Xbox Game Pass First Impressions: Hi-Fi Rush
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Microsoft shadow-dropped Hi-Fi Rush, a new rhythm brawler from Tango Gameworks, at its Developer Direct showcase earlier this week — we’ve only scratched the surface, but it seems superb so far…
When Hi-Fi Rush first appeared at the Developer Direct showcase, I’m sure mine was just one of many eyebrows raised at the prospect of Tango Gameworks making a game seemingly so far outside its wheelhouse. It looked great and the concept behind it is very much one that sits in my wheelhouse, though, so I fired it up and was extremely pleasantly surprised by what I found. Remembering that Tango is something of a melting pot of Japanese development talent, I dug a little deeper and found the missing piece of the puzzle that made everything fall into place: Masaaki Yamada. Hi-Fi Rush’s lead game designer may not be a household name, but fans of stylish action games will have seen and felt his influence in some of the best titles in the genre — he directed Viewtiful Joe 2 and did game design on Bayonetta and Vanquish, as well as being involved with the original Devil May Cry (and working with Tango boss Shinji Mikami on the first two Resident Evil games), so Tango’s ability to come out swinging and nail its own take on the genre first try suddenly makes sense. The spirit of Clover lives on in this, one of the least likely places… you love to see it.
Hi-Fi Rush could be one of the surprise hits of 2023
Hi-Fi Rush is a stylish action game with a novel twist that sees your actions enhanced when timed well with the beat of the soundtrack. This element seems to be giving a lot of non-musical folks pause, but it’s nowhere near as daunting as it sounds — no matter how bad your timing, your attacks will still land on the beat, plus the window for matching the beat is extremely generous on all bar the hardest difficulty modes. Well-timed hits do a little extra damage and can have additional effects (beat-matching a dash lets you chain it up to three times, for instance, while on-beat jumps go a little higher). There’s also way more visual guidance than in similar games like Metal: Hellsinger and BPM, with protagonist and aspiring rock star Chai clicking his fingers along with the music while idle, his robotic feline buddy 808 and the UI pulsing along in time, and even the world itself bopping to the beat to make it all but impossible to lose the flow, something that previously worked well in Soundfall. Pistons and cogs chug and whirr to the rhythm, signs and lights flash and blink in time, and as well as being a practical assist, this also helps bring the world to life in a manner in keeping with the game’s core mechanic. This lends Hi-Fi Rush a rare congruence of gameplay and setting that sells both even better and while it might take a little getting used to if you don’t play many music games, it’s immensely satisfying when it does click.
As is par for the course in the genre, combat starts out relatively simple with light and heavy attacks that can be strung together in various ways for additional effects such as launchers, area attacks, or knockbacks. Given that timing is important to performing these, it’s great to see that each has a demo video in the move list so you can immediately understand when each hit is supposed to land in order to pull off the full string, and as you progress, you’ll unlock more complex and powerful combos as well as other upgrades via the in-game shop. While currency is plentiful, especially if you’re getting bonuses for good grades, there’s still quite a lot to choose from in the early game, so you’ll probably want to take your time on your first few visits to check out all the options and see which would fit best into how you play — if you’re struggling, you can always just invest in health upgrades to improve survivability and the order you unlock stuff doesn’t seem to matter too much as you’ll likely have everything by the time you’re done with the game anyway. Enemy attacks are well telegraphed and also beat-matched, although you might need to see some of the trickier ones a couple of times to get how and when they come out. They tend to move around a fair bit, but since movement is the only thing unrelated to matching the beat, positioning and chasing down fleeing foes doesn’t feel restricted, and well-timed dashes can close or create distance even quicker with the added benefit of i-frames to let you zip through danger along the way. It feels fantastic, frankly, and I can only imagine it gets even better as your arsenal expands and enemies get more challenging once it’s assumed that you have the basics down.
It’s not uncommon to start games such as this feeling somewhat underpowered since they hold so much back in terms of upgrades and abilities, and sure enough, the first couple of stages prove to be more about getting a feel for the game than anything else. Score S ranks are particularly tricky to ace first time out for a few reasons — repeating the same combo too often incurs a score penalty (and you only have a handful at the start), taking damage also triggers a temporary score reduction, and many of the fancy combos and high-scoring special attacks are still locked. I was hitting S ranks pretty consistently in everything else, but the score ones feel like the goals are set high and more geared around having a bunch more options at your disposal to help mix things up. As for taking damage, again it can be hard in the early game to balance keeping up pressure on an enemy and coping with others swinging or shooting at you (even from off-screen), but the third level delivers a most wondrous solution to that problem with the parry. Man, I love parries, and this one is great. It’s introduced as a way of dealing with the special call-and-repeat patterns of things like turrets and last stand attacks from powerful foes, but it works just as well in moment-to-moment play, letting you deflect blows mid-combo rather than trying to dash through them then re-engage with your target. You can even unlock follow-up attacks from your allies after a perfect dodge or parry, and while they cost Reverb (the resource that fuels your strongest attacks), being able to break shields or stun enemies quickly just by brushing their attacks aside looks and feels fantastic, plus there are naturally score bonuses for deflecting attacks with style.
