Friday 21 August 2020

Switch Review - Double Kick Heroes

A rhythm action game set entirely to Heavy Metal Music set during a zombie apocalypse. 'Double Kick Heroes' wont be to everyone's taste, but I'm pretty sure for someone out there this is the perfect game. 

Developed by Headbang Club Studios
Published by Plug in Digital
Released in 2020

As 'Double Kick Heroes' starts, we see a car travelling along a highway in America. As the pixelated yellow road lines streak beneath the vehicle hurtling along I'm reminded of 'Full Throttle'. This title screen seems so visually similar it could almost be considered homage to the LucasArts adventure game. However, aesthetic similarities aside, the biggest point of comparison is the music that blares in the background. Like the point-and-click adventure of Ben and his biker gang, 'Double Kick Heroes' is a game that has heavy metal music culture, right down to its very core. So in all likelihood I was reminded of 'Full Throttle' simply because that's the extent of my heavy metal knowledge. I'm not a fan of thrash guitars and distorted vocals. I can imagine nothing worse than a mosh pit; I'm no metal head, head banger or hesher. The devil's favourite genre is intimidating and alien to me, so I'm much more likely to run than rawk.

Originally released on the PC in April 2018 'Double Kick Heroes' is an arcade style side-scrolling shoot-em-up rhythm game played to a large range of rock and metal tunes. Problem is if you're not into your rock and metal music everything from the soundtrack to the humour and hilariously stereotypical characters may go straight over your head. Such is my metal-naivety I’ve always thought death metal songs sound like they're being sung by the walking dead. So perhaps appropriately the protagonists of ‘Double Kick Heroes' are a band of metal misfits. Having survived a zombie apocalypse they now travel from place to place in their rusty Cadillac. It’s appropriately named the "gundalac" because it’s armed with an arsenal of different weapons. "It’s a metal rhythm shooter, think of like 'Guitar Hero' meets ‘Metal Slug’” says David Elahee, co-founder, of the Headbang Club studio. “Use your metal groove to shoot at zombies, sharks, dinosaurs. You name it we got them”. 

The game takes the rhythmic gameplay of  'Guitar Hero', 'PaRappa the Rapper', 'Persona: Dancing all Night' or ' Amplitude'. As the heavy metal song is playing you have to time specific button presses to the right beat of the music. The better you time your button presses the more damage you'll do to the hoard of beasties giving chase, as success means you’ll fire your car weapons. At the bottom of the screen is a timeline and on the far left of this is a bar. Input markers move from the right of this timeline to the left and as they pass under the bar you’re expected to press a button. The closer you get to pressing it at the precise time it passes beneath the bar, the more points you'll get. Your onscreen characters will fire their guns once for each success, so if you're being chased by 50 zombies you'll need to hit at least 50 button prompts to survive. But that’s not all. For each onscreen input you can press either the A or B button. One shoots towards the top half of the screen and the other the bottom. This means you can’t just focus on the progress bar and ignore the shenanigans going on at the top of the screen, as much as you want to. There’s no point having your characters continually aiming high if all of the enemies are attacking from below. Thankfully, the gundalac will get weapon upgrades if you’re particularly accurate or if you manage to string a range of hits together without missing a button input. However, if you fail to successfully string combos together or if you press the buttons too early or too late you'll also have your weapons downgraded. This creates a bit of a negative spiral that's hard to recover from. You're successful in a level if you manage to reach the end of a stage without the chasing zombie hoard catching up to your car. After which you'll be thrown into another stage, where the gameplay is likely similar just with a different track and different chasing enemies. “It’s both a Shoot Em 'Up and a Rhythm Game. But at the same time I'm glad I just did it, otherwise it wouldn't have existed” says Elahee.

