Review: ‘Hi-Fi Rush’ comes out of nowhere to blow us all away
Hi-Fi Rush feels like it fell out of an alternate reality where the Sega Dreamcast was a wild success that blew away all the competition. The Evil Within and Ghostwire: Tokyo developer Tango Gameworks’ newest arrived out of nowhere last week without any pre-release hype — our introduction came with a trailer announcing that it was now available on Xbox Game Pass and PC.
This is the gaming equivalent of a surprise drop album and, after a weekend of playing it, it’s blown me away. Hi-Fi Rush is a combination of rhythm action and Bayonetta-style third-person combat, delivered under stunning Sega-esque blue skies, cel-shaded visuals the equal of modern cartoons, and an impeccably curated soundtrack that keeps your toes tapping throughout.
You play as budding rock star Chai, who signs up for a free robotic augmentation program with the hopes of propelling himself to musical stardom. The system has other ideas, deciding his limited talents are best deployed as a litter-picker. Fortunately for him, a mishap sees his iPod implanted into his chest, giving him a permanent interior soundtrack that lets him battle to the beat as he attempts to topple an oppressive corporation hellbent on mind-controlling the world.
With hits from Nine Inch Nails, The Prodigy, and The Black Keys, along with plenty of great original tunes, you must engage in battle with ever-spikier and meaner robot adversaries. Success lies in fighting to the beat and syncing your attacks to the music, with everything else in the world moving to the same tune. This manifests as something out of Steamboat Willie: hedges bounce along in rhythm with you, platforms move around to a fixed rhythm, and there are screens everywhere showing the metronomic beat you have to groove to. Stand still for a moment and Chai taps his converse and snaps his fingers — gotta go fast.
Even though early battles are relatively simple, the combat quickly becomes more intense, adding in support characters, a bunch of upgrades and new moves, and a ludicrously satisfying parry mechanic. All enemies attack on the beat, letting you anticipate their moves and bat them away with ease. By the final levels, Chai has become a whirling dervish of rhythm violence, dismantling enemies so stylishly it puts Bayonetta to shame (sorry Bay, but it’s true). Those less rhythmically inclined can be assisted by an on-screen metronome, though if you repeatedly attack off the beat, you’ll simply do less damage and get worse ratings rather than fail outright (plus, you’ll look much less cool).
Along the way, there’s a dizzying amount of references to games that the industry has largely forgotten. Sega’s Jet Set Radio is clearly a primary influence on the visuals, pop-punk story, chaotic city-scape, and mild subversiveness (the special edition comes with an in-game top that reads “I bought the deluxe edition and all I got was this stupid t-shirt”), but beyond that, there’s a dollop of Space Channel 5 in the ‘Simon Says’ moves that let you counter larger enemies, elements of Devil May Cry in its aerial raves and grappling hook, a smidge of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance in its parries, and a nod to Gitaroo Man in the brief moments it turns into an actual rhythm action game.
If those games don’t mean much to you, congratulations on being born this side of the year 2000. Director John Johanas doesn’t seem shy about showing his age, with most of the game’s soundtrack lifted from the late ’90s and 2000s, along with a blizzard of cultural references aimed squarely at ’90s kids. One minute the game will be dropping a line from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the next it’ll be doing an extended riff on Twin Peaks, or pulling poses from 90s-era Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. There’s even time for a Seinfeld gag, with the evil corporation named ‘Vandelay Industries’.
All of the above made my heart sing, though it wasn’t until Hi-Fi Rush decided to barrel full bore into a Xenogears tribute that I fell completely in love with the game. For the uninitiated, Xenogears was an insanely ambitious mid-90s Square JRPG on the original PlayStation that ran out of budget and time mid-way through development. To get the game out, the second disc was largely composed of the characters sitting on a chair against a black background talking you through the exciting developments you would have seen if they had the money to show them. Hi-Fi Rush pulls the exact same trick, joking afterward “Whoo! What a wild battle! Hah, wish you could have seen it!” It’s the year of our lord 2023 and a Bethesda game is out here dropping obscure Xenogears references. What a time to be alive.
Beyond that, Hi-Fi Rush is a throwback to an age where a game was perfectly confident delivering a 10-12 hour experience without crowbarring in multiplayer, microtransactions, or a season pass. As many gamers seem (sadly) reluctant to shell out for a single-player game with a linear story, this makes it a perfect candidate for Xbox Game Pass, so if you’re subscribed then this is a must-play. Hi-Fi Rush also runs beautifully on Steam Deck on low settings, with Valve’s handheld running the game at a locked 60fps without breaking a sweat.
Beyond its many charms, it’s also a lesson that pre-release hype can be a double-edged sword. For comparison, look no further than last week’s unjustly maligned Forspoken, whose marketing campaign misrepresented the game and united the internet in mockery over perceived terrible dialogue (which makes sense in context). It’s easy to imagine Hi-Fi Rush meeting a similar fate, with jaded gamers inevitably making fun of its goofy dialogue and earnest storytelling if we’d have had months of trailers establishing its world and characters.
Releasing it fully complete out of nowhere (and bug-free to boot!) sidesteps all that and lets us appreciate Hi-Fi Rush on its own wonderful terms. It’s an absolute banger of a game and having seen the credits roll, our only complaint is that we wish there was more of it. It’s got style, personality, and ambition — all grounded in best-in-class third-person combat that’s the equal of anything Platinum Games have released.
What are you waiting for? Go play it already.
This review is based on the Steam version of the game. A copy was provided by Bethesda.
One of the most joyous and fun gaming experiences we've had in a very long time, 'Hi-Fi Rush' combines the best of classics like 'Jet Set Radio', 'Space Channel 5', and 'Bayonetta' into a delectable package that simply can't be missed.