Game-related ramblings.

Rainbow In The Dark: Knockout City

This is Rainbow In The Dark, a series about games that actually contain colors. This particular entry is also an honorary member of the Keeping Score series, about games and their soundtracks. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

This Rainbow In The Dark entry honors a game that, sadly, no longer exists. Well, sort of. Official servers for Knockout City went offline on June 6, 2023, rendering the game unplayable. But developers Velan Studios released a separate version (PC only, sadly) of the game compatible with private servers, for free. Setting up a server isn’t easy, but fortunately fans came to the rescue. A core group of players created the Knockout City Launcher, which automates installing the game and connecting to an existing fan server (or starting your own). This is great, because the team-based dodgeball antics of Knockout City are a blast, easy to understand for new players but with a lot of nuance to learn and master. I never ended up playing the smash hit Rocket League, but I got the sense that Knockout City is a similar beast: accessible, but with a high skill ceiling. During the COVID-19 lockdown times, I turned to Knockout City often when I needed a break, and it’s the first competitive multiplayer game I ever put a lot of time into.

Oh, and it’s also beautiful, with a bright and optimistic retrofuturistic style full of flying cars, holograms, and 1950s American fashion.

But before I get to that, I should write more about how Knockout City plays. There are a few game modes, but the default one pits two teams of three against each other in a dodgeball battle. Or, to use the parlance of Knockout City, a “dogdebrawl”. Most players will be familiar with the general concept of dodeball, and the basics are here: get hit with a ball and you’re out (although here it takes two hits to get knocked out), but catch it and you’re safe. Run around, pass to your teammates, and try to eliminate the other team. The first team to ten KOs wins the round, best of three rounds to win the match.

That’s about where the similarities end. Knockout City takes a lot of inspiration from Rocket Arena, another team-based competitive game that released about a year earlier. There are a lot of videogame-style things in it: special balls with unique characteristics (bombs, long-distance sniper shots, etc.), everyone has a redeployable hang glider they can use for some extra airtime, maps are impossible spaces full of jump pads and hovering platforms. Most importantly, however, thrown balls usually lock on to their targets, homing in on them. This takes what could have been a game about aiming, and turns it into a game about timing. As long as you’ve locked onto an opponent, your thrown ball will hit them… unless they catch it. Or dodge it. The dodge move is a short dash that breaks the lock of an incoming ball if timed correctly, and can also be used to tackle opponents and knock a ball out of their hands. Dodging is just one tool in players’ arsenals that let them strategically engage the other team.

I gradually learned how to use these tools as I played. Holding the throw button will charge up a ball for a faster throw, but it will also alert the target that someone has a lock on them. Time a catch perfectly, however, and the ball will instantly charge up, ready to be thrown at someone with minimum warning. That was enough to best some fellow new players as I learned the game, but not for long. Soon I learned the value of passing instead. A passed ball is automatically charged up, much like a perfect catch, and it lets the throw come from an unexpected angle to boot. Plus, if you pass to a teammate and they get a KO with that ball, you’re credited with an assist, which is weighted the same as getting a KO yourself in the match stats. Passing is so effective that it naturally teaches players to work with their teammates rather than try to go it alone against the other team. But it can help in selfish ways too: pass a ball to someone who’s already holding one, and it will bounce back to you, charged up and ready to throw. Still, getting that KO works best when you’ve got teammates with you to launch multiple balls at one target. They can’t catch them all.

They can dodge them, though. But both catching and dodging leave a player vulnerable for a short time, and once I learned these timings I found myself really getting better at Knockout City. Goad an opponent into trying to catch a ball when you haven’t thrown it yet (brilliantly, you can even fake a throw!) and you can nail them while they’re still finishing up their catch animation. Similarly, getting someone to dodge early leaves them open to get hit at the end of their dodge. After a lot of matches, some with friends but most with random players, I got pretty good at this, and could send inexperienced teams packing in short order. From watching other players, I learned more tricks, like the fact that the flips and spins that are used for lob throws and curve shots — useful on occasion — can also be used when airborne to stay aloft, letting players throw downwards, making their balls harder to catch. Oh, and if you don’t have a ball? Players can “ball up” and become a ball, letting their teammates throw them (for a one-hit KO, instead of the normal two hits) or launch them into the air for a bomb-like ultimate throw. Of course, if the opponent catches your teammate, they may be able to chuck said teammate off the side of the map before they can escape…

Even at my peak, however, I was far from the best. The matchmaking soon saw me go up against teams who would completely trounce me. It seemed they had impossibly quick reflexes, catching or dodging anything I sent at them, and expertly tricking me into making mistakes, or simply overwhelming me with coordinated attacks. Some, I’m sure, were on voice chat to execute planned maneuvers, giving them a clear advantage over players like me who were just winging it with random matchmaking. It wasn’t just hitting my skill limit that saw me drift away from Knockout City though. The competitiveness started to get to me. Playing Knockout City is not relaxing, and often the end of a match felt strangely hollow. If I lost, I didn’t want to end on that note and would queue up for another. If I won, I’d be riding on adrenaline and want another go. I would end up playing for a longer session than I intended, and feel unsatisfied at the end of it. So I made a concerted effort to play other games instead.

