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Surprises are nice! In the realm of video games, however, they can generate a lot of questions. When Hi-Fi RUSH was suddenly shadow dropped on the world, there were questions that needed answered. What kind of game is Hi-Fi RUSH? How does it play? Is it fun? When reviewing a game, we normally have some idea of what is to come, but with Hi-Fi RUSH, it was all about accepting the surprise.
And what a surprise it is! As it turns out, Hi-Fi RUSH is a rather thrilling 3-D action platformer. Published by Bethesda and developed by Tango Gameworks, Hi-Fi RUSH is immediately striking due to the art style (reminiscent of Sunset Overdrive, Jet Set Radio, or even Guilty Gear Xrd/Strive). The characters and animation are appealing and superb, and there are stylistic flairs that are straight out of Scott Pilgrim, permeating the experience and ensuring a charming and engaging atmosphere.
Then, there is the music, which which steals the show and provides the beating heart of the game. Upon starting the game, “Lonely Boy” from the Black Keys began to play, and I knew I was in good hands. The soundtrack includes tracks from other established artists as well, like Nine Inch Nails and the Prodigy, but it also includes a mostly outstanding original score. For the streamers out there, there is a streaming mode that swaps a slew of original tunes in place of the licensed ones, and besides the odd generic tune, they absolutely bring the heat. Not only does the music rock, but every bit of the screen dances and jives at all times with the pulse of the music.
My immediate thoughts jumped to Metal: Hellsinger, a game that Hi-Fi RUSH shares so much with. From the outstanding soundtrack to the way the world responds to the music and every on-beat action of the player, I had a bit of deja vu. The game is fueled by the player’s ability to feel the music and stay on beat. Jumping, attacking, dashing, parrying, as long as what you are doing is to the rhythm and beat of the music, you’re likely to succeed.
However, while the game shares much with Metal: Hellsinger and other rhythm games, Hi-Fi RUSH certainly plays to its own beat. It’s focus, especially at the start, is on melee encounters, and it is greatly concerned with keeping melee combos flowing. The combat options at the beginning are quite sparse, however, devoting all options to a very limited range in front of Chai, the main character.
And this fits Chai’s personality quite well (for any Last Airbender fans out there, Chai could be swapped for Sokka, and we wouldn’t know the difference). As someone who sees Vandelay Technologies (not Industries) as a fast-track toward his dream of becoming a rock star, he willingly volunteers in a mysterious program that he thinks will get the gears rolling. But he quickly finds that not everything is as advertised. When the experiment goes wrong through a stroke of luck (something Chai has in spades), he finds himself with rocking abilities that feed off of the music within himself, literally.
Initially seeking to find a way to escape his predicament, Chai eventually engages with a ragtag cast of characters who must learn to work together in harmony in order to solve the mysteries of Vanderlay Technologies. Most of these characters work as an “assist,” like in a tag-team fighting game. They will trigger their abilities when called upon, after which a short cooldown is needed before summoning them again.
These characters add all of the necessary dimensions initially missing from Chai’s fighting repertoire. In fact, once all of them are discovered, they add so many options that they nearly break the combat system. But more on that in a moment.
Each character adds a very welcome ability that not only provides a specific function in combat, but is needed to progress through each of the levels. You’ll find areas in the early levels that you cannot reach until you discover the required ability much later in the game, granting a fine incentive for replayability. Plus, certain enemies cannot be overcome without specific assists that counter their defenses.
Skill and abilities are required, but not as much as keeping a steady beat. Still, an assortment of moves and items are purchasable at certain checkpoints and between each level. These include unlocking extra combos, upgrading assist moves, and buying new ultimate moves that can only be used once enough batteries, which are obtained from performing well in battle, charge up your resource bar.
There are also power-ups to purchase, such as granting more maximum life or resource bar, and eventually chips may be purchased. Only a certain amount of chips can be equipped at once, and they allow the player to tweak certain aspects of their abilities, giving some agency on how each player will play the game.
As players rock their way through the levels, they will likely feel a tad underwhelmed by the combat at first. But there is a sweet spot that encompasses the second third of the game where everything is balanced, and it feels awesome to dodge, parry, and counter with a fine jam session to the face of the robot monstrosities that represent the bulk of the enemies. However, something happens once all of the assists are obtained, and it could be polarizing in how different players view it.
Once you have all of your assists, there is literally no reason not to have the assists always going in combat, playing their part in the ensemble. There are a few reasons that could be pointed out, such as some moves requiring that an assist not be on cooldown. But no reason can outweigh the awesome advantage of rocking the full band out as much as possible.
