was already there and adds and improves on the core concept in numerous and significant ways.   For some like me, this game is a slow burn that might take a while to finally click, but I do have to admit that the more I play the more I enjoy and the better I get, and it doesn’t get much better than the new Special Edition now available for the PlayStation 4.

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