Knockout City has some other problems too. It was a live service game, initially sold for a moderate price but later switching to a free-to-play model. Throughout, it was riddled with microtransactions and other live service annoyances. Between matches, players are bombarded with XP bars filling, awards of virtual currency to be spent in the in-game shop, and countless other distractions, reminiscent of the flashing lights and dinging sounds of slot machines. I hate this stuff. It’s what keeps me away from most online games. Well, that and the horribly toxic communities that most have, and at least Knockout City seemed a bit better on that front. But the constant grabs for my attention were not appreciated. I only ever paid the initial purchase price, plus one DLC pack (more to support the developers than anything else) before the game went free-to-play, and did my best to ignore the rest. I played in spite of it, not because of it.

And yet. Most of the unlocks and rewards earned through play are cosmetics that let players change their brawler’s appearance, and… this customization is actually really cool. It’s not just the city itself and its various arenas that are bright and colorful, but the impressive smorgasbord of clothing, hairstyles, glasses, hang gliders, holograms, taunts, and more that players can mix together to create their own unique brawlers. Pleasingly, many of these cosmetics cannot be purchased directly, and must instead be earned through play. I was surprised at how compelling it was to craft a new appearance out of the few outfits I’d managed to unlock in my early time playing, determined by luck of the draw. Later, when I’d amassed a larger wardrobe, I could meticulously tweak every tiny detail to create a look I liked. The varsity jackets, ripped jeans, stylish suits, evening gowns, puffy coats, paint-splattered overalls, and other memorable outfits are unafraid to use a wide color palette, with most having several color variants to choose from. All of this color is rare even in games with a lot of customization of character appearance. Where else could I make this rainbow punk?

Knockout City aims for a sort of counterculture aesthetic, full of bold styles and colorful graffiti. The announcer of the matches is a DJ who broadcasts from a pirate radio station on the moon, and puts on the game’s excellent tunes (more on those later). There are hints that the players’ dodgebrawling is illegal, but it’s not a serious crime. More like youthful mischief, youngsters acting up and taking out their aggression on one another, while the more responsible adults look on with disapproval. It’s a delicate balancing act of tone, but managed well, presenting what seems to be a utopian future city while still letting the kids be rebellious. Because what’s the harm?

Many maps take place in various city streets or rooftops, where the bright colors of the city itself mix with the equally bright colors of posters plastered over walls, or messages written in spraypaint. A few maps are more subversive, like a decommissioned prison yard, or a floating farm high in the sky (both added after launch as part of seasonal updates), and a few are a bit more monochrome, tinting the whole screen rather than lettings colors speak for themselves. But none indicate any true stakes for the action. For all its constant dodgebrawling, Knockout City seems like a really nice place to be.

Crucially, for all its color, Knockout City’s matches are easy to parse visually. Players’ outfits are shown off before a match begins, but during play they are deemphasized in favor of color-coded overlays indicating which team a player is on. By default, these teams are blue and gold — dangerously close the the horribly overused blue and orange that infects so many games — but mostly opponents are just highlighted in red to make it easy to tell friend from foe. Charged balls are surrounded by a glowing, spiky halo, and all thrown balls leave big streaks behind them, making them easy to track in the thick of a brawl. When someone has a lock on you it triggers a big red warning indicator on the borders of the screen, which changes once that ball is thrown (along with a nice audio cue). KOs are accompanied by a purple blast, and landing a KO or an assist is results in a blare that ranks among the most satisfying sound effects I’ve ever heard in a game. There are the green clouds of gas left by the poison ball, the pinkish soda burst of the temporarily-blinding soda ball, or the customizable explosions of a brawler landing from their ultimate throw. All lovely, and all legible.

