It’s been just over a week since Microsoft and Bethesda’s Tokyo-based studio, Tango Gameworks stealth-launched their new rhythm-based action-adventure, Hi-Fi RUSH at last week’s Xbox Developer Direct Showcase, and I’m still dumbfounded as to how they managed to keep the lid on it until literally the day before.
Don’t let the game’s Day One launch into Xbox Game Pass or its budget-priced MSRP of $38.99 CAD fool you into regarding it as a quaint indie release meant to occupy players for a brief few hours, or a quirky passion project that no one at Xbox expected to take off. Hi-Fi RUSH is the full, fat, Triple-A, next-gen Xbox and PC exclusive that Xbox Series-owners in particular, have been craving for a LONG time, including this reviewer, and now having thoroughly played it, I can happily report that the hype is indeed real.
Visually, Hi-Fi RUSH is what would happen if Devil May Cry, modern-day anime, and wholesome Saturday Morning Cartoons from the ‘80s and 90’s somehow conceived a love child. The futuristic cityscape in which its story takes place is detailed, colourful and vibrant, and its wacky characters, chief among them the game’s protagonist Chai, are the best examples of cel-shading technology and “cartoon-style” animation I’ve yet to see in a videogame.
Tango Gameworks’ stylistic choice to animate most of the game’s cutscenes at half the framerate (30fps or less) further sells the cartoon look, mimicking the “on the 2s” animation technique recently made popular by Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse. The effect is made all the more surreal through seamless transitions in and out Hi-Fi RUSH’s gameplay, which maintains a rock solid 60fps throughout.
Not unlike a cartoon, the world building in Hi-Fi RUSH is scant. We don’t know why the happy-go-lucky, self-titled “Future Rockstar” Chai has enlisted alongside hundreds of others as a volunteer test subject for the mysterious Project Armstrong campaign, other than that the corporation that runs it, Vandelay Ind— er, I mean Vandelay Technologies specializes in robotics and that Chai’s right arm is in a sling, likely requiring amputation(?). The completely unmanned, criminally negligent surgical procedure that follows provides Chai with a new, magnetic robotic arm but also results in the teenager’s personal MP3 player being accidentally fused with both his heart and his new arm’s robotics. Chai doesn’t even spend a second mourning his old appendage, however, because the new one has somehow granted him the super rockstar ninja powers he’s always wanted!
For starters, Chai has the ability to morph scrap metal salvage (a.k.a. Gears) into an electric guitar-shaped weapon that can be used to bludgeon enemies, and he can even transform it into a real-guitar capable of unleashing powerful, destructive soundwaves when the combo opportunity arises. Oh, and did I forget to mention that Chai’s music-born abilities are actually world-transforming, causing practically everything within it to operate on the beat of the music that Chai is listening to (i.e. the game’s soundtrack)? Clearly unhappy about this unexpected development, Vandelay Technologies promptly labels Chai a “defect” that must be destroyed and sets loose its robot army on the youngster and anyone who dares assist him, unwittingly setting the stage for our Future Rockstar to shine.
“Visually, Hi-Fi RUSH is what would happen if Devil May Cry, modern day anime, and wholesome Saturday Morning Cartoons from the ‘80s and 90’s somehow conceived a love child.”
Gamers who don’t usually play or excel at hack n’ slash or rhythm-action titles might assume that HiFi RUSH simply isn’t for them, but they’d be foolish to make such a mistake without trying it first. To the contrary, Hi-Fi RUSH’s gameplay makes an impressive effort to be as accessible to newcomers as possible, and while it does ultimately reward players that possess better combo timing with higher rank scores and more effective attacks, it doesn’t harshly punish players if they are having difficulty in keeping up. In fact, several gameplay mechanisms meant to ensure that players keep in-sync with Chai’s playlist are built right into the game’s visual and audio design.
As mentioned earlier, the world of Hi-Fi RUSH operates according to the rhythm of whatever song is playing in Chai’s chest-embedded MP3 player, which means that just about everything that happens around Chai occurs “on the beat.” Machines and powered equipment visibly bounce and whirr harmoniously with the bassline. Floating platforms audibly shift, rise and fall, forming the song’s bass drum pattern. Readouts on screens dance up and down creating a visual equalizer for the music that’s playing. Even enemies, from the lowest mechanical minion to each of Vandelay Technologies’ six world bosses, perform their main attacks on the beat, when you examine their moves closely enough.
Players are further aided in keeping tempo once they are joined early-on in the game by 808, an adorable robot cat that floats alongside Chai like a drone and pulsates a constant blue flash in exact timing with the song’s snare drum, acting as a metronome if you will. If players have difficulty keeping track of 808 amongst all the action, they can press the View Button to toggle on a highly visible, translucent overlay on the bottom of the screen that incorporates both 808’s silhouette and pulsing lines to better illustrate the concept. Also, there are a bevy of accessibility options available to players in the game’s settings that can make the experience easier to manage. To quote Fatboy Slim however, “If you walk without rhythm, you’ll never learn”, so a modicum of coordination will still be required.
