When you play rhythm games on consoles, what kind of controller do you use? Unless you’re shelling out the big bucks for arcade replica controllers, you’re likely using a regular gamepad or whatever wacky peripheral was specifically made for a particular game.
But what if you had another option? One that’s much more flexible than a gamepad and isn’t tied to a specific game like a custom peripheral? One that PC gamers have already been using for years?
Yes, what if you had a mechanical keyboard?
Gamo2, manufacturer of the aforementioned high-end arcade replica controllers, released what they call the “Keyboard Style Controller” late last year as a more affordable and flexible option for rhythm gamers. We received one to try out a few weeks ago, and put it through its paces on a few of our favorite rhythm games to find out: can what is essentially a custom mechanical keyboard be the “ultimate rhythm game controller?”
Feel the Rhythm
The K28 controller comes packed in a rather plainly-designed box, with an image of the controller on top and K28 and Gamo2 logos along the sides. Opening the box immediately reveals the controller, and my first impressions were…yeah, this is a keyboard alright.
This controller isn’t getting any points for being particularly eye-catching or flashy. It’s just a series of unmarked black and grey keys, with an LED panel in the center. I’ve mentioned before that I’m not one for flashy peripherals or hardware, but I do like me some attractive keyboards (I currently use Varmillo’s pastel-pink Sakura mechanical keyboard, actually), and the K28 is just…plain.
Actually picking up the controller turned my opinion around. This is a solidly-built piece of hardware, and surprisingly weighty, probably thanks to the aluminum casing. Looking over the rest of the controller continues to show its simplicity – a USB-C connector and audio jack on the back, some rubberized feet on the bottom, and that’s about it.
Also included in the packaging is a keycap puller, a bag of o-rings, and a USB cable. The cable is only a couple feet long, so I had to make use of an extension cable for my living room setup.
We had the option of either Red Kailh or Brown Kailh switchs for our K28, and we opted for the latter. I won’t pretend that I’m super-knowledgeable about mechanical keyboard switches, but some quick research said that Brown switches tend to have more tactile feedback and be a bit louder, which sounded ideal for a rhythm game controller.
With the controller in hand, it appears that said research was correct. The keys on this Brown switch K28 just feel satisfying to press, with a noticeable clack that helped cut through the sound of the games I tested it with, really assisting in keeping rhythm.
Clackin’ Your Cares Away
The K28 is designed for usage with the PS4, Switch, PC, and some limited use with the PS3. I’ll just get this fact out of the way right out the gate: there is little reason to get this controller if you’re exclusively a PC rhythm gamer. After all, PC gamers already have access to a huge and varied array of full mechanical keyboards; shelling out for a board with limited use makes little sense.
With that in mind, our tests focused on PS4 and Switch. The particular games used to test the board were Hatsune Miku Project Diva Future Tone, DJMax Respect, and Musynx.
From an overhead perspective, the greatest thing the K28 has going for it is its ease of use. The controller is plug-and-play on the PS4, while usage on the Switch required going into the system settings and flipping an option that allows usage of wired Pro controllers.
The K28 includes a number of built-in button layouts for the PS4: a “general” layout for games like DJMax, two layouts for Project Diva, a special layout for Taiko no Tatsujin, and even one that lets the controller be used in fighting games. Both the Switch and PS3 have a built-in general layout; the former covers pretty much every rhythm game available on Switch, while the latter is exclusively for the Project Diva games on PS3. Switching between layouts requires inputting specific two-button combos on the keyboard for each, so you’ll want to keep the instruction manual (or the K28 website) nearby as a quick reference.
There are also custom layouts available for both the PS4 and Switch, should any of the pre-sets not be to your liking. The K28 can hold five custom layouts for PS4 and three for Switch.
Jumping into specific games…I’ll be honest, one of the major reasons I wanted to try out this controller was specifically for Project Diva Future Tone. The game’s notecharts are built around the original arcade cabinet layout – four buttons in a horizontal row – and I struggled to play the game at a high level on a PS4 controller. One of the built-in layouts on the K28 emulates the arcade layout, letting me get closer to the way the game is meant to be played (at least, without shelling out nearly $500 for an arcade replica).
It took me a few minutes to figure out how to navigate the game with the K28 layout. For most layouts, the grey buttons are assigned to rhythm game inputs, while the rest of the keyboard gets the other various navigation buttons (D-Pad, Home, PS4 touch pad, etc). Once I was in-game, though, this controller proceeded to surprise the hell out of me.
Not only did having the Project Diva arcade layout make the game feel more natural, just the fact that I was playing on a keyboard rather than a PS4 controller made some of the notecharts feel easier. My only issue here was fast-tap notes on a single button, as I often wasn’t able to press a single key quick enough to keep up with the chart.
Moving on to DJMax Respect, it definitely feels like the K28 was designed with this specific game in mind, to the point where just putting this controller in front of me significantly increased my skill level. I hadn’t played Respect in quite some time; last I left off, I was just starting to move from 4-key to 6-key charts. With the K28 in hand, I was pulling off low-level 6-key charts with ease, full-comboing many of them, as well as flying past old high scores I had set on high-level 4-key charts.
Lastly, jumping to Musynx on the Switch highlighted a small shortcoming of the K28. I had been using the audio jack on the controller for the PS4 games, as my sound system introduces impossible-to-fix lag for rhythm games. Unfortunately, despite digging around the setting on the Switch, I couldn’t find an option to pass audio through to the K28 on this console. The controller still worked flawlessly in-game, but I couldn’t play high level charts well due to the lag from my speakers.
One final nitpick I have with the controller: despite the rubberized feet, the K28 still slid around all over the place on my table and desk. I had to pull out a fabric mousepad and set the controller on that to keep it from slipping. It’s a small issue, but an annoying one nonetheless.
A Fine Instrument
Overall, Gamo2’s K28 controller is a solid piece of kit for console rhythm gamers, if a bit boring looking out of the box. The controller feels tailor-made for the PS4, with Switch functionality seeming somewhat of an afterthought and PC/PS3 usage being mostly throwaway.
That’s not to say it’s completely useless on all its compatible systems, though. The controller still works amazingly on Switch – the lag issues I had stem from other audio hardware I own. I do wish audio passthrough worked here, though, as it would have alleviated the issues I had.
If you’re a PC rhythm gamer, this is a much harder sell. The K28 runs at $149, the same price for a quality full-size mechanical keyboard. If you don’t use consoles whatsoever, there’s really not much of a reason to pick this up.
For console rhythm gamers, though, particularly PS4 owners, the K28 is an easy must-buy. Between its build quality and functionality, this keyboard controller deserves a home in every dedicated console rhythm game fan’s setup.
~ Final Score: 9/10 ~
Review unit provided by Gamo2. Product images taken by reviewer.