This rhythm-based hack ‘n slasher serves to remind us that, even in this era of constantly ballooning development budgets, surprises can still come from nowhere. In this instance, from the unlikeliest of places too – this playful and energetic experience comes from Tango Gameworks, best known for the bleak horror series The Evil Within. Side by side, they couldn’t be any more different.
Going one step further, I have no qualms in saying that it’s an excellent reminder as to why we play video games in the first place. It combines the style and freshness of Jet Set Radio with the vibrancy and energy of Sunset Overdrive and pairs it with the compelling feel-good nature of a typical rhythm-action game. Just to deepen the experience further, shades of Devil May Cry and Bayonetta are present – with each hack ‘n slash battle being ranked, eventually resulting in a graded performance at the end of each stage.
Crush any preconception that it’s a mere ‘cover version’ – part of the development team worked on a few games just mentioned, along with Viewtiful Joe 2 and Okami.
Chai is our reluctant hero – a slacker who daydreams about living the rockstar lifestyle. The story begins with a spritely Chai heading to the colossal robotics corporation Vandelay to receive a new cybernetic arm. But after the operation goes awry – accidentally fusing his much-loved music player with a chest implant – he’s branded a defect and targeted.
During a frenzied escape, with Vandelay’s clumsy robotic goons on his trail, Chai learns the company’s positive public image is a facade – their life-assisting implants are a backdoor for mind control. It isn’t long until Chai stumbles upon the punkish Peppermint – and her robotic cat 808. Together, they hatch a plan to take down the hierarchy of outlandish corporate heads at Vandelay, making their way through its various departments, while occasionally regrouping at a makeshift hideout.
The botched operation leaves Chai a changed man; his cybernetic arm acts as a melee weapon, while the fused music player allows him to feel the rhythm around him. The world is, literally, pulsating with musical energy. Drain covers jitter, bollards bounce, platforms and elevators move in synch, and billboards become graphic equalizers.
This sense of rhythm delightfully ties into traversal across the various factory floors, and more crucially, the combat system – which sees Chai striking enemies with a guitar in tune with the beat. Not only do the backdrops indicate the rhythm to follow, but so does cutesy companion 808. Should you require an additional prompt, it’s also possible to bring up a rhythm gauge at the bottom of the screen.
Tone deaf? Worry not – there are a bunch of accessibility options, ensuring no gamer is left behind. This includes an auto-combo system that helps Chai and Peppermint pull off flashy combos with minimal effort. It also does an excellent job of slowly building up its mechanics, complete with helpful reminders – provided by Smidge, a smart fridge. For the first hour, combat is restricted to a two-button system. By the time the forgone conclusion nears, Chai can parry, air grapple, heal, and summon cohorts – essential for breaking shields – while new defensive manoeuvres are implemented.
The onslaught of dim-witted robots is forever growing too, both in number and variety, with samurai droids and robotic animals entering the fray.
Back at the hideout, Chai can purchase new moves in addition to chips, which increase stats and decrease cooldowns. This allows for a degree of customisation, and if you’re aiming for a full roster of ‘S ranks’ you’ll need to experiment heavily.
Just simply viewing the move list gives a clear indication of how wild combat can become – the screen becomes awash with flashy super moves, pop-art style captions, fire and electricity effects, and snappy team attacks. The clever use of colour makes the chaos easy to decipher. Music, too, kicks up a notch during combat – with later battles featuring The Prodigy and Nine Inch Nails.
The rhythm action is carefully infused into the platforming. Platforms extend and move in tune with the beat, and activating fans or switches requires well-timed button presses – with these sections becoming more elaborate.
A cookie-crumb trail of gears creates a clear path ahead, while collectables and secret areas give the incentive to explore a little further. Amusing sights are common, with the robot janitors often found slacking off, which helps to carry the comical tone. Another noticeable pattern is that you’ll be ushered along corridors or dull office/factory floors for a while, only to then drop into a colossal open area full of all manner of whirring machinery, often with backdrops that sprawl into the distance. A few seconds are often required to take in the sights – something especially true of the vibrant outdoor locations.
What impresses here the most though is the game’s sheer consistency. Aptly enough, it’s a wild rush – one with no flab or filler, and apart from one chase sequence that ideally needed a longer head start, it never falters. Smoothly animated cut-scenes are frequent, each boss battle is as dramatic as the last – often with an unexpected twist or gimmick – and every location presents new challenges or has a unique objective.
A smooth difficulty curve suggests extensive playtesting took place. It isn’t a walk in the park, but never is it unfair or frustrating – some bosses dish out a pasting initially, only to eventually reveal a weak spot or an opening where you can make a dent in their health bar. Most boss battles also have mid-phase checkpoints – something we’re always thankful for.
As a game that ‘shadow dropped’ you may expect signs of a shortened development cycle, but this isn’t the case. It’s one of the most polished and refined experiences of recent times, with a suite of accessibility options – including a colourblind mode – and a bunch of ‘end game’ features that go far beyond expectation. Our playtime stood at just over 12 hours, and that was with an incomplete move list, several missing collectables and upgrades, plus a handful of freshly unlocked additional modes untouched. Stages have also been designed to be replayed, with new areas to discover upon returning.
I’m hoping Microsoft understands just how important Hi-Fi RUSH is to the Xbox brand, helping to ensure we see more titles like this in the future. This is the kind of experience that doubtlessly turns heads, proving that the system has more to offer than its cornerstone franchises and the occasional indie darling. Coming from a Japanese studio, and falling into a genre that typically performs well in that region, it may even help Microsoft gain a larger foothold in Japan.
Hi-Fi RUSH is more than just a great game – it’s one the freshest experiences in a long time. It has all the confidence of a one-man band, and the energy to match.
Published by Bethesda, Hi-Fi RUSH is out now on Xbox Series and PC.