The shadow drop has always been a novel concept. To go from barely knowing about a game, movie, tv series, album, etc. to playing it right there and then can be quite a thrill. However, a shadow drop is only as good as the art released, and oftentimes, they have failed to deliver.
Needless to say, I was a bit hesitant going into Hi-Fi RUSH. The first Bethesda exclusive released under Xbox, and Xbox’s first Japanese first-party game since ReCore, one would think Microsoft would be shouting on every corner about this game. Especially given the pedigree of the talent involved. Instead, this game was announced and released in the span of forty-five minutes. Why is this? Was the game not any good? Were they concerned with the commercial prospects?
Having had the chance to play Hi-Fi RUSH, the answer is apparent. Hi-Fi RUSH was shadow-dropped to surprise and delight every step of the way. This is without question Tango Gamework’s best game to date and is one of the most joyful, surprising and consistently uplifting games I’ve played in years. The type of game that reiterates why I love the medium in the first place.
To back up a bit, Hi-Fi RUSH is the newest game from Shinji Mikami’s Tango Gameworks and The Evil Within 2 director John Johanas. In stark contrast to Tango’s other games (barring the since shuttered Japan-exclusive mobile release “Hero Dice”) Hi-Fi RUSH is equal parts Devil May Cry, Jet Set Radio and Guitar Hero.
You play as Chai, a 25-year-old wannabe rockstar and all-round lovable goofball. After injuring his arm, Chai makes his way to Vandelay, a utopian tech firm that was shockingly not founded by George Costanza, to get retrofitted with a new robotic arm. However, his MP3 player ends up surgically attached to his chest and new arm in the process. Deemed a defect, Chai has to take out the department heads and escape Vandelay’s campus. Along the way, he forges new friendships, uncovers some of Vandelay’s bigger secrets and maybe even finds a greater purpose worth fighting for.
The game’s story is simple but effective. The tone is not dissimilar from many Dreamcast-era titles, both in aesthetic and story, and the game relishes in this. Jokes are fast, frequent and funny. The pop culture references and winking toward the camera are so common, you’d think Chai’s eyes would hurt. But unlike other titles that try this type of humour and grate, Hi-Fi understands how to pace itself. It doesn’t take itself seriously, although some more subtle jokes pack a thematic punch, which shines through throughout the game. This is, for all intents and purposes, a feel-good game.
Part of the reason the tone and story work comes down to the strong characters. Chai is a goofball, and a slacker, but also has a lot of heart. Peppermint, Chai’s partner in crime, is a charming, smart but also insecure character with a great arc. Macaron and CNMN (pronounced Cinnamon), Peppermint and later Chai’s friends both make a strong impact; Macaron the delightfully wholesome pacifist who packs a big punch, CNMN the seemingly emotionless robot with hidden depths. The bosses also serve as strong commentary on their respective industries (finance, marketing, etc.) with some nice pop culture flourishes.
These characters are brought to life by some truly superb voicework. The cast is uber-talented across the board, from Robbie Daymond’s delightfully daffy take on Chai to Gabe Kunda’s touching portrayal of Macaron. The standout, for me at least, is Erica Lindbeck’s take on Peppermint. Lindbeck solidifies her reputation as one of voice acting’s most dependable talents, with a multifaceted portrayal of Peppermint which carefully balances snark, sympathy and heart.
The aesthetics of Hi-Fi RUSH are similarly top-notch. The art design is probably one of the strongest takes on cel-shaded game graphics I have seen in years. Couple this with the seamless cutscene to gameplay transitions, and Hi-Fi RUSH feels like you are playing a film like Spiderverse or the new Puss in Boots, albeit it at a smooth 60fps. The music is similarly top-notch with some great choices of licensed tracks, and some exceptional in-house headbangers. I need the soundtrack on Spotify yesterday.
However, a game is really only as good as its gameplay, and all the aesthetics in the world can’t make up for an underbaked playing experience. Thankfully, Hi-Fi RUSH’s gameplay is every bit up to par. The game functions as a mixture of character-action titles like Devil May Cry with rhythm games like DDR. For every hit you land on the beat, you earn additional points, damage, recharge of your AP and more. However, Hi-Fi is unique in that you do not have to be the most rhythmically inclined to enjoy it. Every hit syncs up with the beat visually, even if your timing is off, meaning the combat still satisfies.
Even stripping away the musical elements, the game is a very competent character action game as well. You have access to branching skill trees, upgrades, a combo list that would make Street Fighter jealous and some amazing special moves. The only thing I would’ve liked is a manual lock-on option, but the automatic one works quite well. These elements are all just strengthened by the rhythm game elements.
The action gameplay is perhaps best showcased in the boss fights. Without getting into too much detail, these boss fights are memorable, fun, funny and combine different genres in new and exciting ways. The same can be said of some of the set pieces, which are also very effectively done.
In between fighting game moments, platforming and puzzles break up the momentum. These sections are similarly timed with music and remind in part of Rayman Legend’s musical showstopping levels. Keeping up with the timing can be incredibly satisfying, and there are boosts for jumping and dashing on the beat. Unfortunately, however, the jump lacks sufficient horizontal movement (even with the dash) and the camera can be a bit cumbersome. While by no means deal-breaking, it does still lead to these sections being the weakest string in Hi-Fi’s Gibson.
Finally, to touch briefly upon value, Hi-Fi RUSH offers eleven hours of campaign fun, a strong post-game and tons of collectibles for less than half the price of a current game. If you get it with Game Pass, even cheaper. The value is absurdly good to the point that I bought the Deluxe Edition because I felt like a highway robber. Oh, and the Deluxe Edition comes with some really cool goodies too, so win-win.
All of this is to say, you should play Hi-Fi RUSH. It combines showstopping unique gameplay with some of the best cel-shaded visuals, a superb soundtrack, a fun tone and great characters into one of the most memorable games in the past little while. It’s the type of game that reminds you why you fell in love with the genre in the first place. There are some meat and potatoes elements of the platforming sections that could use some refinement, but these are minor complaints in a superb package.
All that’s really left to say is, when’s the sequel? Encore! Encore!
Hi-Fi RUSH is on the Xbox Store