Rhythm games have always ranked amongst my favorite genres. They are sort of a guilty pleasure of mine, as I find the harmony of the music with the pressing of buttons to be an amazing experience. I always found it odd that I’m really good at rhythm games while not being a musician. As an extra note, I’ve though about creating a “greatest shmup” ranking equivalents to other genres, with rhythm games being one of the candidates. Double Kick Heroes might have been the place to start.
When I first saw Double Kick Heroes, I was extremely excited to see a game that seemingly combines rhythm games and some elements of shmups. It seemed like a recipe for success and maybe a GOTY contender for me, but sadly I found a game that tried too hard to do multiple things and ended up not delivering on any.
Developer: Headbang Club
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release date: Aug 13, 2020
Double Kick Heroes is a rhythm game that combines music with shooting elements. You play as a band and their gundillac in their quest to find out the cause of the post apocalyptic wasteland. The music isn’t just for show, as it will be your primary means of defense against the hordes of the undead.
Before I begin, I want to briefly describe my game settings. I played 90% of the game on the extreme difficulty with custom button controls. The reason for the difficulty is that it was the only option that enabled the third music track, but more to come on that later.
Let the rock off begin
From the moment you boot the game, you will be greeted by the game’s gorgeous pixel art and original compositions. Double Kick Heroes features all kinds of Metal tracks for you to enjoy in one of several modes. Whether you prefer to play individual tracks on the arcade mode, or get to know the story of the game, there’s definitely some rocking to do!
Although I mentioned I play on extreme, Double Kick Heroes has 5 different difficulty levels to choose from. They range from very easy to very hard (extreme). I didn’t actually play on the lower difficulties, but I did find the music notes in metal (normal) and above to be very similar. The main difference is that normal and hard have 2 note lanes, while extreme has 3. This was actually the reason I chose extreme as my main difficulty, as I prefer to have more actions to press. Besides the third lane, I found the other 2 lanes to be similar on notes, if not exactly the same on other difficulties, which leads me to believe the difficulty change is not on the music notes, but rather on the enemies themselves.
I do not need… a microphone
Gameplay for the most part revolves around hitting up the notes on the tracks. Every stage will feature a different song, a different set of enemies and a different note track. By pressing the notes in sync with the music, you will be able to fire one of 3 different weapons to fight the enemies chasing the gundillac. Rather than adhering to the convention of having a beat bar which goes up or down as you hit or miss notes respectively, Double Kick Heroes puts the emphasis on the chase. This doesn’t mean hitting notes is irrelevant, it just means that there are nuances to each note press.
Each song has 3 note tracks, which are yellow, red and purple. The yellow notes represent the drums, and each successful note will fire your machine gun. The red notes are snares, and they are linked to your grenades. Finally, the purple notes are your cymbals, which allow you to hit the sniper. Missing notes doesn’t directly impact you in any way, but the idea is that you need to keep hitting them so you can keep the enemies at bay.
Your gundillac has 3 hit points. Enemies are always sprinting towards the gundillac, and if any of them manages to touch it, then you will lose a life. Lose your 3 lives and you fail the song. Your hit points will never recover, so it’s best to never get hit in the first place.
Of course, using your weapons is more than just hitting notes. Your yellow notes will let you fire either your top or bottom gun. Each note corresponds to one shot, so it’s up to you to decide which gun you want to shoot. By getting huge combos of not missing yellow notes, your weapon power will increase alongside your combo.
Reds and purples function a little bit different. Instead of directly firing your grenades/sniper, they will increase their respective gauges. Each gauge can hold up to 3 uses of each weapon. There are special notes in the red and purple tracks that have a weapon icon, which means that hitting that note will fire the sub weapons.
Too many problems and not enough solutions
Although it sounds really good in paper, the shmup element of the game is by far the single element that soured my experience of the game. Rhythm games require concentration, but I feel like Double Kick Heroes expects way too much attention in several places at once. You need to keep an eye on the music track, but also on the enemies chasing you and actively decide which weapon to fire.
Perhaps the biggest culprit is the concept of a top and bottom gun. Yellow notes can be activated with your top gun button or your bottom gun button. Depending on where the enemies are coming from, you need to decide which gun is better to shoot. I’ll admit the concept is actually kind of neat and something I like on paper. In practice, I found it to be unnecessary convoluted.
The best way I can describe my issue with it is by bringing Guitar Hero into the fold. If you ever played on the higher difficulties, you probably learned to combine up and down strumming. Many songs are incredibly hard, if not impossible, if you focus on single direction strumming. The same thing is present in Double Kick Heroes. As you progress, you will be playing songs which will require you to alternate your gun buttons to keep the rhythm. However, for some reason the game is constantly trying to remind you that you chose poorly, as a creature damages your gundillac, even though you haven’t missed a single note, because sadly you didn’t fire the gun you needed to fire enough times.
Of course, knowing which gun to fire is an issue in on itself. The height at which each gun fires it not sufficiently differentiated. That issue is even worse when trying to discern which gun is the right one. Then there’s the issue of enemies which are fast and give you little time to react. I’ve counted enemies that go from edge to edge of the screen in 5 seconds. This means 5 seconds where you must react, then figure out which gun will take them out, and then hope that it will go down with the notes the song provided, as you can only fire when the game lets you do so.
