Behold The Kickmen [official site] is an almost-football sportsball game: there’s a ball and two teams trying to get it in each other’s goal via tackling, sprinting, passing and kicking. It’s only almost-football though because it has been designed by someone with a wilfull ignorance of football’s details, and who dislikes the sport but did enjoy playing classic football Amiga game Sensible Soccer. Footballers become “kickmen”, your opponent’s team is made up of “enemies”, you “do” a goal rather score one, and the pitch is circular and surrounded by walls.
It mines its own ignorance with comic intent, but I was curious whether it could move beyond the developer’s Twitter bants and stand up as an arcade sports game in its own right.
After playing around 35 matches: nope.
Here’s the thing: making a good football game is really hard. You need to have opponent AI that is challenging but predictable and beatable; you need to come up with systems to compensate for the fact you’re only ever controlling one person on the pitch at a time; you need an interface that deals with football pitches actually being pretty big; and you need to create a control system that facilitates accurate passing between a bunch of moving targets for players using an analogue stick. Behold the Kickmen does none of these well and never gets enough distance from the traditions of real football for that not to matter.
I first went to leap into a match via Quick Play, but the game warned me that I should play the Story Mode first. I then went to play the Story Mode, but I was warned that I should play the tutorial first. So I did and it explained the basics of the game, but only the basics. Passing the ball is performed by tapping A (a game pad is much recommended) and its target is determined by proximity and the direction you’re pushing. Hold A down and after a moment time will slow slightly and your player will charge up a big kick. The longer you charge it, the further the ball will go but the less accurate it’ll be. This is how you shoot and hoof the ball up the field.
Tackling is performed by pressing X and pushing in the direction of your target. Get that right and time slows again, triggering an ‘active reload’-style quicktime event. Get the timing correct and you’ll exit the tackle with the ball at your feet, get it wrong and the ball will bounce into no-man’s-land. Miss the ball entirely and catch the man and it’ll be a ‘penalty’, which is a free kick of sorts, and do this three times (“three strikes”) and a player is sent off from your team.
There’s also sprinting, the duration and speed of which determined by the stats of the team you’re controlling, and dashing, which causes your player to jink left or right. Lastly, there’s aftertouch, which allows you to bend the path of the ball in the air after it’s left your foot.
After completing the wordy tutorial, I dutifully returned to the Story Mode. Which starts you off with no abilities other than running, kicking and tackling. You can’t even pass. Why the tutorial isn’t rolled into the story mode, I don’t know, but there’s more to discover that the tutorial didn’t explain.
Passing the ball and performing other actions on the pitch during story mode charges your fever meter and scoring a goal converts that fever meter to money which you can spend between matches to level up your team’s stamina, positioning, goalkeeping (you don’t control the keepers), and so on. Your team is total guff to begin with, so this is important. There’s an ‘offside’ rule, which seems to be about remaining in one area of the pitch with the ball for too long; there are power-ups which appear on the pitch towards the end of the game and which when collected extend the match’s duration; and scoring from different parts of the pitch can net you one, two, or three goals for your trouble.
So it’s football, then, with a little of baseball and a little of basketball and some words jumbled up.
None of the changes matter one jot, though. All that really matters in a football (or almost-football) game is how it feels to move the ball around, to pass and shoot and run. In Kickmen, having the ball at your feet causes your player to slow to a crawl. This is presumably to incentivise you to pass or to hoof it up the park like the kickman you are, but passing is no fun when your AI-controlled teammates are bumbling around behind opponent players or far off screen. Hoofing meanwhile is too inaccurate at distance to ever be satisfying.
Sensible Soccer was fun because the speed and ease with which you could move the ball around captured football at its best. It was fluid and exciting and graceful, and it allowed for enough finesse within its controls for player skill to make the difference between winning and losing.
In Kickmen it felt like I won because the AI was crap and it felt like I lost because the AI was superhuman. In most sportsball games you feel like you’re working to massage the ball into a goalscoring position, and when you shoot, your breath catches a little as the ball sails towards the goal. If it goes in, you feel rewarded. In Kickmen you can shoot from about anywhere and if it goes towards the goal, the keepers are bad enough that you’ll normally score. It’s only the inaccuracy of long-distance shots that stops you just shooting from inside your own half – although play against a high level opponent in quick play and the accuracy issue seems to disappear. Your opponent will pass the ball between their kickmen at the speed of light, then hoof it in from their own half and get three points.
This ability for superhuman passing can occasionally be found even among lower quality teams. You’ll be soundly beating an opponent and they’ll have barely strung two passes together the entire game, when suddenly they’ll turn into masters of tiki-taka. You won’t have time to tackle or even move as the ball pinballs around the pitch, then they’ll have scored. As quickly as this talent arrived, your opponent will lose it again and return to their previous performance level.
In either instance, perhaps you’ll get lucky and your opponent will decide not to score even when in front of an open net. They’ll pass the ball around at great speed, get right in front of your goal, and then pass it back to one of their own defenders all the way back in front their own goal. Maybe they’re trying to maximise points by scoring from far away, but just as often this simply leads to them losing the ball entirely. That’s good for you, but it lends matches an erratic, unpredictable quality that further erodes any sense of satisfaction to be gained from winning.
There’s other examples of sloppiness. The side-to-side dash move is controlled relative to the screen, regardless of your player’s direction, while side-to-side movements in aftertouch are relative to the direction the ball is travelling. On a couple of occasions at kick-off, my players ran through the ball rather than collecting it. Sometimes when tackling, my player just slides ineffectually into the ball at my opponent’s feet and ends up being shoved up the field on their backs. A lot of the time I would successfully complete the tackling QTE but instead of gaining the ball my player would leave the tackle dazed and immobile – is that because the opponent’s ‘evade’ stat caused me to lose a dice roll? I’m not sure, but if so it’s undermining the skill-based QTE.
In between matches of the story mode, there are cutscenes with occasional dialogue choices telling the story of a kickman and the mystery of his father’s death. Its tongue is planted firmly in cheek, but it didn’t make me laugh. Worse, it – and the rest of the game – is possessed by a smugness I find off-putting. My own interest in football has waxed and waned over the course of my life, and there is certainly plenty to make fun of among the sport’s self-serious managers and primping millionaire players, but too often Behold the Kickmen’s targets seem to be the sport’s fans. It feels mean-spirited to me, though if you’re the sort to feel assaulted by other people’s enjoyment come World Cup time or a new Premier League season, you might find Kickmen’s tone some kind of antidote.
You probably still won’t want to play it though, because almost-football is still basically football. And in this instance, it’s without the verve, excitement or multiplayer modes of football’s arcade classics and other sportsball games, such as the superb Rocket League and Videoball.