Structurally, you’ll know what to expect if you’ve played the likes of Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, especially the latter — it’s a pretty linear adventure peppered with encounters (here called Choruses, a la Bayo’s Verses), the meat of the game and with each graded based on score, timing, and clear speed. Get through a stage and the big bad boss (usually) waiting at the end and you’ll then get an overall grade for the stage, from D for just scraping through to S for smashing it at every turn. Hitting those top ranks feels consistently challenging and you’ll know from the encounters where you slip up that you actually have to work for some of the good grades, which helps each battle feel important whether you’re simply testing out some new combos on regular grunts or learning how a powerful new enemy behaves on the fly. The bosses have been great so far too, huge multi-phase clashes that aren’t afraid to mix things up and chuck in new gameplay elements or mechanics to keep you on your toes, and they’ll take some learning, especially if you want to tick off all the challenges, and the list seems to include one for doing each flawlessly. You may be glad to see that there’s no achievement for doing this… only there sort of is.
The What A Journey It Was achievement asks you to complete the Wall of Fame in the hideout, and that involves not just those flawless boss kills but hundreds of other tasks that the main achievement list either only touches upon or doesn’t go near. It’s a meta-achievement that involves ticking off a huge checklist of other in-game accomplishments, and while many of them are cumulative and will likely get done just with normal progression, some of them will clearly take a lot more effort and planning — don’t be too quick to shout “easy list” is all I’m saying. I mean, it isn’t anyway, even without that one. There are achievements for completing all stages on all five skill settings including top-end unlockable Rhythm Master difficulty (and they don’t seem to stack, so that’s five playthroughs required already, although at least you can skip some cutscenes and carry upgrades into later runs), on top of which you’ll need to max out all your gauges, beat a stage without taking any damage, clear a level with S ranks in every encounter, and perform a bunch of other situational tasks that make full use of your kit… plus whatever else the in-game mission list has in store, as I can only see a fraction of it right now and it’s already pretty daunting.
It’s worth at least a mention that Hi-Fi Rush looks and sounds fantastic. The clean, colourful cartoon-style presentation is tough to knock and transitions spectacularly between animated cutscenes and actual gameplay, while the soundtrack goes hard and really helps drive the musical backbone of the game, with a selection of licensed tracks used brilliantly for key moments and encounters and the original tunes holding their own even against competition from the likes of The Prodigy, The Black Keys, Nine Inch Nails, and more. Any game that features NIN is okay in my book, and the way each fight has elements sync up perfectly with the OST as it swells is wonderful, building on the likes of Revengeance and Hellsinger by having the tunes feel even more like part of the fight. What really gets me, though, is how something this slick can just fall into existence like it did. I’ve been around the block and I genuinely can’t remember something original of this quality getting shadow-dropped — the odd sequel or simple indie title, sure, but this is a fully-fledged, amazing-looking action game with some world class talent behind it. It’s honestly pretty mind-blowing, but I get it. The usual hype cycle between announce and release really wouldn’t do much for a game like this, with its musical element pushing it into a niche within a niche and so many other big games all competing for pre-launch attention. Just put it out into the world, both at a damn reasonable price and into Game Pass, and there’s this wonderful immediate buzz that we’re currently in the midst of as players jump into something new that hasn’t been forced down their throats for months, and better yet get to find out that it is genuinely fantastic… possibly even one of the best games on Game Pass, though I’ll at least get it finished before I make that call.
Hi-Fi Rush is special, and I’m confident enough to call that even only around four levels deep. It comes completely out of leftfield given Tango’s previous work but as I’ve mentioned, that team has some storied talent and a lot of surprises up its sleeve, and if the game keeps up its current pace, it’s going to be a hard act to follow for even some of this year’s most well-known upcoming games… wild when you consider that just days ago, all we knew about the game was the name from a trademark filing from years back. It’s a Free Pass all day long for me, if that wasn’t clear by this point, and likely one of the easiest Free Pass ratings I’ll ever get to slap on a game. You should absolutely play this.
Luke played around three hours of Hi-Fi Rush — enough to know he’ll be back soon to play for many more — unlocking 12 achievements along the way. The game was downloaded through Xbox Game Pass and played on Xbox Series X.
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