PC, Xbox Series X
January 26, 2023
One of the many ways that games stick out and garner appeal is their style. Sure, we’re at a place where games can be a spectacle in story and budget, bringing cinematic experiences now like no other. Though when a game is able to achieve an otherworldly design and do it while delivering a silky smooth experience, it inspires. Last year, we had that in the cool, edgy card-based shooter meets visual novel Neon White. In 2023, only one month down and we have that in Hi-Fi RUSH, a rhythm-based action adventure game well worth your time.
Situated in a futuristic (though plausible) world where robots walk among us and corporations rule over all, an engaging premise is set early on. Players control a character by the name of Chai, a 20-something-year-old slacker who longs to be a rockstar… without putting in any of the work. With a love of music and a need for a new arm, this combination becomes problematic when he sneaks into tech company Vandelay Technologies in his hunt, receiving a cybernetic limb replacement but also being fused with his MP3 player. Now being able to hear and feel the beat that comes with the songs that periodically play off his media device, this is quickly seen as an issue with the giant corporation, deeming Chai a ‘defect’ that must be hunted down and destroyed. So spawns our threat.
Before long, a whirlwind of revelations big and small awaits. With their arm, Chai can deploy a magnetic wand, which can then be fashioned into a melee weapon that resembles a hybrid of guitar and wrench. You, along with a crew of like-minded people that too hate your pursuers, slowly learn that Vandelay Technologies have a program within their implants that serves as a back door for mind control. What ensues is a slick, stylish and smokin’ journey through futuristic environments, in a charming throwback fashion, delivered in a mission-based structure.
“…Hi-Fi RUSH is also just an excellent exercise in character”
Hi-Fi RUSH is also just an excellent exercise in character. In order to take down the mind-control program (known as SPECTRA), Chai will have to tackle six key figures of Vandelay Technologies. Rekka is the head of productions, a butch and burly woman that has red and yellow streaks in her black hair, often talking things out with her fists. Zanzo is a scientist freak with green hair that meshes with wires, often doing poses that are referential (this game is incredibly referential to charming effect) to those from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure.
On the other end of the spectrum, your crew is made up of characters such as an adorable black robotic cat named 808, a spunky denim-clad roboticist in Peppermint, and the very large but sweet and mostly pacifistic scientist Macaron. Care and consideration have been taken into every character’s design, no matter whether they’re major or minor. Everyone is distinguished in their own way and distinguished well. Expect plenty of time to get to know your closest friends too. In-between levels you’ll be at a hideout where you can chat with your party and reflect on your past mission. Here is where you’ll also upgrade away at Chai’s abilities. The game even does one of my favourite things that HUBs do, and that is growing in real-time. As you complete feats and challenges in missions, you’ll unlock pieces that will be added to a mural, transforming the dingy area into something more picturesque.
At the end of my time with Hi-Fi RUSH, its world and cast became a fond all-timer for me. Chai, played by Robbie Daymond, is channelling a similar performance to that of his role as Prompto in Final Fantasy XV, an earnest if a little naive and charming individual. Uncovering more pieces of the game’s worlds whether through readables, exposition or the environment itself reminded me of the early days of Borderlands, being invested and excited by a new sci-fi world, rife with dastardly corporate executives out to ruin your life. Further harrowing implications of Vandelay Technology’s power become apparent in a palpable mission that sees you travelling through a museum, telling doctored stories about the company’s roots. Situated within all of that, is a frankly heartwarming story of found family sticking it to the power. Y’know, the good stuff.
As alluded to, Hi-Fi RUSH is oozing with style. One big instance of how that is presented is the rhythm-based gameplay that is on offer. This is a relatively unique affair, billed as a rhythm-action game. In a given level (labelled ‘tracks’ in this instance), Chai will travel through environments, running into encounters that become their own combat arena. Exciting Devil May Cry–esque combat will ensue, as players do their best to build and maintain combos with button pressing to the beat of the backing song providing benefits in stronger damage and powerful finishers. It may sound like a tricky balance to make work but it does and does so really well.
As you proceed through Hi-Fi RUSH, you’ll gradually pick up new powerful abilities and moves, purchased by currency earned and found on your adventure. The further your skillset library expands, the more you can mix up gameplay in rewarding ways. Classic hack ‘n’ slash combat will allow you to juggle enemies, let off devastating attacks, and (if you’re skilled enough) essentially pinball around the environment with a grappling hook, picking off individuals as you please. Following all of this is engaging feedback. Maintain a combo in the S rank category and there’ll be the distant cheers of an audience chanting Chai’s name. Noticeable audible and visual cues occur as you complete the finishing move of a combo, watching a ring near the centre of a circle.
Make no mistake, this balance of hectic arena-based combat and rhythm-based gameplay can be forgiving if you so choose. At all times, 808 will hover around near you, serving as a metronome to help you follow the beat. If all else fails, you can pull up an additional hud at the bottom of your screen, previewing your timing to help you get back on the beat. Whilst nailing the timing in combat will boost your score and damage, you will never truly be disadvantaged for if you struggle to keep that flow, attacks will still keep up with the backing track and always be enough to get you through. This feature, along with a host of accessibility options including varied difficulties, hones in on the fact that Hi-Fi RUSH’s main goal is to allow for players to let loose and have fun. And boy, can you do just that.
