Welcome to Vandelay Technologies
Hi-Fi Rush is a rhythm-based action game developed by Tango Gameworks and published by Bethesda Softworks. It was dropped on the globe as a complete surprise during an Xbox showcase on January 25, 2023, and was available almost immediately on Game Pass for PC and Xbox consoles.
Until recently, Japanese developer Tango Gameworks had been working on an entirely different genre of games, being responsible for The Evil Within and Ghostwire: Tokyo to name just a couple. Hi-Fi Rush could not be any more different from these releases if it tried, with a cartoon-inspired art style and a population of mostly robots.
The player takes on the role of Chai, a wannabe rock star whose heart is “accidentally” replaced with his own music player in a factory-based mishap, or experimental surgery dependent on your viewpoint. Vandelay Technologies, the corporation that took out said surgery, labels him a defect and begins a quest to remove him from the production line or, you know, kill him. Again, dependent on your viewpoint of course.
In this animated world, every action you take is synced to the outstanding musical soundtrack’s beat, which includes licensed work from the likes of Nine Inch Nails and The Prodigy, amongst others. There’s a handy “streamer mode”, which replaces these licensed tracks with original works from the team at Bethesda, meaning those who’d like to share their Hi-Fi Rush gameplay online won’t be hit with an inconvenient DMCA notice for broadcasting the music.
One of the most satisfying things about this though, is that the player doesn’t actually need to be able to keep a beat at all. Unlike games such as Guitar Hero or the more recent Metal: Hellsinger, the actions will automatically sync with the beat. For those that do have a little more musical inclination, score multipliers and damage output will be ramped right up for every action players perform in time with the music, meaning it’s more rewarding to do so but not a dealbreaker.
Slowly does it … sometimes
Hi-Fi Rush gets off to a high-octane start, with a lot of activity both in the story and in the linear stages that follow. The game drip feeds information to the player, with the road to each boss battle teaching new skills and combat styles – such as a useful parry that allows for an immediate super strong retaliation as well as minigames that work in a “Simon Says” format. All the while, the animated environment is bopping away to the beat, with lampposts, machinery, and trees all bouncing in time which simultaneously helps the player to ensure their button-mashing hits the beat too.
Chai himself contributes to the comic book stereotype, snapping his fingers and quipping about the music from time to time. Traversing through Vandelay Technologies, each area tells an unfolding story of how it began by manufacturing robotic limbs and evolved into selling robots. Kale Vandelay, the big boss man, seems to have a particularly interesting goal of using those robotic limbs and manufactured implants to control their user’s minds.
Chai is slow to pick up on everything that the game is laying down, leading to some frustration in areas where the player really just wants him to understand the objective. Conversely, this is entirely why he is so charming as our protagonist. He’s clumsy, comedically unaware of others’ disdain towards him, but over and above all of that he is eager to be exactly who he is. His blissful ignorance becomes endearing and when he’s partnered with some well-fleshed-out characters — such as Peppermint and her adorable robot cat, 808 — they give him the space to shine whilst facilitating his character development throughout the story.
No spoilers here, but there are some revelations that might make the player look at Chai slightly differently and the game is better for it.
Sidekicks with an extra kick
Each of these characters, with the exception of CNMN later on, can be summoned throughout the game’s stages to bring their individual skill sets to certain puzzles, traversal difficulties, or battles. Peppermint has a gun to deal huge damage to enemies for a limited time whereas Macaron can remove enemy armor with a smash attack. Throughout the stages, earned currency can be used to upgrade attacks or buy new moves and passive abilities.
The boss battles are the best examples of combat in Hi-Fi Rush. They’re imaginative with different puzzles and tasks to complete in each one, and the enemies themselves have varied attack styles and narratives surrounding them which kept me engaged and intrigued. The areas between these boss fights are often too long, and can get tiresome especially with so much currency and so many collectibles to uncover.
The rhythm element of the game really holds its own and brings an advantage, since enemies will also only attack on-the-beat, so their attacks can somewhat be predicted, dodged, or parried. This unfortunately does remove some of the challenge that comes with learning the game and can lead to some somewhat dull and predictable combat at times. That said, digesting the game in small one-to-two-hour bites negates this issue and leads to excitement to boot it up again. Hi-Fi Rush isn’t meant to be fired through in marathon sessions, and shorter playtime sessions is the way to go.
Twisted platforming with lethal consequences
The most satisfying moments in Hi-Fi Rush don’t come from the combat or combos, but from the platforming that each environment tasks the player with traversing. As the stages progress, so too does the difficulty and complexity of these traveling phases. Environmental traps and hazards such as billowing lava plumes and falling platforms are thrown in to catch Chai out, and the controller-wielder must hit the jumps and summon allies to break shields before the next beat in the music comes or the section is failed and Chai must start afresh. The strength of the soundtrack and clear beat makes this a breeze for those with an ear for it, and less so for those more musically challenged.
The soundtrack does fall flat sometimes, with the story’s strong anti-capitalist message perhaps better fitting to punk music or just presented with a grittier overall style. It’s a message we can all agree with, (except perhaps for Kale Vandelay), but the unadventurous, (if polished), gameplay doesn’t quite deliver what Tango Softworks is aiming for. There are never any any opportunities to play as any character other than Chai is offered, and I found myself longing to wield Peppermint’s guns or have the chance ignite the battlefield as an unnamed character that I’m not going to spoil here. Perhaps this would be a possible idea for post-release DLC or future sequels.
The gameplay concept for Hi-Fi Rush is very needed. Few other games on the market plug the gap for an accessible rhythm adventurer that doesn’t rely heavily on skill to feel fun. Does the concept feel fulfilling though? Well, yes and no. Approaching the title in bite-size segments did make me genuinely excited to return to the game after a day or two away. And this, in turn, meant that I could learn important mechanics at my own pace, including how to parry to the beat.
For someone who also works in music journalism, my skills are shaky, to say the least. But, having taken the time to improve these skills, I now feel better equipped to appreciate the game for what it is: a fun, quirky, sometimes weird, and often cheesy critique of capitalism. When I was less focused on how perfectly I was playing, I had a much better time headbanging through each stage. Just give me a wider variety of music next time and I’m sold.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game made available through Xbox Game Pass.]