Just when I thought I was down for the count, my robotic cat companion jumped in and clobbered the boss with a series of sucker punches.
Every battle in Hi-Fi Rush feels like a spectacle, a perfect confluence of style and substance. It’s rare to see a big-budget game try something wholly unique these days, but Hi-Fi Rush is a brilliant mix of character action and rhythm games that feels unlike anything else out there.
Every aspect of Hi-Fi Rush feels thoughtfully considered — like the way the entire world moves to the beat of the music and the surprisingly timely story — resulting in one of the most unforgettable gaming experiences in years.
Groove Is in the Heart
Hi-Fi Rush follows the story of a young man named Chai, who arrives at Vandelay Industries to take part in their Armstrong Project, which is supposed to change lives by giving people highly efficient replacement limbs. Things go off the rails pretty quickly, and after an experiment goes wrong, Chai ends up with an iPod embedded in his chest and the ability to “feel the rhythm” in the world around him. This is the basic setup for Hi-Fi Rush’s gameplay systems, but also works as the narrative thrust that sees Vandalay trying to capture Chai because he’s a “defect.”
One glance at a trailer will show you Hi-Fi Rush’s vibrant art style and gameplay are the focus, which we’ll get to momentarily. What I didn’t expect is a surprisingly touching tale bursting with phenomenally written characters. Along the way, Chai is joined by a host of memorable companions, like the outstandingly adorable robotic cat 808, or a robot named CNMN (Cinnamon) that draws expressions on his face with a dry-erase marker to seem more relatable.
While gamers generally have a high tolerance for cringy writing and dopey jokes, you’ll find none of that here. Hi-Fi Rush’s sense of humor is superbly tongue-in-cheek in a way that lesser games can only aspire to. There are some great gags scattered throughout Chai’s adventure, like a robot bemoaning the fact his job puts him in the rafters when he’s scared of heights, which then makes him wonder why they programmed him with a fear of heights in the first place.
What’s most surprising about Hi-Fi Rush’s narrative is how relevant its overall themes feel to the gaming industry at large right now. This is a game about fighting unfair working conditions and the soulless corporatization of everything — and it’s particularly concerned with how little regard companies have for the actual people propping them up.
There’s also an interesting metatextual layer about the state of game development at large, and how ballooning budgets and expectations can often clash with artistic vision. On the surface, Hi-Fi Rush is a feel-good romp with tons of style. But there are deeper messages at play that turns the imaginative writing into something truly special.
Feel the Beat
Music is at the heart of everything in Hi-Fi Rush, to the point that the soundtrack itself almost becomes a character in the game. The world around you constantly pulses to the rhythm — machines, light posts, and trees. Combine that with the cel-shaded art style and Hi-Fi Rush is a visual feast, to say the least, but that idea of moving to the beat also applies directly to gameplay.
If you’re familiar with character action games, you’ll know exactly how Hi-Fi Rush controls, as Chai has light attacks and heavy attacks that can be comboed together. Chai’s attacks always land on the beat, but if you actually press the button to the beat you can increase your damage. Across the first half of the game, Hi-Fi Rush slowly layers in more elements to make combat more complex, like dodges, parries, and rhythm finishers that let you instantly take out tough enemies.
You can also call in Chai’s friends for a quick assist during battle by pressing RT. Many of these are tied to enemy abilities. For example, calling Peppermint sees her shoot off a quick blast that can take down enemy shields, while Macaron doles out a devastating punch that shatters armor.
Hi-Fi Rush doesn’t quite match the complexity of something like Devil May Cry, instead straddling the line between simplicity and depth. It’s all boosted up by a satisfying progression system that lets you unlock new combos, alternate moves for Chai’s friends, extra special attacks, and a chip system that lets you fine-tune Chai’s stats or skills to your own playstyle.
All of these elements combine into combat that flows so well it feels like music. Action games often have you get in a “rhythm,” but in Hi-Fi Rush that’s literally what’s happening. Enemies attack on the beat, so if you’re following along it becomes easier to dodge and block. Hi-Fi Rush makes especially great use of music during boss battles.
Each one feels completely unique — one breaks down into a dance/rock-off between you and a pop-star-inspired baddie, while another has you breaking enemies and items to drain the budget of a boss and shut down his department. Somehow, Hi-Fi Rush continues to up the ante across its ten-hour runtime until it explodes in a bombastic ending that gives every main character their chance to shine. (Yes, even that adorable cat.)
A rare breed
Hi-Fi Rush is all killer, no filler. That’s partly because each “level” is themed around a different musical style. The eclectic soundtrack brings in elements of acid jazz, pop-rock, metal, and even Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Each level has a distinct visual style to match its soundtrack, with my favorite being a massive museum with gears that tick to the beat and shrubs that shimmy to and fro. While the experience is largely linear, there’s a generous helping of collectibles to seek out, on top of some extra content to go back to in the post-game.
This is one of those rare games where every element comes together almost perfectly. Nothing feels superfluous or unnecessary, and every feature or design choice either enhances the core gameplay or the overarching narrative themes. I knew going in that Hi-Fi Rush’s fusion of rhythm and action appealed to me, but I didn't expect to fall in love with the world and characters so much.
I simply can’t imagine not seeing Chai and 808 again, whether it’s in another game or some kind of animated spinoff. As triple-A gaming starts to feel more homogenized each year, Hi-Fi Rush is a stark reminder of how this industry was built on taking chances and experimenting. It’s a gutsy move from a developer known for only making “spooky” games, but it’s a gamble that’s clearly paid off.
Hi-Fi Rush is currently available for Xbox Series X|S and PC. Inverse reviewed the PC version.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.