I’m glad it’s still possible to play Knockout City, but unless you have a dedicated group you play with, running it on private servers isn’t quite the same. All cosmetics (barring a few licensed ones, like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle crossover costumes) are unlocked right from the start, which is nice, but all of the XP progress bars and other guff is still there. At least it can safely be skipped or ignored now, but it’s still annoying. There’s no more seasonal content, obviously, nor any of the weird rotating game modes that I enjoyed messing around with when the official servers were still live. Sure, a match where every player got a new random superpower when they respawned may not be the most balanced competition, but it was a lot of silly fun. I was also a fan of BasketBrawl, which saw KOed players locked in ball form, and the other team needed to throw them through hoops to actually score. These oddball game modes are still available, but only in private matches, so you’ll need to recruit friends for those. Public matchmaking only features the standard 3v3 or 1v1 modes.

Also, as you might expect, the people still playing Knockout City are the most hardcore players, who all tend to be really good. I’m noticeably worse than the other players in most matches I find these days, but I scrape by because my teammates, as well as my opponents, are highly skilled, and I can still contribute to the team effort even if my individual dueling skills aren’t up to scratch. There aren’t a ton of players either… the North American server typically maxes out with about 20-50 people online at peak hours, and the matchmaking system is clearly designed for larger numbers than that. I often end up in a match with AI-controlled bots, who then get swapped out for real players as they become available. And, of course, I find myself playing with the same people a lot.

The folks I’ve met are nice, but even so it won’t be the most welcoming place for those checking out the game for the first time. It’s hard to learn the basics when the only opponents available are way beyond that already. The solution, of course, is to recruit a group of other new players and practice with them, in private matches. That would also let people try out other game modes and otherwise mess around. The rest of the community will be there when new folks are ready to engage with them, and while that community may be small, it’s dedicated. They’ve already thrown multiple tournaments since I joined, several prominent members are also Twitch streamers who actively promote the game, and they’ve got a Discord server going to help people find others to play with or discuss strategies with. Here’s hoping it will keep growing.

Because more people should experience the bright, beautiful world of Knockout City (here’s that launcher link again). Its matches are compelling and fun, its city an upbeat and optimistic place to be, its endless cosmetics a chance for surprising creativity when customizing one’s brawler. Don’t settle for dreary, monochrome competitive games when you could enjoy the rainbow blast that is Knockout City. It even sounds incredible! Which brings me to…

The Score:

Knockout City has an awesome soundtrack. Composed by The Soundlings (Matt Naylor and Sonny Rey), it aims to match the retrofuturistic style of the game by offering a fusion of various genres, mixed with modern electronic production. One core ingredient across all (well, almost all) the music is brass, often in the form of swing music. I suppose this might technically make some of the music electro swing, but it sounds… well, better than most electro swing I’ve heard. That genre too often sounds like a mashup, an actual 1930s swing tune fused with a modern house beat. What The Soundlings have created here is far more cohesive. Perhaps the horn section is merely adding to a composition with a frantic breakbeat and twangy guitars. Or maybe the electronic elements take the backseat while a walking bassline and the big band take the limelight. Each piece on this hefty soundtrack sounds like a natural and complete musical composition, even when combining skittering beats, chopped vocals, trumpet solos, or synth-heavy melodies.

One of the coolest things about the soundtrack is that The Soundlings created a bunch of in-universe bands for it, each with their own genre stylings and sound. Every track is meant to be something the DJ on the moon puts on during brawls (or quieter moments) and as such is an actual record in the game. Some tracks are credited to The Soundlings alone, but I think those are in error; everything here has the fingerprints of a fictional band on it. Command Play are a sort of rock-swing fusion group, letting their big horn section take center stage on “Boogie Street Brawl”. Their other offerings bring in more guitar, like the positively rocking “Fire Fingers” which is one of the post-match tracks, or the twangy, almost surf rock stylings that grace “Beat Feat ‘n’ Bounce”. But the full horn section is their defining sound. Hologramatix, on the other hand, bring doo-wop vocal stylings (albeit heavily processed) to tracks like “Don’t Stop The Bop”, while stripping the horns back to a single trumpet or even removing them entirely. The Scratched Brass Band go for pure funk with their contributions, adding electric piano, clavinet, or electric organ to their tracks, and keeping a smaller, tighter horn section for those funky blasts. Alley Katz take things in a more guitar-driven rock direction on tracks like “Start A Fire” and “Meow At The Moon”.

