|Platforms||Xbox Series X/S (reviewed), PC|
|Release Date||January 25, 2023|
As part of Microsoft’s Developer Direct video at the beginning of 2023, developer Tango Gameworks took the opportunity to introduce the public to its latest project, an action title called Hi-Fi Rush. In contrast to Tango’s prior spooky, scary games, Hi-Fi Rush showcases a bright, colorful artstyle with a cel-shaded, anime aesthetic. But what really took people by surprise was the fact that the game released on the very same day it was announced, a move that is practically unheard of among games made by high-profile studios like Tango. As it turns out, this flashy move wasn’t just for show; Hi-Fi Rush is an absolute gem from top to bottom.
Hi-Fi Rush is a remarkably family-friendly game in many respects; there is no nudity, no blood or gore, and very little foul language (the ESRB rating notes the use of s**t and a**h**e in the game, but their use is so infrequent that I barely remember their presence from my playthrough). There’s plenty of combat involving blades, blunt objects, fire, and electricity, but the hits are all depicted through comic-style flashes and onomatopoeia. The game seems to imply that certain characters are killed, but this is not explicitly stated through visuals or dialogue. The game hints that at least one character has a romantic attraction to another person of the same gender.
In Hi-Fi Rush you play as Chai, an aspiring rockstar seeking a shortcut to fame and success. The massive tech company Vandelay Industries has just launched an initiative called Project Armstrong, promising robotic enhancements to help people reach their dreams; Chai has signed up, hoping that by trading in his bum arm for a robo-replacement, he can achieve stardom. Little does Chai know that company head Kale Vandelay has a nefarious plot attached to Project Armstrong…and little does Vandelay know that Chai’s procedure isn’t going to go as planned. Chai receives a robotic arm with a magnetic stick intended for garbage collection, but in the process of his automated surgery, Chai’s music player also gets accidentally embedded into his chest. This causes him to sense everything to the beat of his own soundtrack and powers up his magnetic robotic arm into a makeshift guitar, one that he can use as a weapon against the company goons seeking to destroy him for being a “defect.”
The game maintains a light-hearted, energetic tone throughout the story, highlighted by the game’s eclectic, charming cast of characters. Chai makes friends with several people who all have their own beef with Vandelay, including the pragmatic Peppermint, the gentle giant Macaron, and the comically blunt robot CNMN (pronounced “cinnamon”). Their personalities all play off each other in entertaining ways, especially due to Chai’s own strong personality; the combination of his natural skill and boundless confidence makes him ready to think he can take on the world, but his naivety and self-centeredness can make him hard to get along with. The villains possess their own charm, featuring a mix of zany, over-the-top personalities (like the walking JoJo reference Zanzo) alongside more rational ones (like the profits-oriented Roquefort). Overall, the story sticks predominantly to its optimistic, comedic core while mixing in a few poignant moments, and while I would have appreciated a bit more character development, this is only a minor quibble; the story is still thoroughly entertaining.
In terms of gameplay, Hi-Fi Rush wears its love of stylized action games like Devil May Cry on its sleeve. The game is divided into stages that incorporate platforming sequences and hack-n-slash combat in which you lay waste to Vandelay’s countless robotic minions. Chaining light and heavy attacks activates various combos that deal heavier damage and lift enemies into the air, and your special meter, called the Reverb Gauge, lets you perform devastating attacks that can often wipe out small enemies instantly and turn the tide of battle. Additionally, you can call in your friends, each with their own special abilities, for quick assists with the tap of a button. Peppermint, for instance, can stun enemies and overload energy shields with her gun, while Macaron can break physical shields with his absurdly large fists. These assists also play a role outside of battle, as Chai’s friends use their abilities to activate remote switches or open a path to hidden areas filled with upgrade materials.
Speaking of which, the environment is littered with materials used to purchase upgrades. Gears are the main currency, found on the ground, in crates, and spewed from defeated enemies. These gears can then be used to buy new combos, special attacks, permanent improvements to your health bar and Reverb Gauge, and swappable passive upgrades that let you tailor the game to your playstyle, such as improving the duration of Peppermint’s stun effect. Eventually you can spend gears on cosmetics as well, including white hair, a must for any DMC fan.
What sets Hi-Fi Rush apart from other games in the genre is its rhythmic component. The whole world moves to the beat of the game’s soundtrack, including the environment, your enemies, and even your own attacks. All your attacks, regardless of when you press the button, will land on the beat, but you deal more damage and can finish combos with a final big hit, called a Beat Hit, when you time your button presses to the beat. If the prospect of having to stay on beat sounds daunting, I have good news: the developers went out of their way to make sure that anyone can enjoy the core gameplay, as the game provides numerous visual cues to help you stay on beat and maximize your potential. Your robot cat companion 808 acts as your personal metronome, bouncing to the beat as she hovers over your shoulder. You can also toggle a large, impossible-to-miss beat assist at the bottom of the screen for more help. And even if you do still miss the beat sometimes, the game does not hand down any sort of stiff penalty. I typically only managed to stay on beat about fifty to sixty percent of the time, and I cleared almost all of the encounters with relative ease on normal mode.
The caveat to this leniency lies in what the game calls Face-Offs, in which the action around you stops and you are required to parry incoming attacks from one specific enemy. A box appears over the enemy’s head indicating how many attacks it will throw at you, as well as the timing of those attacks; in most cases, successfully parrying each attack will either destroy the enemy outright or will give you the opportunity to finish it off with one big Beat Hit of your own. Face-Offs are not uncommon in regular combat, and they gradually get incorporated into boss fights as well, so in those moments you do need to keep up with the beat in order to advance. At normal and easy difficulties, however, the game provides enough wiggle room on the timing that the average player should be able to complete these segments without difficulty. It’s more a matter of quick memorization than it is of pinpoint timing.
While all of those gameplay components take a while to explain in words, I found the whole system to be quite intuitive and extraordinarily fun. The synchronicity of the combat to the game’s soundtrack makes it easier to predict enemy movements and adds a satisfying aural punch to your actions. The general leniency lets you enjoy this flow without feeling like you have to be perfect. At the same time, the game keeps you on your toes by throwing a wide variety of enemy types at you: foot soldiers and flying troops, melee and ranged opponents, big bruisers with a couple different kinds of shields, and more. The boss fights stand out even more, as they mix regular combat, the aforementioned Face-Offs, and other fun twists that I won’t spoil here. And every moment positively oozes with style thanks to the gorgeous and expressive artwork and animations.
Furthermore, the music itself is a blast to listen to. The tracks for the main part of the stages are composed by the developers, including this fun, high-tempo tune:
The bosses, meanwhile, each have two tracks. With Streamer Mode turned off, you’ll hear a licensed song playing during the boss battles; that’s how I played for most of the game, and they picked some great tunes around which to design their bosses. But the developers also made original music for Streamer Mode, and those tracks are just as good. Seriously, check out this banger used for the first boss fight:
When it’s all put together, Hi-Fi Rush delivers a phenomenal action experience. The combat is smooth, boasts impressive depth, and is made all the more exhilarating and satisfying by being synchronized to the music. The characters are all stylish, unique, and memorable, and the comedic dialogue lands consistently well from start to finish. It’s an early Game of the Year contender, and anyone who enjoys hack-n-slash games or is even remotely interested in trying one out should pick this one up.
The Bottom Line
Hi-Fi Rush is a phenomenal rythym-action title oozing with style that should not be missed.