The biggest surprise of 2023 is a mixture of Bayonetta and Guitar Hero, with the most impressive cel-shaded graphics since Jet Set Radio.
When video games are purposefully not sent out for review it usually only means one thing: they’re not very good and the publisher doesn’t want anyone to find out until the last possible moment. That’s exactly what happened with the recent Forspoken but shadow drops are usually something different. It’s a concept normally only used by indie games – you’ll often get one or two at the end of a Nintendo Indie World showcase – with the idea that they’ll get more attention that way, although that never actually seems to work.
Even Zelda spin-off Cadence Of Hyrule got all but ignored, when it got announced out of nowhere, and most shadow drops pass by without ever being reviewed or otherwise taken notice of. The software situation on Xbox is considerably different than the Switch though and Hi-Fi Rush has not been ignored. Which is a good job because it’s the best exclusive on Xbox Series X.
Admittedly, that’s not saying much, given this is also the first Xbox Series X exclusive to be published by Microsoft themselves. The wasteland that has been the Xbox release schedules for the last few years limits the accolades we can give the game but it’s a breath of fresh air for Xbox gamers, developer Tango Gameworks, and the rhythm action genre as a whole.
The fact that Cadence Of Hyrule is one of the most high profile shadow-dropped games is a curious coincidence because, on a conceptual level, it has a surprising amount in common with Hi-Fi Rush. Both games take an existing genre of game and reimagine it as a rhythm action title, with Hi-Fi Rush drawing on the fast-paced melee combat of games such as Devil May Cry and Bayonetta.
If you’re not usually good at music games then describing how Hi-Fi Rush works is going to make it sound like Dark Souls: The Musical but, honestly, it’s not nearly as hard as it sounds. The general controls work just like Devil May Cry, including some light platforming, a dodge move, parrying, and the ability to punch and attack enemies whenever you want.
If you want to do real damage though you have to attack in time with the rhythm, which is indicated not just by the music but by the whole game world bouncing along in synch, via background details like blinking computer lights and jumping floor panels. There are other optional visual cues you can add but no matter what song is playing (including a number of licensed tracks) the basic timing concepts are always the same, and something that quickly becomes second nature.
Combining the relative simplicity of a rhythm action game with a fully formed 3D action adventure is no easy task but what’s so impressive about Hi-Fi Rush is the sheer panache with which it’s been pulled off. Developer Tango Gameworks is best known for The Evil Within horror games, which we were never fans of, and Ghostwire: Tokyo, which we considered to be one of the worst games of 2022. If you had a bingo card guessing which of its newly purchased studios Microsoft was going to shut down first your hand would be hovering ominously over Tango Gameworks and yet Hi-Fi Rush excludes such confidence and technical expertise it’s hard to believe the same people are responsible.
Apart from anything else, this is one of the best-looking cel-shaded games ever made, with only Arc System Works’ fighting games even being in the running. Although the backdrops quickly get a bit repetitive the characters are all oozing personality and really do look like cartoons come to life. Visually, the game is fantastic, with the only presentational sticking point being the script, which is trying desperately hard to be sassy and irreverent but, while not as obnoxious as Forspoken, is never actively funny.
For some reason, the whole game seems to be heavily influenced by fellow Xbox exclusive Sunset Overdrive, with everything, including the script, being so similar in style and tone we fully expected American director John Johanas to turn out to be an ex-Insomniac employee. He’s not, but either way the game’s Japanese origins are not obvious, beyond the general absurdity of the premise. Although considering how Ghostwire: Tokyo turned out perhaps that’s understandable.
The story behind Hi-Fi Rush is, by necessity, nonsense (something about an evil corporation turning people into cyborgs) which only adds to the feeling that this is a game out of time. Beyond the cel-shaded visuals the inevitable comparisons to Jet Set Radio are unwarranted, except in the fact that the game’s experimental nature and lack of seriousness feels exactly like something that would have been at home on the Dreamcast or PlayStation 2.
As such, its flaws are fairly predictable, with too little variation in the level design and progression structure. A bit of fiddly platforming is invariably followed by you getting locked in a small area until you’ve defeated all the nearby robots. Boss battles are a highlight, but even as the game adds in elements like rhythm duels and support characters it’s clear the idea can only be stretched so far. But that’s fine. At around 10 hours, Hi-Fi Rush is much closer to its ideal length than many a 60+ hour epic; indeed, its brevity is a key part of the appeal.
In that respect we’re reminded of Spider-Man: Miles Morales, which told a much more coherent and well-paced story than its predecessor and which we naively hoped might be the vanguard of a new breed of shorter, cheaper, more compact video game, that would address the increasing amount of time and money needed to make modern AAA titles.
It didn’t do anything of the sort though. It was that way purely because Sony needed something out in time for the PlayStation 5 launch and they’ve shown no interest in making something of the same scale again. So we very much hope that Hi-Fi Rush is a success, so that we might finally see publishers tackle the clearly unsustainable state of modern big budget gaming.
If that never happens though – and we’re not very optimistic that it will – at least we have Hi-Fi Rush itself, which is as surprising as it is delightful. We don’t know if the shadow drop will help or hinder it but the fact that it’s on Game Pass is definitely a benefit, both to Tango Gameworks and gamers looking for something with a bit more brio and imagination than other, more predictable releases.
Hi-Fi Rush review summary
In Short: A very welcome surprise, that is one of the most enjoyably unique games on Xbox and one of the best rhythm action games in a very long time 0 as well as having arguably the best cel-shaded graphics ever seen.
Pros: The whole concept is a great idea, almost perfectly executed, and yet still surprisingly accessible. Clever combat and great boss battles. Fantastic cel-shaded graphics.
Cons: Even at 10 hours long the game stretches its gameplay, and the lack of variety in locations, a bit too far. The platforming is considerably less fun than the fighting.
Formats: Xbox Series X (reviewed) and PC
Developer: Tango Gameworks
Release Date: 25th January 2023
Age Rating: 12
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