It’s not often that a video game gem gets a surprise release, but that’s exactly what happened on January 25th, 2023 when the character action game Hi-Fi Rush was announced out of nowhere by Tango Gameworks at Microsoft’s Xbox Developer_Direct. The game wowed at the presentation with its eye-searingly colorful visuals and its intriguing core mechanic: everything in the world of Hi-Fi Rush is synced up to an awesome soundtrack. Footsteps, combat, and even the environments move and land on a beat, and finding and following that beat is the key to success in the game.
Even more surprising was the announcement of the game’s release date: “Hours from now”.
In the few short days since its release, Hi-Fi Rush has lived up to its first impression, become a sleeper hit, and is an easy Game of the Year contender. This game is a wild, fantastic departure from the horror games Tango Gameworks has seemingly been locked into since ZeniMax purchased the studio in 2010, with its body of work consisting of just The Evil Within, its sequel, and Ghostwire: Tokyo over the past 13 years. All of those previous games play well and feel creative in their own way, but are also safely tucked into the horror genre that has seen a resurgence in the last few years.
"The cartoony/comic book aesthetic lends itself well to Hi-Fi Rush’s narrative tone, and the flatness of the texture shading also allows for seamless transitions between 2D animated cutscenes and 3D gameplay. It’s very impressive, but the visuals aren’t the only thing Hi-Fi Rush borrows from other similar games."
Even from what they delivered with Ghostwire: Tokyo, it’s clear that the team of young, talented developers at Tango Gameworks are capable of so much more, and Hi-Fi Rush is the kind of game you get when you let awesome developers off their leashes. Hi-Fi Rush’s vibrant, 3D and 2D visuals are easy to compare to the much more recent Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, but older gamers will recognize it as an evolution of art style seen in similar games from years ago. The cartoony/comic book aesthetic lends itself well to Hi-Fi Rush’s narrative tone, and the flatness of the texture shading also allows for seamless transitions between 2D animated cutscenes and 3D gameplay. It’s very impressive, but the visuals aren’t the only thing Hi-Fi Rush borrows from other similar games.
The game’s protagonist, Chai, is a loveable, goofy, wannabe rocker who is immediately endearing from the moment he enters the frame. Chai’s loves rock music. He has music in his heart from the very beginning, but when a mishap during the grafting of his robot arm embeds his music player directly into his chest, he begins to feel the beat of his music in everything around him, which leads into the primary gameplay mechanic.
Combat! Labeled as a defect and subject to being “recalled”, Chai fights using his new robot arm’s magnetic stick attachment to collect scrap which forms into a literal and figurative axe (it looks like an arrow guitar and even fully materializes into one in boss battles). Again, wearing that non-horror inspiration on its sleeve, combat in Hi-Fi Rush is every bit as fun, stylish, and entertaining as what we had in action games, and the addition of rhythm feels wholly unique. Striking, dodging, and juggling enemies to a beat feels fantastic, and when the big tracks kick in for boss fights, it’s hard not to fall in love with Hi-Fi Rush. Especially when you get an over-the-top, Vanquish-esque QTE mid boss fight. Hype overload.
"Striking, dodging, and juggling enemies to a beat feels fantastic, and when the big tracks kick in for boss fights, it’s hard not to fall in love with Hi-Fi Rush."
Beating down robotic and human enemies to amazing tracks is an experience that no other game offers, although there is a “Streamer Mode” option in the settings that removes the licensed tracks and replaces them with original ones created just for the game which sound remarkably similar to the songs they replace. Both modes were tested through the intro for this review, and the experience does appear to be preserved for those who want to stream or upload footage of the game without fear of copyright strikes.
Despite being such a cool concept, rhythm fighting might seem a little intimidating at first. Thankfully, the tutorials you are presented with throughout the game’s intro do a great job of informing you what Hi-Fi Rush is all about, and the game also goes out of its way to help players “find the beat”. The environment moves and bops, Chai taps and snaps in time, and even the UI moves and flashes with the right timing. As if that isn’t enough, you can also turn on an aid that will persist along the bottom of the screen to show you the exact beat timing.
Playing the game with headphones (or a good sound system) can result in basically being engulfed by the beat, where every button press falls in line without much thought after a little while. But, if you’re rhythm-challenged, the game doesn’t punish you. You get damage bonuses and access to things like a triple dodge if you have perfect timing, but even if you’re mashing buttons your attacks will still land on the beat and look stylish as hell.
There is a minor issue though, and it’s something the game warns you about early on: you need as little input lag as possible to get the most out of Hi-Fi Rush. A tutorial tip at the beginning even goes as far as letting you know you should turn your TV’s “Game Mode” on to reduce the latency between your controller and the screen. This isn’t something many games will outright warn you about, but it affects the core Hi-Fi Rush experience so much that it really is important to reduce that latency as much as possible. Even playing the game through a capture card resulted in enough latency that landing on the beat became exponentially more difficult.
"With massive releases just on the horizon, it’s kind of crazy to think that a shadow-dropped game with a relatively brief 10-hour runtime might be the best thing we see all year."
Possible latency issues aside, the masterfully deft intertwining of character action combat with rhythm game mechanics will keep players engaged. However, it’s the writing, characters, and world that elevate Hi-Fi Rush into an instant classic. Chai is joined by his trusty, floating cat robot 808 as well as a cast of colorful characters with names like Peppermint, Macaron, and CNMN (pronounced cinnamon). Joining this ragtag group of misfits and freedom fighters as they fight to bring down an ominous robotics company has been the highlight of the year so far, and even though it’s early on, it might be difficult to beat.
With massive releases just on the horizon, it’s kind of crazy to think that a shadow-dropped game with a relatively brief 10-hour runtime might be the best thing we see all year. Its charm and style alone could carry it, but the passion behind the project, the love and care that was put into it, is something that hasn’t been felt or seen since some of the best games of 2022, and look how that turned out.
Even though it has flashes of games that came before, Hi-Fi Rush is a unique, masterful game that accomplishes everything it sets out to with plenty of style and charm to spare. Tango Gameworks should be proud.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox Series X.
Incredible soundtrack; Unique rhythm-based combat that doesn’t penalize the rhythmless; Wonderful characters, writing, and visuals.
The best parts of the game are very latency-sensitive.