It gets to the point where you can win almost every battle by simply pressing the parry button to the beat while bringing out your assists on every beat they are available. The few exceptions to this only require that you press the dodge button every now and then, but honestly, if you have the correct chips and enough health, you don’t even need this on the normal difficulty.
“But you implied earlier that the game was rather awesome!” Oh yeah, it is. “Well how can that-” -Ok, ok, let me tell you about the rest of it. The fighting action in Hi-Fi RUSH is still fun, even if all of the assists make it easier, but the game doesn’t just sit on its action and call it a day.
Hi-Fi RUSH loves to be awesome, and it does this in a variety of ways. Each stage has many different parts that change things up. While the game is mostly a 3-D action platformer, there are moments when it becomes a 2-D platformer. There are times that you’ll be playing an on-rails chase sequence, relying on twitch skills and instinct. There are portions of the game where you have to link platforming with some quick ability switching and maneuvering to progress. Sometimes, an enemy will challenge you to a sort of DDR-lite rhythm showdown. And all of this is insanely fun, yet it doesn’t hold a candle to the inventive spectacles that are the bosses.
In a way, Hi-Fi RUSH can be seen as a sort of Mega Man game. Sure, you have to play the stages in the order they give you, but make no mistake: this game is all about the bosses. Stages often have you bantering back and forth with the bosses (to be fair, though, you’re always going back and forth with your entourage, too), and they love to take the reigns during the stages, changing things on the fly, Tiny Tina-style. But once you actually encounter them, buckle up, because the ride is just getting started!
You will never know exactly what a boss will require of you. Using your fighting prowess could be required, of course, but an instant later, you’ll be relying solely on your rhythm skills, playing dedicated rhythm games as the music crescendos. Sometimes assists need to be used in a correct order, on beat, of course, and when you pull it off, you have to stay on your toes because the boss will often change things up again. There’s one boss that you don’t even fight, instead finding another way to overcome the challenge. And each boss will be your new favorite, continuing on to an absolutely glorious conclusion.
Once you reach said conclusion, the game opens up even more, delivering a whole slew of features, many of which boggle my mind that they weren’t available to begin with. Between stages, you’ll usually go to your hideout, and this hideout has a jukebox, a character customization area, and a model viewer. Or, it does once you beat the game. Until then, none of this appears.
I cannot fathom why this decision was made, especially when so much more unlocks that does make sense. Beating the game also unlocks the ability to select stages, additional challenges, a Rhythm Tower mode that adds an incredible tower ascension challenge mode, and Rhythm Master difficulty which grants a game over if your rhythm meter ever falls to “D” rank.
Also, all of the areas that you couldn’t reach before in early stages can be accessed once you beat the game, even adding a bit more story to the game by accessing certain places. These grant a lot of replayability, but many gamers call it a day when the credits roll, and they may never realize that you could purchase outfits, customizing the appearance of every character on your team, along with purchasing character models that grant quick bios on the characters themselves.
Though these would have been nice the first time through the game, it really is nitpicking. What is not so easily dismissed is the way the musical cues and sounds are incorporated. While the soundtrack is phenomenal, it can be very difficult to actually hear it when the action is soaring. Nearly every action on the screen will produce a sound on beat that drowns out the background track. Some of that can be alleviated by decreasing the Musical Effects volume, but this effectively makes certain cues hard or impossible to hear. Also, when having an “S” rhythm rank, something that is quite easy to obtain, especially with the assists firing, you’ll hear a crowd chanting in support of Chai. This will happen to the beat of the music (which can help with gameplay), it dominates nearly every other sound you hear, and it is tied to the Music Volume, so you can never make it go away without losing the heart of the game itself.
It may sound like I’m bashing the game, here, which I suppose I am a bit. I wish this was done better, because I know it can be, given how other similar games (yes, Metal: Hellsinger) pull this off swimmingly. Other issues that I have are that certain graphical flourishes sometimes remain on screen much longer than obviously intended, and also that there is so much action around you in battle that it can be tough to tell when enemies are attacking off-screen. The developers tried very hard to alleviate this by utilizing a plethora of visual cues along with the musical ones, but it can get quite chaotic!
For whatever faults it may have, Hi-Fi RUSH is an outstanding game. Not only is it fun to play, it’s a reminder that not every game needs to be something more than it actually is. There is always something new to see and do, and the game changes things up often, keeping it fresh and interesting. Rhythm games aren’t for everyone, but I suspect that many who normally caution away from such titles might find themselves really enjoying this one. Hi-Fi Rush came as a surprise for us all, and that is exactly what it is: quite a marvelous surprise.