After the oversaturation of rock-based rhythm games instigated by Rock Band and Guitar Hero led to a complete implosion of the genre, gamers who wanted to get their rhythm on haven't had much of choice beyond pop-infused dance games. In an attempt to prove that rhythm is not dead to gamers outside of the club-hopping set, the studio known for its awesome pinball games has brought us KickBeat. Devoid of Top 40 hits and tired disco rehashes and infused with the power of Kung Fu, KickBeat tries to make rhythm games kick-ass again.
KickBeat puts your lone martial arts master in the center of a ring surrounded by a horde of thugs looking to bring on the pain. As the music plays they begin to circle and enter the ring. When one of them steps onto one of four spots that each correspond to one of the Vita's face buttons, pressing the matching button unleashes a knockout Kung Fu move to take him out. This being a rhythm game, the enemies will enter the attack spots with timing and patterns that match the music that plays during the level, and you'll need to make sure that you time your button presses pretty precisely. The game is forgiving if you're a touch late or early and will even let you know when you're off, but mistimed attacks mean fewer points and missed ones open you up to attack, and chaining successful attacks builds your score multiplier as well. A yin-yang symbol on the floor beneath your feet represents both your health and your "Chi", which powers your multi-enemy clearing special attack, and needless to say, the level will end prematurely should your health be drained completely.
The enemies are color-coded to indicate their attack styles and the method you'll need to counter their attacks. In addition to the basic enemies who attack you individually, you'll face enemies that pair up for a quick one-two strike, linked pairs that must be countered by keeping the corresponding button depressed until the second enemy attacks, and simultaneous attackers that require you to hit two different buttons at once. Occasionally you'll see an icon above an attacker's head indicating a power-up such as a health boost or a bonus multiplier. If you defeat one of these attackers with a double press of the button, one to knock out the attacker and one to sweep up the power-up, you'll pick up the corresponding item.
Each level basically plays out this way, with the variety in gameplay derived from the song for the level and the skins used on the enemies - you'll fight ninjas, wrestlers, clubbers, ... but they'll always perform the same style of attacks based on their color. There some levels that are a bit different on the surface such as the boss fight levels, but they all still boil down to you fighting off the enemies who enter your circle in time with the music.
As for the music, the soundtrack has a decidedly industrial bias so part of your enjoyment of the game will depend on how much you love, tolerate, or hate that type of music. There is an option in the game to play levels based on the music you have stored on your Vita, but unfortunately this option remains locked until you play through the game's story mode. On the whole the game is pretty stingy with unlocking additional modes and difficulties, insisting you play through the story mode several times before you have full freedom of choice in how you'd like to play the game.
It may take you a bit of time to get the hang of the game and beat the songs with any consistency. It's not that the game is unfair or that the controls are touchy; it just takes a little time to learn the enemy attack patterns, manage multiple attacks that come in quick succession, and get used to the timing of your attacks. There's a tutorial mode for new players and the game features several difficulty levels, so there should be plenty of challenge here for most gamers.
I had fun with the game - more so once I actually got good at it - but it's not the kind of game that you can sit down with for an extended period of time. The game's repetitive nature becomes more apparent the more time you spend with it. Taken in bite-sized chunks it's certainly enjoyable, especially after you get to the point where you can import your own music. It's a unique take on the rhythm game, and worth checking out.
Final Rating: 74%. Martial artistry set to music will have you kicking to the beat.