Hi-Fi Rush Might Already Be My Game of the Year 2023

So, I know it’s only February 2nd, barely a month into 2023, but I think I feel confident saying that Hi-Fi Rush is likely to be a strong contender for my 2023 Game of the Year list.

As premature as that kind of praise may sound, I want to actually go a step further.

An hour into playing this game, I went on Twitter and posted the following tweet:

Having now completed the game’s core story mode on normal difficulty, played through the post game challenges to unlock the secret ending, then gone right back into replaying the levels to aim for a ranking of S on each stage in hard mode, I can say that my initial impression an hour into playing this game has held true.

While Hi-Fi Rush isn’t without its issues, and things that I would change if I could, I cannot deny that I have fallen head over heels in love with this game.

So, what actually is Hi-Fi Rush? Developed by Tango Gameworks, previously best known for survival horror titles The Evil Within and The Evil Within 2, as well as handsign magic action title Ghostwire Tokyo, Hi-Fi Rush is a stylistic and tonal departure from the studio’s previous work. Gone are the dark and gritty setpieces, replaced with a colourful anime art style that is perhaps the best use of cel shading I’ve ever seen, and gameplay that mixes Devil May Cry style character action combat with music rhythm elements more comparable to games like Crypt of the Necrodancer.

You play as Chai, a young man desperate for fame and rock stardom, who unquestioningly signs up for the ArmStrong project, a corporate campaign designed to turn fame and success hungry youths into corporate worker drones equipped with cybernetics suited for jobs like magnetic trash collection.

Due to a mishap, Chai’s iPod is mechanically wired into his body during this process, allowing him to see the world as moving in time with the beat of the music. Alongside his new magnetic powers, which form trash into a makeshift guitar, he begins a journey to fight his way to freedom, and take down the cartoonishly evil corporate leaders responsible for selling him a false promised life of musical fame.

Now, before I get into the gameplay, I want to get one of my main criticisms of this game out of the way. I love the overall exaggerated anime aesthetic and design sensibility of this game. The comedic pacing of its exaggerated animation is delightful, and it had me constantly engaged throughout. That all said, Chai as a protagonist is the least interesting character in this game’s ensemble by far. Over time he does develop an interesting narrative niche as part of the game’s team of adventurers, but at least initially he’s a one note hero carried by everything that’s going on around him. It’s worth pushing through, he gets better once the game surrounds him by people who recognise his incompetence and acknowledge it to his face, but the game is great in spite of some of his early lacklustre characterisation, and not because of it. He feels at home in the way that many shonen anime protagonists do, as a safe but uninteresting default hero, surrounded by characters with more personality than himself.

So, let’s get into the gameplay. Hi-Fi Rush is a character action game, with music rhythm elements. Everything in the game, from enemy attacks to platforms moving, player block animations to boss phase changes, all happen in time with the beat of the music playing during the level.

While playing on the beat is rewarded, it is not required for basic play, and it’s definitely possible to progress through the game while struggling with a sense of rhythm.

When, as the player, you hit the light or heavy attack button, for example, no matter when you press the button, the attack will always land and hit the opposing robot enemy on the next beat of the music. If you mash buttons off beat you’ll still throw out attacks, which on normal difficulty will usually be enough for most situations, but you’re rewarded as a player for hitting your attack button correctly on beat with combo extenders, and the ability to unleash more powerful finishers at the end of combo strings, which lend combat more audio visual flourish, as well as helping you get a better style ranking at the end of combat.

While certain in-game moments will require beat precision to progress, such as boss fights centred on parrying attacks or specific optional challenge rooms, the game features different difficulty modes that allow things like increased leniency on beat timings, to try and help make those aspects of the game easier to follow.

For players who, like myself, sometimes struggle to clearly follow a beat in amongst multiple layers of sound, Hi-Fi Rush goes out of its way to inundate the player with visual cues to help them keep track of the beat. UI elements bounce to the beat, Chai walks and runs to the beat, barriers and signposts bop to the beat, and players can even press the select button at any time to turn on a clear metronome visualiser at the bottom of the screen to help further show the beat during gameplay.

Perhaps most importantly, because all of your attacks always land on the beat, you can throw out an off beat attack, then press the button again when the attack connects, knowing you’ll be on beat for the next attack. Previous attacks show you the timing to keep the combo going.

