In Hi-Fi Rush, the streets are alive with the sound of music. The trees don't sway with the breeze, they bop to a beat. Everything does. Trash cans, molten lava, power converters. As you move, so too do a series of gorgeous sci-fi spaces; they skew out of shape in service of four-on-the-floor – steady accented beats provide a pulse to the world, and you a connection with everything contained within it. Protagonist Chai senses it too, as the wannabe rockstar rhythmically smashes and crashes his way from one robotic enemy to the next; the combo meter always rising. His toe taps and finger snaps, mirroring the way steel structures contort beneath the massive weight of the in-house Bethesda Softworks band. A sharp snap of a snare drum here, bass guitar strings assaulted by a thick-gauge plectrum there. Hi-Fi Rush is a harmonious cacophony of raunchy rock 'n' roll and character-driven action.
Release date: January 25, 2023
Platform(s): Xbox Series X, PC
Developer: Tango Gameworks
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Hi-Fi Rush is Tango Gameworks shedding its survival horror skin, the first Bethesda game to release day-and-date into Xbox Game Pass, and an off-kilter 20th anniversary celebration of P.N.03 and Viewtiful Joe. It's also brilliant, with Tango demonstrating such confidence in its creative vision that I can't help but be enamored with what has been produced – even if the studio does occasionally lose step with the beat. Hi-Fi Rush is so full of heart and humor, vivid color and character, with all of it underpinned by the sort of combat fundamentals that made Devil May Cry and Vanquish legend.
Okay. 3, 2, 1... Let's Jam!
Hi-Fi Rush sits in the rhythm-action genre, but that delineation feels a little disingenuous to me. It's like slotting a Nine Inch Nails LP into the 'ambient' section at your local record store, or hurling The Black Keys in with the rest of the radio-ready indie; both of those bands feature on the soundtrack, by the way, propelling the boss battles they underpin to delirious heights. Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, the way rhythm and action combines. Hi-Fi Rush works as well as it does because it isn't just set to music but driven by it. There's a coherence to the way that movement, attack, and defense sync with the rhythm – you so rarely see this executed in modern entertainment, and filmmaker Edgar Wright's directorial style is a clear influence on the cadence to Hi-Fi Rush's musically-inclined combat, and the composure of its characters.
There's syncopation in the way that all the disparate elements come together. Attacks should be coordinated on beat, with combos combining to unleash monstrous amounts of damage, heighten your score through each of the stages, and unlock new sections of song to rock (or otherwise rumble) to. Enemies telegraph attacks at least one beat before they land, giving you ample time to lock back in with the rhythm and dodge, sprint, or parry out of harm's way. Amping up your damage potential builds a Reverb Gauge, allowing you to unleash wicked face-melting solos with your makeshift guitar, while a thread of well-timed attacks will let you lead off an assault with a massive attack – a cymbal crash at the end of a phrase.
This system works as well as it does because Hi-Fi Rush always lets you get back in sync with its rhythm, and Tango Gameworks won't give you whiplash for failing to find its tempo. A floating cat serves as an ever-present metronome, Chai shifts his weight rhythmically, and the world is constantly signaling the preferred timing. If none of that is enough, a quick tap of the View button on your Xbox Series X controller will snap an easy-to-read beat-counter onto the bottom of the HUD to help you figure it all out. The combat system is slick and, while it fails to expand all that much through the 12-hour adventure, it has strong enough foundations that I always found myself coming back for more.
In an effort to amp up variety in combat and platforming, Tango Gameworks introduces a steady stream of new Vandelay robots through the back half of the experience, although a reliance on parrying to progress did upend the pacing somewhat. I understand the impulse to include such a system, where certain attacks are rebuffed and roadblocks eroded through inputting a specific sequence of buttons. However, this more traditional rhythm-action idea felt somewhat antithetical to the more free-flowing nature of the early encounters. It's a small but undeniable misstep – the track you wish you could skip on an otherwise excellent album.
Groove is in the heart
Tango Gameworks built its reputation on the back of combat mechanics – the snappy weapon wielding in The Evil Within 2, and the magical gestures that propelled Ghostwire: Tokyo. But the studio rarely receives the recognition it deserves for its world building or writing. That'll change following Hi-Fi Rush. While its story is simple enough, as a ragtag group of reluctant heroes assemble to combat corporate overreach and the abuse of advanced artificial intelligence, there is an undeniable quality to the execution. Hi-Fi Rush has good vibes, and while that descriptive lacks any distinction it does accurately capture the way you'll feel while playing.
The visual design echoes the hyper-vivid color palette used to great effect in games like Sunset Overdrive and Jet Set Radio, yes, but Hi-Fi Rush has perhaps more in common with the early morning cartoons that aired in the '90s. It's splashy and undeniably bombastic, but there's detail to the framing of its oversized sequences and plucky facial animations that's difficult to ignore. For a game with such impeccable rhythm you may not be surprised to learn that Hi-Fi Rush has incredible comedic timing, but I have to say that I was taken aback by just how consistently funny it is. I was laughing out loud during cutscenes, wide-eyed during the larger combat encounters, and otherwise bemused as Chai and the gang shredded their way through the adventure with wild abandon.
I mentioned P.N.03 and Viewtiful Joe up top, which you may consider to be two strange touchstones for a game so thematically and mechanically distinct as Hi-Fi Rush. Whether it was intentional from the team at Tango Gameworks or not, I did feel the interpolation of these cult-classic GameCube games throughout. Consider the influence of Shinji Mikami, the studio founder who served as director of the former and executive producer of the latter in 2003 – and is now serving as executive producer of Hi-Fi Rush 20 years later. The way Chai sways and snaps to the beat while idle echoes the motions of Vanessa Z. Schneider, while the vivid colorwork and personality that helped define Joe's adventures through Movieland are present and accounted for here.
Is Hi-Fi Rush the game P.N.03 should have been all those years ago, or able to fill the void left in my heart by the demise of the Viewtiful Joe series? Not quite. Although Hi-Fi Rush does have a familiar 'Capcom Five (opens in new tab)' energy to it – an experimental edge, where a willingness to try something different supersedes the need to get it right all of the time. As luck should have it, Hi-Fi Rush just so happens to play like one of the best GameCube games that you never had the opportunity to try at the time, one which benefits from the modern advancements that make a slick 60 frames-per second and gorgeous 4K rendering of a hyper-stylized cel-shaded playspace possible.
Hi-Fi Rush was reviewed via Game Pass, and is available now for Xbox Series X and PC