Hi-Fi Rush Review – Groove Is in the Heart

Hi-Fi Rush Review – Groove Is in the Heart

I’m not about to bury any ledes here. Hi-Fi Rush sold me faster than any game I’ve played in years.

Tango Gameworks – and its figurehead, Shinji Mikami – dropped jaws to the floor during the Xbox presentation at which this game debuted, only hours before it released. After a decade of almost exclusively making horror games, this brightly-colored rock-n-roll action platformer flashed me and many others back to the days of Clover Studio, his previous team. While Mikami is only listed as a producer on this title, Hi-Fi Rush immediately evokes the games of his past, and I mean that in the best way imaginable.

Hi-Fi Rush is a rhythm-action game where the entire world immerses you in the beat of the background music. This concept has been tried before, but never as successfully as here – the environment around you bounces in time, your character walks in rhythm to the beat, and even moving platforms will shift in 4:4 time.

You play as Chai, a young man whose broken arm is being replaced with a mechanical part to continue functioning properly in society. I want to put a pin in that point and come back to it later, but Chai’s MP3 player ends up falling on him during the “upgrade” process and gets fully integrated into his body, causing him to see the world around him, responding to the rhythm playing in his head.

But, as the MP3 player is a nonstandard part, this makes him a “Defect” that goes against the perfect record of the manufacturing facility, causing the entire company – and, seemingly, all of society – to turn against him, as him getting out will publicly ruin their record. Robots attack, and his arm can suddenly pull together the discarded mechanical components around him to create a guitar-shaped weapon to fight back…to the beat only he can hear.

HFR SS2

The rhythm-based combat took me a few skirmishes to truly get used to, but I quickly found myself looking eagerly forward to the subsequent encounter. The first level contains a delightful number of references to The Iron Giant, from the way Chai’s weapon comes together to a robot sunbathing off the beaten path, all the way to the final boss of the stage bearing a heavy resemblance to the Giant’s weapon form.

The art style looks like the most significant influence comes from the older Clover Studio titles, notably Viewtiful Joe. The combat feels like a delightful combination of Crypt of the NecroDancer and Devil May Cry V, an observation I saw many times in the days after release. Yet I think I enjoy this title even more than DMCV

Striking enemies to the beat of the background track gives combat a very satisfying amount of weight, especially as the game progresses, and adds more complexity to its encounters. Once you learn how to parry enemy attacks, every fight can send you into a flow state of unleashing combos, dodging in rhythm, and blocking attacks to stagger foes.

HFR SS3

All of this is incentivized through a scoring system in each fight. Switching up your combos frequently and not taking hits will build up a multiplier meter, and you’re also measured by how long you took to complete the encounter and how on-beat you were able to stay as you did so. 

Smashing robots and exploring the environment rewards Chai with Gears, a currency much like the souls of Devil May Cry, which he can use during and between levels to unlock new moves and passive powerups, awarding aspects like extra slots for special moves and additional health chunks.

The moment that really made me fall in love came at the end of level one, as the first boss fight began. As I mentioned, you’re up against a massive robot in what would typically be a pretty standard, challenging fight that tests what you learned in the first level. However, the title ingeniously tells you when it’s changing musical tracks, and many of the bosses are scored by real-life acts licensed for Hi-Fi Rush.

HFR SS4

So, Chai gets trapped in the “defect check” meets Rekka – the head of the production facility, and the screen announces the beginning of “1,000,000” by Nine Inch Nails, a rock song with a heavy groove. Rekka introduces you to the checker, a massive robot whose head alone is bigger than Chai’s body, and as the fight begins, the power of that groove only makes the combat hit harder. Every hit starts to feel like a home run hammer just because of how the music is integrated into every part of the game.

All of this would be more than enough on its own to deliver a memorable experience, but what puts Hi-Fi Rush over the edge into a probably-guaranteed spot in my top five is that the story shows just as much intelligence. While the main, surface-level plot is a by-the-numbers affair, the way the world is constructed shows just as much work going into the setting as the music.

Taking down the pin from earlier, the game starts with a guy with an injury being determined so inconvenient to society that he’s given a robotic arm just so he can keep doing his job of picking up trash. Unpacking that alone is enough to provide me with confidence in the rest of the plot, but it keeps exploring that track as you see more of the world of Hi-Fi Rush.

HFR SS5

The robotic dystopian world is perhaps not particularly deep but is both sharply biting and full of well-placed comedy. The game has a lot to say in its background, as all of the workers you encounter are sentient robots. They leave their logs lying around the environment, which comedically go in on the nature of pointless busy work and the lack of safety in their environment.

Even with the jokes, all of the detail paints a picture of a hypercapitalist dystopia where even the robots are being exploited for dangerous wage slavery. It’s both impressive and timely and only adds to a game that could have gotten away with an excuse plot fueled only by the epic power of rock.

Hi-Fi Rush is, by every possible measure, one of the biggest surprises of 2023 and will probably stand as my Game of the Year for at least the next few months. I have never seen a game tt so successfully blends rhythm and action, and despite its platforming not being much to write home about, the combat is so superb that it may even surpass all of its most apparent influences.

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