A trio of jazzy swing numbers, including “Effective Dissonance” and “Planet Hop” (another one I recognize from post-match wrap-ups) don’t have a fictional band listed, but are attributed to Rick and the Humans in this writeup, and they are distinct from the rest of the music in their swing purity. The same writeup credits Johnny and the Breakers for another trio of unattributed tracks with a sort of surf rock breakbeat sound, including “Rip Curl Riot” and “Devil’s Cove”. The horn lines work surprisingly well when paired with rolling surf rock guitar lines or funky, twangy guitar leads. Even with all of these different acts and styles included, however, the soundtrack still has a cohesive sound. Each band is different enough, but not too different. It all sounds like Knockout City. An impressive achievement, and one for which The Soundlings should be proud.

And that’s just the base soundtrack, which offers 19 tracks including a bonus version of “Get Outta Dodge” with added rap vocals (from, I believe, Soundlings member Sonny Rey) and clocking in at about 42 minutes. As Knockout City moved through its various seasonal updates, The Soundlings added more music, typically in 3-5 track chunks, typically bringing even more fictional musical acts to the soundtrack. Adding all of these in extends the soundtrack to a whopping 42 tracks, and a runtime of just over 90 minutes. The base soundtrack includes everything from the first three seasons, so the extra music starts in season 4, “Alien Invasion”, with new band The Listeners. Their style is more overtly electronic, full of big synths (especially synth organ) and energetic programmed beats. While these keep the lead trumpet, they lean much harder into the techno side of things, appropriate for the UFO-themed season.

Next came season 5, “Greatest Hits”, with both new music and remixes. Man On the Moon (which I believe refers to the moon-based DJ, who graces the track with a few vocal bits) brings us “Brawler One”, an entirely new rock and roll track full of blues rock guitar licks and some nice organ. Then we have several remixes. Rick and the Humans remix their own “Planet Hop” by fusing it with bits of Hologramatix’s “Dont’ Stop The Bop”. Hologramatix themselves offer us another mashup, mixing their own “Doo Wop the Bop” with Alley Katz’s “Start a Fire”. Finally we get The Scratched Brass Band’s “Kick It Fresh” mashed up with “Rip Curl Riot”, and labeled as a “Johnny and the Breakers Remix” (further evidence that the original “Rip Curl Riot” should be credited to Johnny and the Breakers rather than The Soundlings alone). The mashups are a fun time, melding recognizable melodies from the game into new forms, but The Soundlings return to entirely new compositions in future seasons.

Season 6, “City of Tomorrow”, brings music from The Lab R@tz, which veers into electronic territory again. The Lab R@tz are the first band to drop the horns entirely, instead offering a sort of bubbly techno along with some steel drums in “Ride the Brain Waves”, or leaning into classic sci-fi samples on “Frequency Phenomenon” and “Paradox Rox”. The electronic compositions stay lighter and funkier than those of The Listeners, keeping a distinct sound. Season 7, “Mutant Mutiny!”, introduces Underground Beatdown, who offer a darker, spookier sound, full of march-like rhythms suitable for an uprising of angry mutants. “My Right 2 Fight” almost enters metal territory, and two versions of “Into the Neon Light” are included, one of which features another rap performance from Sonny Rey.

Season 8, “High Society Heist”, heads back into swing territory with tracks from The Cover-Ups. True to its noir inspirations, the music this season sounds like something you might hear in a jazz club, with honky-tonk piano and a horn section (including the occasional muted trumpet) trading off with a processed synth lead. There’s even a full vocal jazz number, “Catch Me If You Can”, with crooning vocals from in-universe character Voxanne Valentine (I don’t know the real singer, sadly). The bonus track “Pay To Win” features more rapping from Sonny Rey. Finally, for the ninth and final season of the game, the pirate-themed “Legend of Gearbeard”, we’re introduced to Loose Cannons, who give us some nautical chants and even a few bona-fide sea shanties. These are perhaps the closest in sound to a traditional game soundtrack, with orchestral arrangements coupled to big, march-like percussion. But how could I complain, when I’ve got a crew of pirates telling me to hoist the mainsail?

It’s a frankly astonishing variety of music on offer. The Soundlings, it seems, can do nearly anything, while still keeping a common throughline that makes everything sound recognizably like Knockout City. I recommend the soundtrack even if you don’t try playing the game yourself (although I recommend that too). It’s available from most streaming services, but harder to find for purchase. I ended up getting it digitally from Amazon, of all places, and I had to purchase the original soundtrack and each seasonal update separately. However you choose to listen, however, make sure you check it out. Excellent work from The Soundlings here.


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1 Comment

  1. Jak

    I’m glad that the fan support for this game is keeping it playable. We’re losing so many of these worlds and spaces to the cruel machinations of capital. Good to see another one that isn’t simply lost to time

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