The concept is great: a heavy metal band survive the zombie apocalypse by hooking guns up to their drum kit, strapping that instrument of death to a Cadillac, then driving across the wasteland blasting out bullets and sick riffs in equal abandon.
Double Kick Heroes is a rhythm game where each level's a highway that lasts exactly as long as a song. While the Gundillac races across the top three quarters of the screen, down the bottom there's a Guitar Hero-style track telling you when to press buttons in time to the beat, triggering those zombie-blasting guns. I don't have a USB drumkit lying around but it worked OK with both a controller and the keyboard.
Here's the thing about rhythm games: the band is rocking out and cool stuff is going on, but to actually keep up you have to stare at button prompts. It's like how quick-time events in the middle of cutscenes pull your attention away from those expensive animations and you end up just looking at some cheap icons. I'd rather be watching the parade of zombies (and on some levels shark-headed gang members, evil chickens, and a variety of other goofy enemies) but instead my eyes are fixed on a procession of squares and circles.
There are good reasons to pay attention to the top of the screen on some levels, like the boss fights where can steer the Cadillac to line up hits and dodge attacks. You've also got the choice of which gun to shoot on basic beats, and theoretically you could be choosing the gun that lines up with the lead zombie pursuing you, but it's impractical to look up much when you need your eyes on the track.
Other rhythm games like Crypt of the NecroDancer and Audiosurf have found ways around this problem, making the part of the screen you need to pay the most attention to the most visually interesting. Double Kick Heroes feels like a step back in that regard.
But then I found the real meat of Double Kick Heroes.
While the story mode's built around an original soundtrack, there's an editor that lets you import your own mp3s and design levels around them, choosing exactly where on the timeline to place each input and monster spawn. It's a time-consuming process, but fortunately the designers have already mapped out seven tracks by bands like Metallica, Tenacious D, and Sepultura. You'll have to provide your own mp3s of the songs for obvious reasons, but the button prompts are already mapped out.
Driving down the highway to 'Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)' by the Deftones was a headnodding good time in a way that none of the game's legit levels were. The original soundtrack's fine, a mix of growly death metal and bar-room hard rock with squinchy synth tones for the sake of the keyboardist who is also your sniper, but that's never going to compete with a song from 1997 that I already know by heart.
When this hits the Steam Workshop players will be able to share their layouts, and I'm looking forward to that. If someone can get started on Motörhead's back catalog that would be ace.
Playing imported songs means you miss out on the story where a band of metal stereotypes exchange reference-heavy banter with analogues of Marilyn Manson and James Hetfield, but honestly you're better off without that. The art's great, like a pixel version of a Gorillaz video, and if it was a comic book or an Adult Swim cartoon maybe I'd be into it. As text to click through between videogame levels it left me cold.
Meanwhile, I'm gonna be playing 'Roots Bloody Roots' till my thumb falls off.
Double Kick Heroes arrives in Steam Early Access on April 11. You can download a demo from itch.io.