‘Hi-Fi Rush’ Is a Visually Lush — But Tediously Choreographed — Combat Game
Rhythm games, as a rule, have largely been ignored over the past decade. Though Guitar Hero made a splash in the early 2000s and spawned a wave of me-too music titles that persisted throughout the late 2010s, the genre has all but evaporated. Long-running franchises like Dance Dance Revolution and Beatmania are now left largely relegated to Japan where they originated. While there are glimpses of the rhythm game renaissance every once in a blue moon, music-first releases have essentially become extinct.
Hi-Fi Rush is the latest project from Tango Gameworks, the developer that brought us the terrifying The Evil Within. A surprise drop that promised madcap action with a plucky protagonist with a robot arm, it’s the latest game to adopt the “rhythm” tag, but it’s more complicated than that. Music game mechanics have simply been assimilated into other games over the years.
They’ve been watered down and blended with other genres seemingly in a bid to make them more palatable to audiences that became increasingly bullish over playing plastic instruments or tapping buttons to the beat. Take Crypt of the Necrodancer, for example, or the anime-inspired punk epic No Straight Roads, both love letters to the genre in their own right. Hi-Fi Rush follows their example but walks to the beat of a slightly different drum. It’s a perfectly palatable musical action game, but it’s far from the second coming of the rhythm renaissance.
You play as Chai, a test subject at Vandelay Technologies (not to be confused with George Costanza’s Vandelay Industries), who is set to receive a cybernetic replacement for his disabled right arm. He hopes to be a rock star, but these dreams are derailed when the CEO of Vandelay carelessly throws away Chai’s music player, and it falls onto his chest just as the process begins. The faux iPod fuses with him, and as a result, he gains an innate connection with the rhythm of the world.
Post-accident, Vandelay labels Chai as defective, and security tries to detain him. Fortunately, his cybernetic arm is incredibly useful and allows him to escape. He’s far from the only one that Vandelay has wronged. He soon meets Peppermint and her robot cat 808, who team up with him to investigate Project Armstrong.
The game plays out through a mix of platform-centric levels spiced with combat areas. Combat plays out like Devil May Cry in 4/4 time. Everything in the game is a slave to the rhythm, so every attack or obstacle you face is choreographed. Since everything must follow the beat, enemies very seldomly throw you for a loop, and you’re rewarded with extra damage for patiently tapping out your combos. It’s satisfying to pull off a “Perfect!” in the same way it is when you hit the arrows just right in Dance Dance Revolution, and you’ll get additional flair and cheers from an invisible audience for doing so. But the loop dulls, even with the added punch of passive abilities, additional special attacks, and other upgrades available to Chai fashioned by his pal Peppermint.
Unfortunately, Hi-Fi Rush suffers from the same late-game malaise that practically every beat ’em up does. When you start reaching the bottom of the upgrade barrel, and new enemy types stop being introduced, the game hits a lull that’s only punctuated by the occasional boss fight. The rhythm elements help stave this off a bit but also take some of the bite out of a traditionally challenging genre.
Each level is set to a unique track from one of the many original songs created specifically for Hi-Fi Rush. Machinery huffs and puffs in time with the beat. Chai snaps his fingers as he’s on the run. Everything is seemingly connected to the chosen song at hand, even if only superficially. There are also several licensed songs that play throughout, used mostly during boss encounters.
Unfortunately, while the licensed track list features a wide variety of artists and some standout tracks, they never feel tied to the narrative or even the combat. Players are introduced to the game with a madcap opening featuring The Black Keys’ “Lonely Boy,” but the song’s bluesy swagger doesn’t feel particularly relevant as an introduction to Chai or this futuristic world. Similarly, Elsinore’s “Free Radicals” blares during a boss encounter with the intimidating Rekka, but it only serves as fuzzy background music that the world vaguely bops along with.
It’s a nice gimmick, having this roster of recognizable songs, but the tunes never truly coalesce with the action onscreen beyond the most rudimentary of rhythm segments. And while many of the songs are verifiable hits, the track list is decidedly dated, pulling from artists like Nine Inch Nails, The Joy Formidable, and (inexplicably) Zwan. And while it’s easy to see what the team was going for, these songs never feel truly woven into the game. Still, the fact that these songs even made it into the game is impressive enough in an age where most soundtracks are still mostly orchestral arrangements.
Where Hi-Fi Rush truly shines is its impeccable art design. It’s taken cel shading to its zenith, with the presentation of a playable cartoon. While Chai is little more than another generic anime protagonist, it’s fun to watch him move and interact with the environments. Every color pops, every character expressive and beautifully rendered. There are some disappointing style (and personality) choices, however, like that of sidekick Peppermint’s clichéd tough girl side shave haircut and her “every man is an idiot” attitude, but she looks great in action, as does her feline analog 808. And though level design becomes repetitive throughout the adventure, with the same robots, machinery, and dull factory layouts popping up over and over again, somehow the art style makes things feel fresher than they really should. It’s a nice balm for the eyes after so many pushes for realism in triple-A gaming, and one that more developers should strive for.
Faults aside, Hi-Fi Rush is an enjoyable experience for anyone with a penchant for hack-and-slash adventures like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta. It’s a rock-tinged ode to Saturday morning cartoons in a candy-coated shell, and it’s made many of the right moves to bring the rhythm genre back into the limelight. Should it receive an encore, perhaps it could pen a comeback track that truly incorporates all the elements music game lovers have cherished over the years. Until then, like many rock stars, it’s ultimately fun but flawed.
Hi-Fi Rush is now available for PC and Xbox Series X|S. This review is of the PC version.
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