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BEHOLD THE KICKMEN: ULTIMATE FOOTBALL EDITION
BEHOLD THE KICKMEN has one joke to tell, and it will keep telling it to you incessantly well past the point where diminishing returns have set in. It’s mechanics are neither deep nor sophisticated, though a few are ironically exactly what the genre it parodies would desperately need. There isn’t even multiplayer and the sparse and often mean-spirited single player campaign won’t keep you entertained for long.
But it’s also 4€ in the Nintendo Eshop. There are far worse things to spend money and time on. If that sounds like a backhanded compliment it really isn’t. KICKMEN knows exactly what has to offer, and that something is fun for a while, until it really isn’t anymore.
The basic premise is simple: developer and creator Dan Marshall doesn’t like, get, or enjoy football (soccer in less civilized parts of the world), and he doesn’t care to. For him, the whole thing is just a bloated mess of self-aggrandizing nonsense which commands way too much respect. So what happens when someone like him develops a football game?
BEHOLD THE KICKMEN, which originally came out in 2017 on the PC, is a frustratingly shallow title for something that is rife with potential for parody. The story mode, which plays like one of the melodramatic soap operas seen in games like RIDGE RACER, charts the hilariously over the top rivalries and drama between players. But it settles in for a few choice gags that never move or go anywhere. Considering how it’s common knowledge that football is an incredibly corrupt sport run by a pack of old rich white men, it feels like the jokes here are aimed at the wrong places.
There’s a bunch of guffaws about how tedious the micro-management is and how the rosters look the same from year to year, none of which are particularly observant or new ideas. It just feels like a variation on the yearly FIFA memes that EA gets pounded with yearly. There’s also a dour undercurrent running through the game which feels like open snobbery at anyone who does enjoy football. Like it’s not enough to giggle at fanaticism, but that the joke must also mock those who like something the developer doesn’t.
It’s an odd misstep too, because Marshall is a hugely talented and funny developer, whose other games like TIME GENTLEMEN, PLEASE and LAIR OF THE CLOCKWORK GOD are superbly crafted examples of indie development. The kind that everyone should look to for inspiration.
Those aspects are more evident in the actual gameplay mechanics which, for someone who dislikes or doesn’t understand football, certainly improve upon a lot of most modern games in the genre. In the beginning your team is sluggish and uncoordinated, entirely unable to even pass the ball between players. But the more goals you score (“do a goal” the game instructs), the more skills can be chosen to improve the team. While a single player game, the movement between players is highly intuitive and it’s genuinely fun to line up shots for wildly improbable kicks across the field.
Combined with the combo system, which chains together bigger rewards based on your performance, there’s a genuine sense of fun in the wild antics of the not-even-remotely-like-football matches that comprise the full experience. The visuals likewise are clear and pleasant to look at, bringing to mind the early NES and SNES sports titles, complete with colored football fields of your choice. For most it’s just a nice added bonus, but for those us old enough to remember squinting through early simulators with friends they feel like a lovely wave of nostalgia.
Then there’s the intercept system, which actually puts most other sporting games to shame. Line up the angle from which to sneak in from and your player will slide past an opposing team member, swiping the ball from their feet. This triggers a quicktime encounter, where a perfectly timed press of the button ensures that the steal actually worked. It’s easy to pick up, hard to master, and wildly fun the more hectic the matches get.
BEHOLD THE KICKMEN is fun for a few playthrough, but it’s not something that will stay long in any rotation. And that’s fine. That’s really all it needs to be. It’s a one joke game and perfectly aware of it. For the price of a coffee (in Helsinki), you get surprisingly many hours of laughs both big and small, and a fun gameplay mechanic that’s more refined than it lets on.
But if you really want to experience the best that Marshall can offer, check out the rest of his oeuvre. KICKMEN is a fun distraction from a hugely talented developer, and while it’s a great entrypoint thanks to its low price, the real hidden treasures are found elsewhere.