That said, one criticism that doesn’t apply to my own experience with the game, but did impact playability for a friend of mine, is visual overstimulation when it comes to these beat cues. There is a LOT of information being thrown to you as a player, and if you’re the kind of person to get distracted easily by too much visual input, it can be hard to focus potentially on the fight at hand, as well as all the visualisers pointing you toward the rhythm timing.

While the rhythm elements of this game are certainly one of the main ways that Hi-Fi Rush differentiates itself from other character action titles, I want to emphasise that Tango Gameworks have done a really impressive job of making sure that the core action gameplay is of a high quality, with a decent skill ceiling to work toward.

As a player, you start with access to basically just a light attack, heavy attack, jump, and dash, but throughout your adventure this gets paired with a magnetising hookshot ability, a block and parry, special summon abilities that can be chained into combo strings, special attacks that cost meter to use, and modification chips that alter your playstyle. All of these elements are introduced slowly over time, alongside adding new combos that can be purchased with in game currency, gradually building into a fluid system that really rewards time invested with increased combo complexity.

One of the things I appreciated most about Hi-Fi Rush is the ways that the music rhythm elements and the character action gameplay honestly fit really well together, adding up to be greater than the sum of their parts.

Take, for example, combo strings that require you to pause momentarily between inputs, to change which combo a string of button presses is going to lead to. In a Devil May Cry or Bayonetta title for example, as a player you have to feel out how long that pause is meant to be, with no clear indicator to tell you the timing, making those combos inconsistent to perform if you struggle with timing like I do. Hi-Fi Rush being set to the beat of the music makes that timing really easy to find, it’s a one beat rest, visually signified by the player seeing the word rest briefly appear on screen to show “that’s your rest beat, it’s time to re-enter the combo”. As a result, I used these rest combos a lot more readily in Hi-Fi Rush than I usually would in this style of game.

While Hi-Fi Rush features a soundtrack that includes licensed music from bands like The Prodigy and Nine Inch Nails as default in its boss fights, I want to take some time to praise how great the OST for this game is, and how top notch and high effort the Streamer Mode replacement tracks are, for players planning to make online content about this game. I played my first full playthrough of the game entirely in Streamer Mode, and never felt like I was missing out compared to those with licensed music playing in those moments. In fact, having now played through some of the boss fights with their licensed tracks, I honestly prefer some of the original music in places.

Hi-Fi Rush isn’t a perfect video game, and it’s not going to be for everyone. I love its full commitment to exaggerated anime nonsense, I’m autistic and I’ve always appreciated media that commits to exaggeration in its narrative portrayals, but it bears repeating that you play through this game as the least interesting or unique character in the overall roster. I’d have honestly liked the option in the post game to change up who I  was playing as, even if my moveset didn’t change at all, because literally every other character seemed cooler than Chai, our main hero. He comes into his own a bit over time as part of the ensemble, but he’s not super strong as a character in isolation.

Beyond that, my only real complaint about this game is a very minor one. The game’s final boss fight, don’t worry – no spoilers, contains one phase of combat where the usual rules established by the game thus far no longer apply. I died multiple times on that one phase of boss fight before realising that the usual rules weren’t working, and what the game wanted from me instead. This one moment felt cheap and frustrating, in a game where death and failure had otherwise felt very fair and earned.

Still, at the end of the day, that’s all I can really find to complain about, and that says a lot to me.

I usually struggle a LOT with games that try to mix another genre with music rhythm, despite loving the idea conceptually. I couldn’t play beyond the first level or two of Bullets Per Minute or Metal Hellsinger, but Hi-Fi Rush finally grabbed me in a way that clicked.

I usually only play character action games through a single time, on a low difficulty setting. I’ll see the plot through to its conclusion feeling overpowered, then walk away, but with Hi-Fi Rush I’ve not only played the game to completion, but gone back to try and high score chase on harder difficulty modes. This game has its claws in me deep, and I’m super invested in what it has to offer.

Hi-Fi Rush isn’t going to be for everyone, but as far as I’m concerned, Tango Gameworks tried something very outside of their wheelhouse, and I think they knocked it out the park on the first try. Visually, musically, and in terms of gameplay, I can’t get enough.

This is going in my gaming collection alongside games like Sayonara Wildhearts and No Straight Roads that really capture what I love about mixing music and gameplay together, and I’m really glad this game exists and can join that collection that is definately a genre I really love, even if I can’t necessarilly quantify exactly what fits in there sometimes.

But yeah, seriously, developers, please just offer me the ability for me to play as Peppermint, or Macaron, or CNMN, or anyone in the cast who isn’t Chai.

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