This is Rainbow In The Dark, a series about games that actually contain colors. This particular entry is also an honorary member of the Keeping Score series, about games and their soundtracks. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
Hi-Fi Rush surprised everyone, as it was both announced and released on January 25, 2023. Uncharacteristically, I actually played it not long after; usually I’m several years late at least. It’s something of a departure for Japanese developers Tango Gameworks, who are primarily known for horror games: The Evil Within and its sequel, as well as the spooky action-adventure Ghostwire: Tokyo last year. As is typical for the horror genre, those games are pretty gloomy and drab color-wise, although Ghostwire: Tokyo does spice things up with some neon lighting on occasion. Still, it’s nothing like Hi-Fi Rush, which came out of nowhere with a bright, vibrant manga comic art look. A jolt of color for those of us playing our games in the dark.
Of course, most of the press wasn’t writing too much about how Hi-Fi Rush looks, because they were busy describing how it sounds. It’s a rhythm action game, you see, where everything is timed to the beat of the mp3 player that’s been accidentally installed in protagonist Chai’s heart. Hmm… perhaps I should start at the beginning. Chai is a young guy who is obsessed with the idea of being a rock star, despite having no musical skill whatsoever. He’s also very excited about entering the new Armstrong program from robotics tech company Vandelay, which is how that accidental mp3 player installation happened, along with his cool new robotic arm. When he’s flagged as a defect by Vandelay due to his new musical heart, and the company’s robots try to eliminate him, he discovers that the beat of the music pervades everything around him and gives him powerful fighting abilities. Summoning a guitar made of scrap metal with his new magnetic arm, he proceeds to wallop enemy robots to the beat, executing slick attack combos in time with the rocking soundtrack. He also investigates what’s really going on at Vandelay, of course, with the help of some new friends.
It’s all a quite silly and lighthearted affair, set in a bright utopia where the manipulative scheming of Vandelay corporation is genuinely surprising, instead of depressingly pervasive like it is in reality (and indeed, Vandelay is depicted as having fallen from the lofty ideals it once upheld). Hi-Fi Rush is also really very excited about rock and pop music, and features a ton of it. There’s over three hours of original music (more on that later), but on top of that it has a bunch of high-profile licensed songs too. The Black Keys‘ “Lonely Boy” plays over the game’s introduction. A couple of Nine Inch Nails tracks appear, along with The Prodigy, The Joy Formidable, and others. These songs are highlights that tend to accompany the most exciting moments in the game.
That’s because the rhythm-based combat is a joy. Where other rhythm games become punishing exercises in remembering patterns, with harsh punishments for flubbing split-second timing, Hi-Fi Rush has so many little design flourishes that make the flow feel natural. Attacks always land on the beat, for example, no matter when players press the attack button. There’s a bonus for good timing, but it’s fine if it’s not perfect. More importantly, the fights are always shown with the right rhythm, making it easy to get back into the groove after a few flubbed attacks, and there are a ton of accessibility options, from multiple difficulty settings to on-screen visual aids for timing.
Battles are surprisingly strategic, with Chai able to execute a slew of combos by chaining his light and heavy attacks, with each combo serving a specific purpose. Some are great for thinning out a crowd of weaker enemies, others focus damage on a single enemy, or launch an opponent into to air for some of that impossible mid-air bashing that only happens in games (and which helpfully keeps Chai out of harm’s way while he does his thing). Add in a grappling hook that can zip Chai around to wallop different robotic adversaries, and the lock-step dance of combat is a ton of fun.
But Hi-Fi Rush also looks absolutely gorgeous. It’s perhaps the best example of comic-style art I’ve ever seen in a 3D game. It’s not just that it uses cel shading to imitate cartoon art, which has been done in many games before. It’s the way it includes Ben Day dots as part of its shading, a trick used in print to create the appearance of more colors when in fact there are only four colors of ink. It’s the way it looks in motion, with actions (attacks, dashes, even jumps) leaving behind illustrated shockwaves, along with text like “whoosh!” or “krack!” that immediately recall comic book panels. Particularly impressive attack combos might desync the red, blue and green color channels, something associated with computer monitors or televions that somehow combines with the Ben Day dots and other graphical flourishes to feel even more comic-like.
It looks so good, in fact, that Hi-Fi rush often switches seamlessly between full 2D animated cutscenes and 3D play. The 2D cutscenes let characters gesticulate wildly, give grand speeches, throw tantrums, or do other emotive things, and then the camera will swing back to Chai, and suddenly the player is in control again, without any visible transition. Often I only realized I was seeing a 2D segment because these animations have fewer frames, whereas the 3D gameplay can run up to my monitor’s maximum of 144 frames per second. I can only imagine the technical wizardry that was needed to pull this off, which I assume uses various visual tricks that I don’t even notice while playing. There are even actual comic panels overlaid on top of the action on occasion, and they don’t feel out of place at all.
It’s great to see characters given the spotlight in these sections, because they all have lovely visual design. In true manga tradition, each has a distinctive outfit and color scheme, their appearance inseparable from their identity. Chai himself is kind of a red-blue-yellow combo, but he recruits allies who each have a dominant color in their clothing, conveniently matched to their color-coded portraits in the user interface so Chai can summon them for help during the game. Oh, and there’s a friendly robotic cat, which is adorable. Even the enemy robots look really cool. They’re chunky, full of armor plates and actuated joints, and their dominant white/grey color scheme has colorful accents that, along with their general shape, make each opponent easy to identify in the thick of battle. Most get their chance to deliver a few quips in 2D animated scenes too, imbuing them with a ton of personality that enriches the fights considerably.