“The songs in Hi-Fi RUSH’s soundtrack dynamically change depending on whether the player is in combat, solving environmental puzzles, simply exploring, or performing context-sensitive QTEs…”
Naturally it’s the player’s job to sync up their attacks with the music, but we’re not simply talking about tapping buttons to just one set-in-stone tempo for an entire chapter. The songs in Hi-Fi RUSH’s soundtrack dynamically change depending on whether the player is in combat, solving environmental puzzles, simply exploring, or performing context-sensitive QTEs, so players need to be prepared to switch gears and modify the cadence of their button presses to match the situation.
This is especially true of the game’s tougher, more advanced enemies, which when close to death will break the current rhythm as they attempt to deal heavy damage with a multi-hit attack. Such attacks are unavoidable, unless players tap the “Parry” button (B) in matching sequence to an audio-visual “tell” that the enemy displays a moment before.
For each hit that players parry perfectly, Chai is awarded a “Perfect” parry and won’t take any damage. Parries that are slightly off (i.e. “Good”) will absorb some damage, while missed parries will receive full damage. Players that manage to survive the onslaught will be then be given the chance to finish off said enemy with a final, perfectly-timed final blow, which rewards players with additional Gears (currency that can be used to purchase new moves and upgrades), batteries (that replenish Chai’s health) and musical chords (that fill Chai’s Reverb meter for performing special attacks).
It’s through challenges like these that I soon came to understand the value of parrying and leaned less on dodging (Right Bumper), as successful parries don’t just lessen or negate damage but also allow players to stay in the mix with nearby enemies and continue their combo flows, resulting in higher combo chains. Combined with accurate timing, these combos deal more effective damage to enemies and reap more batteries, emboldening players to take more risks and fight on longer even when low on health, feeding back into Hi-Fi RUSH’s addictive gameplay loop.
“Beyond gameplay there are so many praiseworthy aspects of Hi-Fi RUSH I have yet to mention…”
Later, Chai will also form friendships with allies who have their own vested interests in taking down Project Armstrong and possess unique skills and abilities that Chai can call in for support from the sidelines. For example, expert hacker Peppermint can use her plasma(?) pistols to overload and destroy blue barriers that block passage and/or interaction with environmental objects like doors or magnetic ziplines.
In combat, her pistols can deal general damage to most enemies, and they are crucial for taking down the protective barriers of tougher enemies so that Chai can attack them. Meanwhile, fellow hacker Macaron is a walking tank of a man that can destroy the Z-Shielding protection of more advanced enemies, deal heavy damage to weaker, unprotected enemies and break down Z-Shielding-reinforced doors and/or large rock formations.
Players can swap between support allies with Left Trigger and tag them in to activate their abilities using Right Trigger, with each ally having their own distinct cooldown (which means players can immediately bring in the assistance of one ally while the ability of another is recharging). Each ally also expands upon the arsenal of moves that Chai can learn, adding in flashy, context-sensitive tag-team moves and special attacks that will either deal heavy damage to enemies or provide protective or restorative effects that Chai can benefit from. When these tag-team abilities are added to the long list of combos and special attacks that Chai can perform on his own, the depth of Hi-Fi RUSH’s move list might prove a bit overwhelming for players that don’t necessarily have the best memorization skills.
Thankfully, Tango Gameworks has wisely addressed the above problem by providing two brilliant solutions, the first being an extremely competent training mode that can be accessed via Peppermint’s safehouse either in-between story chapters or from the main menu at any time. The second, however, is a masterstroke: The ability for players to sell back just about any combo or special attack in Chai’s arsenal to upgrade vending machines at nearly full price, effectively “unlearning” moves to gain back Gears that can be put towards different moves or upgrades. This means players can streamline their move list down to only the attacks and combos that best suit their current playstyle, and remove ones that they don’t like or can’t be bothered to remember, knowing that they can always buy back the unwanted moves later on.
“Like the cartoons it emulates, Hi-Fi RUSH’s story is ridiculous and much of its dialogue is schlocky, but whatever cringe that is there is one-hundred percent intentional and is a big part of its charm.”
Beyond gameplay there are so many praiseworthy aspects of Hi-Fi RUSH I have yet to mention that it would require a second review to properly do justice to them all, but I’ll try to summarize as best I can. The fine balance of Japanese and Western humour in the English dub, brought to life by superb voicework, a genuinely funny script, impeccable animation and a literally painful appreciation for slapstick comedy is pitch perfect. Like the cartoons it emulates, Hi-Fi RUSH’s story is ridiculous and much of its dialogue is schlocky, but whatever cringe that is there is one-hundred percent intentional and is a big part of its charm.
Chai, Peppermint, Macaron, and 808 are all endearing, while each and every one of the big bosses are all personalities that players will both love and love to hate (especially when facing off against them right before laying the smackdown). Finally, the music, both licensed and streamer-mode approved, slaps to the point that I would often run up and down empty hallways practising my combo timing simply because I enjoyed the way Chai’s shouts, jumps and dodges added vocal percussion to the music, especially moves involving a pause in which Chai would snap his fingers instead of swinging his weapon.
To conclude, I’m absolutely enamoured with Hi-Fi: Rush. Whether you have an Xbox Series console, are an Xbox Game Pass member, or game on PC via the Steam or Epic Games Store, owe it to yourself to play this game.