Like so many games of this nature, how much you enjoy 'Double Kick Heroes' will depend on how quickly you click with the gameplay. What seems initially very simple soon becomes much harder as the amount of inputs you have to react to increases exponentially. There are five different difficulty settings, starting with rock and moving up through hard rock, metal, violence and extreme. To pass stages at rock difficulty all you really need do is press the right button in time with the beat. As the difficulty increases the number of instruments you need to respond to also increases. This means you’ll be reacting not only rhythmically following a beat, but in-between this too. Before long you’ll be expected to press numerous buttons multiple times a second, with input cues flooding the perpetually moving timeline. When hundreds of zombies start giving chase it is obvious how many times you need to successfully hit an input marker to be successful. I found anything for metal upwards to be too difficult as you need to focus on hitting all the right notes otherwise you'll be severely punished.

During certain boss fights you need to avoid their attacks by moving the car, luckily hitting good combos will automatically dodge for you. If this didn't seem hard enough there is an option to turn on manual dodging, meaning you have to juggle the enemies as well as your positioning while never missing a beat. I’d wager it’s practically impossible if you're playing on a higher difficulty, and success in a level soon becomes the result of repetition. It becomes less about reacting to the button presses as they appear on screen and more about memorising what’s going to happen when. Like a bullet hell shooter, you're essentially learning attack patterns.

Given my lack of rock knowledge, I didn’t really feel qualified to say if the soundtrack was any good or not. To my unsophisticated ear they all sounded pretty similar to what I'd heard on my few run-ins with the rock genre. I played a few of the tracks to a friend who is far more into their metal music, and apparently the soundtrack is brilliant. I didn’t recognise any songs, but intriguingly neither did he. “The heart of the game is composed by El Mobo , who has been a composer for twenty years who had previously made the ‘Nightmare Creatures’ games“ says Elahee. “He’s also an accomplished metal producer and he's performed with [lead guitarists in Guns N' Roses] Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal!”  Seemingly the soundtrack covers a large swathe of the rock and metal sub genres. “Musical inspirations are groups like Meshuggah, Iron Maiden, Entombed, Dismember, Dimmu Borgir and of course Tenacious D.” says composer Frédéric “El Mobo” Motte. “There will also be songs inspired by bands that play slightly softer music with simpler drum parts. Red Hot or Linkin Park stuff and maybe some more Stoner stuff yeah. But certainly not Queen Of the Stone Age. I don't think you can imagine how much I hate this band.” From this I can surmise that 'Double Kick Heroes' is using sound alike and parody tracks for the bulk of its music. I have no idea if this is a problem or not. I'm a fan of the 'Parodius' games and like how they put their own spin on celebrated classical music and set it against the most absurd onscreen visuals. I’m not sure that bizarre fusion crosses genres though. For metal heads that are purists and want authentic tracks, there is some licensed tunes. For example, there’s much celebration online that Gajera and their song Remembrance has made it into the game. At the risk of sounding like a metal philistine though, everything sounded pretty similar to me. I never expected to be listing to the Ukrainian metal core band Ginger, however I couldn't tell you if I prefer them to french death metal band Gorod. But if you’re fans of either of these bands you'll be delighted with the music in 'Double Kick Heroes'. Perhaps due to its indie start in life, band that’s I would recognise like Metallica, Iron Maiden and Guns N Roses, were clearly out of the games budget. It’s a shame as TenaciousD would fit in with the game's comedic storytelling perfectly.

Games like 'Double Kick Heroes' usually are just arcade romps. You pick a track from a menu and play it. So, it was a pleasant surprise to find a story mode that offers narrative interludes between the songs. Appropriately the game doesn’t take itself seriously at all. Our group of ragtag protagonists just want to play metal and drink booze; the zombie apocalypse seems like a big inconvenience to them. Even i can tell that Headbang Club studio has managed to cover pretty much every metal stereotype in this band and it’s hilariously successful. The basic plot sees the band driving across America seeking refuge from the walking dead. The characters they meet along the way is where the story really had me smiling though. Headbang Club studio clearly didn't have the financial power to pull in real life cameos like we saw in ‘Brutal Legend’ and instead ‘Double Kick Heroes’ opts to parody. Like the soundtrack, the game gives nods to real world people and bands, in a way that fans of the genre will recognises. The references are close enough to be obvious without the need to pay expensive appearance fees. It’s all silly fun, but at the very least the story does gives a motivation to push past some of the really hard tracks in the game.

