Not Quite as Heavy Metal

I love me some rhythm games. Most of my childhood was spent mastering Rock Band and Guitar Hero to an unhealthy level, as well as growing up with classics like PaRappa, Bust A Groove, and DDR. Chances are if you’ve got a rhythm-style game you already have my curiosity. If you make the genre all sub-facets of Metal, now you have my attention.

Headbang Club throw their love of crunchy riffs and blast beats into Double Kick Heroes, a post-apocalyptic world where zombies have outnumbered the remaining humans in terrifying fashion. A band of rag-tag musicians: guitarist James, drummer Derek, bassist Randie, keytarist Snake, and vocalist/band manager Lincoln travel across the country in a suped up Cadillac where the kick drums come attached with firepower, mowing down all that seek to silence the band’s combination of violence and velocity. Where hope is slowly fading the power of Metal spreads across the land, and may be the only thing that can save the world from a zombie infestation and a demonic resurrection.

Slaughtering enemies feels right at home if you were ever that kid that played DDR on a controller or Flash Flash Revolution on a keyboard. Two buttons are set for the kick drums, cymbals, and snares, the kick drums being the main source of damage while the cymbals and snares build up energy for powerful attacks like an AOE splashing grenade or a powerful one-shot sniper. Successful hits on the kick drum will improve your combo which unlocks more powerful guns like shotguns and cannons, but (if you’re on a high enough difficulty) missing a note or pressing out of place will break the combo and downgrade your firepower. Missing a cymbal or snare note won’t break your combo, but will decrease your meter making it harder to use those special attacks. Lower difficulties remove the cymbals and snares all together to ensure a smoother experience for rhythm newbies.

Additionally enemies track on higher and lower parts of the road where your band plays, and the different kick drum buttons will specify which part of the road you want to shoot. It keeps players on their toes on where to shoot, as well as keeping their combo alive. DKH allows for button remapping, and thank the Drumming Gods for this, as your hands will explode working bumper and triggers with your fingers on later levels. Use your thumbs, thank me later. For such a simple looking game there’s a lot of depth and multi-tasking that makes Double Kick Heroes deceptively difficult. Taking on multiple lanes of music while juggling which hemisphere to shoot down is a tall but rewarding task when done right. What pains me is really finding this competitive nirvana so late in the game’s Story mode.

A quick tutorial gives a basic rundown of how things work in DKH, but Story Mode’s difficulty progression make the first half absolutely crawl. I played through on the METAL difficulty, DKH‘s Hard Mode, and the first few stages consisted of various styles of beach rock, stoner rock, and some jazzed-down death metal to fit the early narrative of lighter kick drum tracks meant to ease you into DKH‘s gameplay. But for a game that is billed on taking on hordes of zombies with the power of Metal, DKH comes out swinging very softly.

The same can be said with Double Kick‘s actual story. While rhythm games and plot don’t necessarily need to work, the roadtrip to get from Song A to Song Z was mostly ignored. Cheesy writing from the main characters riddled with as many references as they could stuff in usually motioned to be passed by then laughed with. The various cameos of Metal legends were a nice touch, and was nice seeing how they integrated for the moments they were in.

It’s not until Story mode reaches its back half that the stages start to show their teeth: heavy Norwegian Black Metal, blast beat soaked Death Metal, and a few secret stages with tracks that are hilarious in their imitation but brutal in their execution. Double Kick Heroes from World 4 onward is what the game should have been in its entirety. One only needs to point at those worlds’ soundtrack to know why. The beautiful symphony of noise conducted by Frédéric “ElMobo” Motte alongside a litany of musicians from all around the Metal scene composed a blistering soundtrack that kept me pushing forward for the next onslaught to grace my ears. To say the music selection is the best part of this game is a grueling understatement, and sets a high bar for Best Soundtrack of the Year if only for its amazing representations of Babymetal, Meshuggah, and those shady 90’s live Grindcore albums that somehow always made a way into your collection.

Each world also sports a special boss to take on, and when the “Motherfucker Incoming” warning pops up you’re in for a visual treat. Each boss is a delight to fight, but for players trying to 100% each song, most boss fights will end around half way through the track and make your hit percentage look like garbage. It’s not a big deal, but is super odd and goes against the scoring mechanics that the rest of Story Mode works with.

Once the Story has been completed with an optional secret ending to shoot for, there are extra modes to continue your time but they won’t hold you for too long. Arcade mode allows for quick access to your favorite songs in Story mode. Hellgate is akin to Guitar Hero‘s bonus songs, where bands like Carpenter Brut and Gojira have specific stages made for their songs. It’s sad because the amount of love they put into each of these could’ve really been used in the Story mode, but each of these little worlds made for the songs were super enjoyable.

Fury Road is Double Kick‘s Endless Mode, where players start from the beginning of the Story and play each song in succession in a survival-style marathon. Each song completed grants the band a passive perk, which can range from slowing enemies down, to doing extra damage, to refilling the amount of lives held. This mode would be amazing if not for the previous statement that DKH‘s first half of the campaign slogs, so going through it again takes some tenacity and gritted teeth before you get to enjoy what is to offer. Just putting the stages on shuffle would’ve saved this mode and I would’ve given it a much longer run.

DKH does include a level editor, which allows music to be imported into the game and tracks to be made by hand for whatever didn’t make it in the game. The note tracks can be uploaded online to be played by others, but licensing laws do not allow the music to be uploaded as well. Instead, users must have their own copy of the track they want to play on their computer to sync with the track made by the other user. Given the dozen or so tracks currently available I did not have any of the tracks on my computer, so I was unable to try out this feature.

The rhythm genre lives and dies on the music it bestows upon its playerbase and for that I can give Double Kick Heroes a pass on the things I did not like, most notably the forgettable Story Mode and the misfires on its extra modes. But the top-tier soundtrack and the elation of hitting your line on a ludicrous note track is just so rapturous and addicting, and that feeling is enough to give Double Kick Heroes its just desserts.

Reviewed on Xbox Game Pass.