We’ve had many games over the years try their own spin on the character action genre. However Hi-Fi RUSH is the most suitable and stylish coat of paint to come along for the crowd. Already combo inputs can be hard, especially those that require players to pause a beat before continuing the inputs. Here, it’s complimented by the music and hence easier to follow. When there’s already a backing track that has you habitually tapping your very own feet to it, bopping your head, it’s far easier and smoother to pull off such tricky combos when push comes to shove. Enemies too will attack to this beat, making the timing parry far easier to get a hand of.
When you’re at your peak performance, everything feels in harmony. The damage you’re outputting really feels like it packs a punch, while epic electric guitar quips echo around you. One of the most exciting and devastating ways to pop out some damage is calling in your friends for some extra damage. For instance, Peppermint’s laser pistols (and later upgraded to rockets) will take out the forcefield shield some robotic enemies will emit while Macaron’s heavy slam is key in chipping away armour off the more meaty androids. This too will have effects as you explore each level, whether it’s following the linear route or travelling off the beaten path. Secrets are to be uncovered in every corner, whether that’s the extra currency or permanent parts used for health upgrades. All that stands between Chai and them is often the knocking down of a powerful wall by Macaron.
It’s so easy to be beautifully enveloped by Hi-Fi RUSH. Already you have catchy original rock score pieces, but the world diegetically also pulses to this music. Lights and electricity will flicker to the hum. Heavy machinery in a factory setting will see conveyor belts and the like moving to the beat. Even Chai will too follow along, whether it’s his idle animation that has him tapping his foot and clicking a finger or the light jog as you move around, with each step delicately landing in tune. All this aids you in feeling the music and getting in it yourself. The only time this lets up in the slightest is in Chai’s jump, which is a little stiff and not the best suited for some of the tight platforming sections.
Hi-Fi RUSH has a particular stylistic choice with its licensed music that can largely be summed up as 2000s rock with diverse elements of some electronic dance. This is evident as such in tracks like 1,000,000 from Nine Inch Nails and Invaders Must Die from The Prodigy. A majority of these songs are played as you engage in the boss at the end of a level, taking down one of Vandelay Technologies’ key figures. All are excellent choices to immerse yourself in the world and rhythm flourishing all around you, but also highlight the type of person Chai is. Of course, he’s a corny wannabe rockstar with Nine Inch Nails being just some of the tracks on his MP3 player. He’s all the more loveable for it.
Each of these needle-drop moments is explosive and endorphin-building. They too are quite complimentary to the boss fights that they back, almost feeling like specific themes for each Vandelay executive. For instance, your first big boss fight is with a monolithic robot called QA-1MIL. It ends up being a quite literal connection here as soon as you come face to face with the beast, the aforementioned 1,000,000 kicks in. This epic and joyous pairing of boss meets theme continues throughout and makes for some memorable fights. I won’t spoil too much about the nature of some of those encounters, but they’re thrilling and do interesting things with the arena, always building and even periodically introducing some mid-battle minigames to the mix.
While entirely different from the remainder of developer Tango Gameworks’ catalogue of horror with The Evil Within, The Evil Within 2 and last year’s Ghostwire Tokyo, it’s of no surprise the quality. The Evil Within series is an incredibly stylistic affair that had some good music usage in the classical Claude Debussy’s Claire De Lune, a track indicative of a safe space. This was an engaging and delicate juxtaposition to the macabre you face in those games. In Hi-Fi RUSH, the music is all but a part of the world, literally. The game revels and thrives with that fact.
Hi-Fi RUSH’s cel-shaded art style is textbook and yet another note in its favour. It helps to create the cast in a more colourful and diverse light. When onomatopoeic words appear in combat, they pop vibrantly on the screen, creating that perfect comic book feeling. It does well bringing about the whimsy world and somewhat childish nature to Chai. Their naivety and (initial) solipsism make it entirely believable and enjoyable in the fact that, like Chai, everything they see is sensationalized. They want to be a rockstar, appearing in their very own music videos. Here you are, doing essentially just that while creating riotous destruction everywhere you go.
Incredible animation work is undertaken in and outside of cutscenes. The way Chai moves about in combat is reckless, flurrying their body about, somersaulting left and right and in such lightning-fast fashion that’s stunning to see. Meanwhile, cutscenes have sections that bend apart and break the 2D and 3D animation traditions. You’ll get your comic book-style panels as interactions. Most show-stopping is the reworking and choice selection of occasionally seamlessly transitioning from 2D animation to 3D to gameplay all in one go.
Hi-Fi RUSH is such a gorgeous and captivatingly painted world that even if I weren’t all in on the story and gameplay, I’d want to see it continue in some form. There’s so much potential to tap further into a sequel with even more budget. Even an animated television series too would be exciting, with the game’s unique art style already proving itself with gusto. All I know is where Hi-Fi RUSH goes I will follow, championing Chai and friends every step of the way.
- Some of the character action genre's best and most approachable offerings
- Excellent rhythmic use of original and licensed music
- Thrilling combat with engaging and ever shifting boss fights
- Stunning and show-stopping animation work in and out of cutscenes
- Each character, big or small feels well distinguished and appealing
- Some platforming instances are occasionally stiff
Hi-Fi RUSH is a surprise hit for many, but frankly, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Tango Gameworks once more has proven itself to be an immensely talented studio, with showstopping animation and stylish artwork. It’s one of the strongest entries in the character action genre yet, only further bolstered by an accessible focus on music to have you nailing that combo to the catchy beats. It is a joy to see protagonist Chai and his ragtag crew fighting the higher power and see that world grow for what is hopefully not the only time. Every needle-drop moment and thrilling boss fight and encounter all but emphasise one thing: Hi-FI RUSH is magic and already a serious game-of-the-year contender. Rock on.