Sometimes I want to describe games in the most high-brow way possible. I might smugly write something like “it elevates the genre” while sipping wine and eating cheese, musing on how a game pushes the media forward as an art form. Other times I just want to write that a game is really bloody good, actually, and I like it lots.
Hi-Fi Rush falls into the latter category. Developer Tango Gameworks shadow-dropped the rhythm-action game out of nowhere shortly after an Xbox presentation, jettisoning The Evil Within’s murky mental hospitals and Ghostwire: Tokyo’s supernatural shinanigans for something markedly different: bright pulsating neon colours and a gang of loveable anime ruffians, where every whack and dodge is underscored by a beat.
Hi-Fi Rush is an action-adventure game with a mechanical core fuelled by musical beats. Protagonist Chai has undergone a risky medical procedure and emerged from the other side with a robot arm and an iPod accidentally implanted in his chest meaning his every waking moment is punctuated by a catchy beat. We too see these rhythmic motions, as Hi-Fi Rush’s soda pop-infused world moves to this steady pulse – platforms move in time with the music, lights flash in pleasing rhythmic patterns, and enemies attack to the beat of the drum.
This beat wants to be synonymous with your own actions, too. The action part of Hi-Fi Rush is a free-flowing brawler, where Chai smacks robotic enemies with a metal guitar, all while dodging and ducking through hordes of outstretched robot weapons. The challenge is to strike and dodge in time with the music, to create a smooth flow to combat and make you feel like you’re a god of the dance.
This constant attention to rhythm creates an incredible energy, picking you up by the scruff of the neck and demanding your attention for eight or so hours. Hi-Fi Rush’s rhythmic gimmick on its own is absolutely absorbing – landing a string of successful hits in time with the beat and building to a big climactic attack gives an immediate rush of confidence and satisfaction, a high that’s just demanding to be chased again and again because it’s so damn pleasing and not impossibly unobtainable.
This electrifying feeling feeds into the wider world as you race through Hi-Fi Rush’s thumping linear levels. There’s platforming aplenty between whacking robots in interspersed arenas, making you feel like you’re always progressing forward at a rapid pace.
Thankfully, you’re not actively punished for failing to match the beat. Not every strike and jump has to be in time with the rocking beat of guitars and drums, and you can just take it at your own pace if you aren’t fussed about obtaining a high combat rating for each encounter. It’s a clever little direction from Tango that welcomes in hesitant players while boosting the skill ceiling for those more dedicated to their rhythmic craft.
The majority of tracks in Hi-Fi Rush are original creations by Tango Gameworks, blended with licensed music for exhilarating boss fights and other unique scenarios. The original music, which is more focused on guitars and percussions than vocals, casually underscores the vast majority of time where you’re jumping between platforms and bopping enemies on the head. The big guns, including the likes of The Prodigy, The Black Keys, and Nine Inch Nails, come out to play for big showdowns with bosses, bolstering the encounters to a truly special and memorable level as you’re booting enemies in time with iconic bangers.
Combat is a surprisingly deep beast and has all the fun markings of a Devil May Cry-like system. There’s last-minute parrying, a zipwire ability to leap from foe to foe, an airborne toss move that throws enemies sky-high for combat chains, and much more. It’s all bundled together in a streamlined system that uses merely a few buttons, a design direction that, once again, doesn’t overwhelm players and instead gets you to experiment.
“This electrifying feeling feeds into the wider world as you race through Hi-Fi Rush’s thumping linear levels”
The breakneck pace is only hampered by certain foes. Every now and then, you’ll run into an enemy attack that needs parrying in a perfect rhythm to overcome it. The parrying mechanic itself – which commands you to memorise the attack pattern of an enemy and then whack the correct buttons in time with it – is simple and pleasing to use, but being forced to stop in place with no way of proceeding unless you nail a handful of parries in a row really gets in the way of how fluid the combat feels. It feels like a record getting stuck on a turntable, repeating the same second over and over again. It’s a vibe killer.
Hi-Fi Rush’s overall vibe is undoubtedly goofy, and Chai’s the biggest goofball of them all. When we first meet him, he imagines himself as a new-age Kurt Cobain of sorts, but thankfully his gimmick of wanting to be a rocker boy really super badly doesn’t stick around for long enough to become insufferable, instead merely establishing the sort of protagonist we’re dealing with in the opening 30 minutes or so. It’s endearing without verging into annoying.
This type of one-note anime character cliche of wanting to be the very best like no one ever was works for Chai, but it fails others. Macaron, for example, who’s built like an ox but scared of using violence, is never properly explored as a reluctant fighter, because Hi-Fi Rush’s script favours jokes and quips over character moments. Tango’s game whips along at a cracking pace, but it’d have been nice to slow down (for just a moment) to delve a little deeper into Chai’s cohort.
There’s also a surprising number of jokes about game development and crunch, like a lot of jokes. One area midway through Hi-Fi Rush is governed by a maniacal overlord intent on working his staff to the bone, burning through resources and funding in favour of his grand vision, consequences to others be damned. Hi-Fi Rush repeatedly hammers home gags about overworking staff, with robot NPCs bemoaning their masters, so much so that one can’t help but feel a little awkward. Like, it’s all tongue-in-cheek jokes from Tango staffers, right?
This entire sentiment can be distilled down to ‘fuck capitalism my dudes!’ which feels a little odd for a big developer – one underneath giant Bethesda and now juggernaut Xbox at that – and also on a topic that has been so well-trodden by smaller games and indie studios over the past decade. That’s not to say Hi-Fi Rush’s core narrative isn’t unwelcome, but when someone operating under Microsoft says in no uncertain terms ‘screw corporations,’ you’ve got to wonder who exactly they’re taking aim at.
Hi-Fi Rush is a fantastic cocktail of rhythm-based head banging and action-packed platforming. The combat system is surprisingly deep and malleable for any style of player and meshing it gently into the musical beat without putting pressure on the player is a deft touch. Its writing and characters might leave a little to be desired, especially when compelling narrative beats are so painfully overlooked, but that doesn’t stop the entire package from being a certified banger.