Set against a zombie apocalypse, the game’s story has been influence by Grindhouse novellas and films. “For this game, pulp, comics, Walking Dead, Tarantino and Bob Rodriguez obviously inspired” says Elahee. “Hyper violent but stylized stories which are all about fun really”. There’s no shortage of Zombie video games now of course, but for most gamers if you mention zombies you think of the photo realistic ‘Resident Evil’ games. While the scratchy line comic book style of Telltale’s ‘Walking Dead’ games may have fit closer to the Grindhouse aesthetic, Headbang Club studios have instead opted for pixel art, paying homage to the LucasArts adventure games; in particular ‘Day of the Tentacle’. There's also echoes of 'Scott Pilgrim Vs the World: The Game' here. According to game designer Guillaume “Gyhyom” Breton, this was mainly because he had more experience in pixel art than Polygon modelling. “I can handle the graphics from A to Z without going through a third party, unlike a 3D game which often requires more people. This technique, when mastered, allows you to quickly produce content for a game!” While it may not be the immediate visual style you associate with metal music it is a logical one. The target audience for this game is clearly those in their thirties, and the games they grew up playing used digital dots for characters. “I love [pixel art], it’s what we in our thirties call the golden age, I didn't hesitate for long to specialize in it.”  ‘Double Kick Heroes’ is an attractive game, and Breton’s pixel art is intricate detailed and full of life. You’ll most likely get to enjoy it during the narrative intermissions, as during game play you’ll simply be ignoring most of the screen. When you think about ‘Guitar Heroes’ you probably don’t recall the antics of the bands on screen, because you simply wouldn’t have looked at them. Unless you’ve memorised the songs, to play the game you have to focus on the parade of notes as they move down the screen. If anything you’re trying not to be distracted by other on-screen decoration, as success depends on you keeping track of when to play notes. ‘Double Kick Heroes’ has the same problem. There could be the best pixel art ever made on the top half of the screen, but you’re trying to ignore it. Instead your gaze is fixed at the bottom timeline, especially on harder difficulties when the button prompts come thick and fast. Considering the purpose of the time line, it needs to be clear and clutter free. Your eyes will flick to the top half of the screen to see where you need aim, but due to the very nature of the gameplay, most of the time you’ll only be watching are a line and some symbols passing under it.  It doesn’t help the feeling on monotony you get while playing the game, especially if the music isn’t to your taste.

While I don’t really like metal music, I can still see there’s a good game here. ‘Double Kick Heroes’ achieves all it intends to; it’s a fun pick up and play arcade romp that’s accessible but with an almost insurmountable challenge for its biggest fans. The lack of licensed tracks may be a deal breaker for some, but from what I can tell this game's a loving tribute to a musical genre that’s enjoyed by the few but devoted. As Elahee acknowledges “we are the niche of the niche”, but how wonderful it is that games like this can be made today and can find the audience that’ll love them most. It’s wrong to think every video gamer will love every video game; we all have our own tastes and interests. Recently I couldn’t say enough positive things about ‘Cross Code’ but I’ve since heard that other players thought it dull and obtuse. 

The fact that we are playing games at a time when everyone can find a title that ticks their boxes, no matter how specific their taste, is something that should be celebrated. Who knows, maybe ‘Double Kick Heroes’ will be my gateway into a musical genre that’s beloved by many. It’s certainly a fun and rawk-ing ride.
A copy of this game was provided for review by the publisher. They have not seen or had an influence on the content of this post prior to publication.


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