When I play a game with pacing issues, long loading screens or dull expository cutscenes, I find myself tapping the buttons on my controller to the beat of an imaginary song. Hi-Fi Rush, a rhythm-based hack ‘n’ slash from Tango Gameworks, turns my fidgeting into a full-blown game mechanic. It’s the best Xbox exclusive since Sea of Thieves.
It’s hard to be sceptical of a game with the Tango Gameworks pedigree, especially if you believe in the studio’s general mission statement. As the game’s industry embraces the safety of endless sequels and almost constant remakes, Tango has delivered three new, fascinating worlds since 2014 – The Evil Within, Ghostwire Tokyo, and now Hi-Fi Rush. Generally, the studio is well-known for their beautiful aesthetics, but they tend to falter in the way they feel, giving them a niche, cult quality. Hi-Fi Rush is a refreshing pivot away from the studio’s affinity for horror, and one that comfortably breaks this curse.
Hi-Fi Rush throws up some tantalising prospects. You’re going to fight a giant robot to the beat of a Nine Inch Nails song in an immaculately cel-shaded cyberpunk world. The funny thing is that it actually delivers upon this promise. This particular sequence comes at the end of the game’s tutorial level once you’ve been introduced to Chai, the self-stylized “future rockstar” protagonist with a broken arm.
Chai is branded a ‘defect’ by the money-grubbing Vandelay corporation, so they affix him with a robotic arm so he can grab their garbage. Alas, Chai’s trusty iPod falls into the machine during the operation and is fused to his chest, letting him tap into the rhythmic undercurrent of this mechanised world. Your robotic arm is now a scrap metal Flying V, and you’re demolishing droids with combo attacks that do more damage if you can tap with tempo.
Suddenly the walls are alive with the sound of music, and the environmental design team knock it out of the park with this challenging brief. For a game set in a giant factory (well-trodden ground for the medium), I was never bored of my surroundings. Take the production zone, where we have shipping containers turned into slaloming ski lifts, jutting pickers, tricksy tubes and pulsating machines, all reacting to the music in your ears. Hi-Fi Rush borders on the synaesthetic at times with its audio-visual harmony. There’s this fantastic shading effect that follows Chai and other characters, as well as a fun mix of comic book storyboards, static scenes and 3D Spider-Verse motion with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it transitions into playtime that hammer home the wow factor. It has to be seen to be believed.
If you let it sit still for a moment, you’ll also notice one of the thousands of subtle Tango touches in Hi-Fi Rush, like metal doors Chai can platform across that shut in a deferred fashion, which syncopates the backbeat. The mind boggles at how they managed to implement this sort of thing. These tiny details abound as you explore the game’s combat system. Rest and juggle attacks are denoted by an off-beat step and clap system, with visual cues that help you learn the rhythm. Different instruments serve as accents to the soundtrack that you end your combos with, too.
There’s a really careful drip-feed of new abilities throughout the game, like the introduction of a magnetic pull that lets you lurch towards enemies and eats away at the dead time spent on the ground. Eventually, enemies will stop you in your tracks for a quickfire memory game, where Chai has to block to a beat, which shakes up the tempo of combat when you think you’ve got it down. A meaty upgrade system is available during missions and at the hideout between levels, so you can tune your special attacks, find your best arsenal and build upon your stats. It’s a boon for replayability – I’ll certainly be diving back in to get those coveted S-ranks.
Chai is joined in combat by his trusty cat companion 808 and, eventually, a series of support characters you summon in battle to bust shields and find breathing room. Unbelievably, their attacks are also synced to the rhythm, regardless of when you activate their powers.
The killer licensed songs from Nine Inch Nails and The Prodigy create some truly memorable moments, but much praise must be given to the house band, who are riffing along with you through every verse. I caught awesome interpolations of songs like The Hives’ ‘Tick Tick Boom’ in amongst the carnage of combat, and my dopamine receptors felt fit to burst on many occasions. After I entered that perfect flow state of musical battle for the first time, I was frothing at the bit to get it back. It’s Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver in a bottle, and I think I’ll be playing Hi-Fi Rush for a long time yet.
Hi-Fi Rush is the kind of modern cyberpunk story that could skew cringe if it didn’t have an intelligent writing team behind it, but it gladly sidesteps those pitfalls with its sincere voice-acting performances and a believable anti-corruption story. There are many low-key but biting jokes about the dangers of AI, widespread automation, and not reading the EULA… as well as a ‘Left Shark’ gag that thoroughly puts the joke to bed. It helps that the protagonist is voiced by Robbie Daymond (Prompto from Final Fantasy 15), who has the kind of endearing voice that can flip a scene from hilarious to emotional in about five seconds flat. Chai’s candid, conversational vigour is realised in motion too. If you let the game idle, he will snap his fingers (complete with comic book onomatopoeia) to the beat, his guitar straps and neckerchief swaying in the wind.
The league of evil middle manager antagonists are all flawed and interesting enough to dominate their own levels too, so much so that Hi-Fi Rush earns its cheesy one-liners when Chai delivers the killing blow. Thankfully, the game rounds out its wider arcs with an epic closing act bound to leave you feeling fuzzy. It’s the perfect length for a Hack ‘n’ Slash, too, with about a 10-hour runtime and plenty of room for replayability after the fact.
Honestly, the only negative feeling I got from this game was a proxy sadness about how experimental it feels within the modern games industry climate. Hi-Fi Rush is a tour de force of joie de vivre. A brand new tongue-in-cheek world bursting with imagination from a AAA studio inside an enormous publisher. And Xbox launched it out of nowhere, an incredibly bold move that has paid off. It’s a rare feeling nowadays to leave a game with the inspirational urge to do something creative – which is why Hi-Fi Rush deserves as many eyes on it as possible. It reminds me of the golden days of original Xbox exclusives, when we had awesome new IPs like Voodoo Vince, Psychonauts, Grabbed by the Ghoulies, and Jet Set Radio Future. I’ve got my fingers crossed in the hope that this game helps convince the suits that we need to double down on a similar creative revival.
Hi-Fi Rush is available on Xbox Series X|S and PC. We played it on PC.
Hi-Fi Rush is the perfect surprise to fend off the January blues. A creatively-uplifting adventure that feels like a seismic breath of fresh air amidst copious license bait, remakes and sequels. It is Tango Gameworks’ most cohesive project yet, and a sorely-needed top-quality Xbox exclusive to boot. Few games can proudly go toe to toe with something as stylistically groundbreaking as Jet Set Radio, but Hi-Fi Rush sits comfortably within that lineage thanks to its intuitive full-bodied combat system, masterful art direction and anti-capitalist story. What can I say? It’s an early Game of the Year contender that’ll make you want to go and pick up that dusty old acoustic.
- Meticulous and constantly-exciting cel-shaded visual style
- An airtight, deeply satisfying music-based combat system
- Self-aware writing and top-notch VA enliven a cool cast of characters
- I wish every game had even half the spirit of Hi-Fi Rush