If that sounds hard, try to put everything together and solve the situation while also being focused on not missing a beat. There is a small warning in the music track that signals if danger is up or down. I found the warning to be too late for the most part.
Not enough ammo
Another reason I don’t think the shmup portion works at all is related to the rhythm. Because your weapons are tied to the music, you can’t fire unless the game provides you a note to do so. This means that you can find yourself in situation where the song doesn’t provide enough notes for you to take care of the incoming enemies. This is even worse for the grenades and snipers, as not only are you not able to fill your gauge unless the game allows you to do so, but also you can’t even fire a grenade unless the song provides a grenade or sniper note.
In defense of the game, it does seem to provide an appropriate amount of enemies relative to the song. If it is a slow part, then there are few enemies. For fast parts with a high density of notes, there will be more enemies. Unfortunately, this means that if you didn’t clear a dense enemy horde during a fast part (because you missed some notes or fired the wrong gun). Then there’s a chance of a spillover where you are still dealing with a horde during a slow part, where you will never be able to fight back.
There are also certain mid-boss styled enemies which are very resilient and stay unto you when attacking. I’m not sure if this is intended or buggy behavior, but I noticed those enemies will hit you and then stay inside the sprite of the gundillac. This means that your gun can’t reach them anymore and that they will continue to hit you until you die.
Not rocking hard enough
The reason all of this was every present in my mind during my playtime is that it feels terrible to fail a song when you weren’t even failing notes. Being forced into this situation where you can’t escape by playing perfectly will never be a satisfactory design.
Perhaps this will be a very subjective portion of this review, but I found the music selection to be quite underwhelming. After all my time spent playing the game, I can only hum a single track. The rest of them all sort of meshed together. Most of them didn’t feel unique or memorable, to the point that they only served to get me through a stage.
The note tracks were also more miss than hit, as I found beat pattern to repeat in several songs. If I’m being honest, halfway through the game it all started feeling dull and repetitive.
One man band
There’s one thing I must praise, and that’s that they really went all in on the immersion of the controls! I mentioned I played using button controls, but motion controls is where they really show what the joy-cons are capable off!
Motion controls can be configured with a single pair or with two pairs of joy-cons. When playing with a single pair, you can choose to map your yellow notes to “stomp” or “drum” motions. A stomp motion means moving the joy-cons from high to low in a straight downwards movement. The drum motion is basically using your joy-cons as if they were your drum sticks.
Double joy-cons is where they truly show what the Switch is made off! Double joy-cons combine the stomp and drum motions for the most immersive experience possible. The game will ask you to put a pair of joy-cons in your socks to perform the stomp motions. The remaining pair will function as your drum sticks. Stomps will control the yellow notes while the drum sticks will be the reds. Purple notes still need to be hit with a shoulder button.
I personally tried my best to play with motion controls only, but I’ve never been fan of them. I’ve always felt like getting the motions to register is hit or miss, and I value consistency more than immersion. Also, for some reason the stomp motion is the yellow track, which has the most notes. I don’t have the skills to stomp as fast as the songs would require me to, but then again, I’m not a real drummer.
I did also struggle a lot with controller configurations, especially when going from docked to handheld. Almost every time it would wipe my configuration and occasionally force me to use joy-cons to get out of the controller config screen. Not game breaking by any means, but it was quite an inconvenience.
The game modes
Double Kick Heroes certainly shines when it comes to play modes. It has the standard game modes for rhythm games and then some more.
Arcade mode lets you play any song in any difficulty. Truly the best for when you want to do some quick play or just challenge your high scores. It does lack a way of building a playlist, so there’s some room for improvement.
Story mode will let you experience the journey of the Double Kick Heroes. I found this mode to be quite fun. Every song is given meaning and you have a chance to interact with many parodies of rock stars in almost every pit stop! The dialogue is funny and full of metal references and colorful characters. Some of the pit stops are also reminiscent of point-and-click games where you must find a way to progress the dialogue.
Hellgate will let you play guest songs. Unfortunately I’m not knowledgable enough to recognize every song. All I can say is that this mode features licensed tracks to be used in the game.
Fury Road was by far my favorite mode. Fury Road will let you play several songs in succession, while letting you pick up upgrades in-between songs. These upgrades can be damage upgrades, less penalties on missed notes or even recovering your life1 I really had a fun time in this mode. It even has a daily challenge for those who are seeking variety.
Double Kick Heroes definitely had the makings of a great game, but it flew too close to the sun. I feel like the individual elements all have some merit, but when combined they create an experience that isn’t as enjoyable as it should be. I believe either doubling down on the shmup elements or the rhythm, but not both, would have made it a better game.
Even with all that, you should be able to find an enjoyable experience if you are a metal fan. I didn’t talk to much about accessibility, but there are options to disable enemies in order to make it a more relaxing experience. I didn’t go through those because I intended to present the game in the way it was meant to be played, but don’t be me and play the modes that make you happy!