The concept of fusing fighting and rhythm games seems so obvious, as the act of combat already has a rhythmic feel to it. Timing is, of course, crucial to both pastimes, with complex moves requiring metronome-like precision, just like the beat of a song. KickBeat, then, is pretty much the perfect marriage of genres, and the Zen Studios developed audio action game is a tremendous success as a result. You'll fall into a trance as you get into the groove like in a Guitar Hero game and trigger combos that would make even Marvel vs. Capcom sweat. This is essentially the PlayStation Vita version of West Side Story's fight scenes – and that's a killer compliment.
A cartoon cutscene sets the scene on the narrative, which boasts a big bad boss, ridiculous dialogue, and an unlikely but spunky set of heroes. KickBeat initially throws you into the dance shoes of Lee, who through some strange circumstance has been chosen to save music, which has been stolen by an evil corporation. With all of the planet's audio now under the fictional record label's control, no one is allowed to listen to their favourite tunes. So, the protagonist travels around the world, fighting goons in circular arenas, with the aim of hunting down the company's sinister boss and setting the world's music free.
As you're thrust into each arena, hits from artists such as Papa Roach and Marilyn Manson will play as enemies start to surround you. While the goons come in different shapes and sizes, they'll subscribe to three different colours and attack patterns that fit to the beat of the accompanying track. Yellow foes represent single beats, blue chumps signify half-beats, and red rebels embody dual beats. The enemies move into positions that represent the Vita's famous face buttons, requiring you to tap the correct input (or screen) to counter and knockout each attacker.
It's a simple game, but one that quickly turns up the challenge. The tutorial does a terrific job of preparing you for each musical bout, but once you're actually playing the game, the attacks come at a remarkable speed that takes some time to get used to. You really need to find the groove if you want to succeed, but once you nail it, batting off the attacks of dozens upon dozens of dancing enemies really is rather satisfying.
Enemies telegraph where they'll be attacking from and in which order, giving you ample opportunity to plan and prepare for the coming flurry of fists and feet. If you time your attacks correctly, you'll earn Chi, which acts as a multiplier to your score when full and activated with a tap of the trigger. If an enemy has a floating symbol above their head, they'll be carrying one of four power-ups: additional health, a temporary shield, a screen-clearing special attack, or extra points. A double-tap of the corresponding attack button is required to pick up these items.
As such, scooping up the goodies can be a challenge, but will definitely aid your cause. Missing an attack will damage your Chi, as well as reducing your health as your enemy scores a hit. However, you'll earn more points for a perfectly timed button press, so there's a definite advantage to practicing and becoming a master of the game's brand of musical martial arts.
As you play through the campaign, you'll unlock additional content, such as Survival Mode, Free Play, and Beat Your Music. In addition, once you've completed the story as Lee, you can choose to play through again as Mei for a slightly different story perspective. Unfortunately, a lot of this content is attached to your progress. For example, if you like one of the title's tracks, you'll have to have unlocked it in the campaign before you can play it in the Free Play mode. The same thing occurs to the higher difficulty levels, too, as you'll need to beat the level on Normal before accessing Hard and so on. These higher difficulties remove some, if not all, of the on-screen prompts from the screen, and throw more enemies at you.
If you're not a fan of the included soundtrack – which is likely to prove the most divisive component of the game – Beat Your Music allows you to create levels based upon your own audio. Here you must load a song from your memory card and manually set the track's BPM to create a level around its beat. It's certainly not a perfect system, but it's a great way to personalise the experience and extend the game's replayability.
KickBeat is definitely on rhythm, and will consume hours of your time with its beat-matching brawling as a consequence. The track roster may have a song or two that don't tickle your dancing shoes, but with Rob Zombie, Papa Roach, and Marilyn Manson on the setlist, there's more than enough to keep you moving to the game's distinctive tango of death. It's a shame that you have to unlock much of the title's content, but that doesn't stop Zen Studios' latest hit from karate chopping the charts.