Speaking specifically of colors, I must admit that there are sections of Hi-Fi Rush that tend towards the monochrome. A few levels set in lava-filled caves are mostly orange and brown, and other areas have a few too many boring grey walls and floors. There’s also often a lot of the blue and orange that infect so many modern games. But these moments are offset by reds, yellows, purples, and greens that show up so often elsewhere to spice things up. The manga art styling means Hi-Fi Rush often appears to have a more limited palette than many other games, but I think this is at least partly an illusion. It does, however, use its color choices wisely, much like the classic console games that partially inspired this series. Bright, primary colors befitting the mostly-utopian world that Chai and his friends inhabit, and the uplifting, positive tone of the game in general.
I do have a few problems with Hi-Fi Rush. Its exploratory platforming is fine, but not as fun as its combat encounters, which confine Chai to arenas for their duration. The writing is full of cliches, not least Chai himself, who’s kind of a jerk early on with his exaggerated (and undeserved) bravado. He does develop a bit later in the game, but I found it hard to sympathize with him at first, and felt he got too much slack for his obnoxious behavior. The supporting cast fall into archetypes as well, with nary a surprise to be found. I do like the over the top villains, though, each an executive of some division within Vandelay, as they’re deliciously evil in classic cartoon fashion. But they also play into some overly on-the-nose themes in the story, including segments about overwork and crunch in video game development. I love the positivity of the game and genuinely cared about the cast by the time I reached the great ending, but Hi-Fi Rush won’t win any awards for nuance.
Oh, and speaking of the ending, I have mixed feelings about the post-ending stuff. You see, after finishing the game, there’s the option to return to earlier stages to open secret doors that were inaccessible before. I did so, and quickly discovered the true purpose of this: it’s essentially a new game plus mode, letting players start over with all of their unlocked abilities and knowledge from the later segments, and aim for higher scores in the combat encounters (as well as picking up any missing collectibles during the platforming sections). I actually enjoyed doing this, because I really had improved over the course of the game, and was able to be far more strategic and efficient during fights, which felt great. But the whole thing is motivated by the promise of a “true ending” for the game, which kept me going even through some challenges that were more frustrating than fun. I did finally reach this true ending, but it was a huge letdown. So don’t feel that you need to hunt down this true ending yourself, it’s nothing important. The regular ending, on the other hand, is great, so enjoy that instead.
Most of Hi-Fi Rush is great, in fact. It’s solid fun, upbeat in both its writing and the literal beats of its music, and its rhythmic combat is a joy. It’s also a (sometimes literal) explosion of color, a bright and beautiful spectacle for anyone who’s spent too much time in drab and gloomy games recently. It sounds fantastic too, which brings me to…
The Hi-Fi Rush soundtrack is sold separately, in digital format as DLC through Steam (for 50% off at the time of writing!). It contains a whopping 66 tracks, clocking in at just over three hours and eighteen minutes total. It’s only the original music from the game, however, which means it doesn’t include the high profile licensed songs that were a big selling point for the game itself. Those songs accompany the most memorable moments in the game, fusing familiar melodies and lyrics with the rhythmic patterns of exciting battles, or using them as the emotional core of particularly important cutscenes or platforming sequences. Their omission here is therefore unfortunate, and presumably an artifact of the draconian licensing laws we live with today, which regularly see games removed from sale when their music licenses expire. Can you imagine if music was forcibly excised from existing copies of classic films, because the rights holders wanted more money? That’s basically what happens to video games today. Capitalism crushes art (something that Hi-Fi Rush itself touches on, in fact).
But do not despair! Tango Gameworks anticipated this issue. More specifically, they anticipated that game streamers would have trouble streaming the game because automated algorithms would detect the licensed music and shut down the streams for copyright infringement (yes, this is something that actually happens, often). So they included a “streamer mode” setting which replaces the licensed songs with original ones, and all of those are here on the digital soundtrack. Credited to The Glass Pyramids, these tracks are fascinating, because they are designed to match the same scenes that use licensed music in regular play, and therefore must follow similar structure and style. The very first track on the soundtrack, “The Beacon”, is clearly meant to replace “Lonely Boy” by The Black Keys, going so far as to replicate the vocal effects used in that song. The vocals here, and on all of the Glass Pyrimids tracks, are supplied by John Johanas (along with one guest appearance by Kayla Brown), the game director for Hi-Fi Rush himself. I can tell he’s having a blast paying tribute to his favorite tunes with these pieces, while keeping them distinct compositions rather than covers. I don’t like the Glass Pyramids tracks as much as the songs they imitate, but they’re still pretty good, and engaging listening due to their unusual origins.
John Johanas appears as a vocalist on a few other tracks, so those playing in the standard mode still get to hear him during the game. But the original music is mostly credited to Shuichi Kobori, Masatoshi Yanagi, and/or REO. I believe they are all members of Tango Gameworks as well. Their largely instrumental pieces make up the bulk of the soundtrack, and are dominated by distorted and/or fuzzed guitars, played over energetic drums and bass lines. There are a few tracks that introduce some strings, horns and funkier rhythms, or lean into a more electronic style with pulsing programmed beats, but most of the music is fairly standard rock, without too much timbral variation. Many pieces are meant to accompany the gameplay, which means they’re all the same medium-fast tempo, perfect for whacking robots in time to the music. These pieces don’t stand out too much, but I think that’s the point: they’re there to accentuate the action, not to obscure it. They make for some nice rocking grooves in the background, but don’t demand a listener’s attention.
Then there are pieces from cutscenes or other story moments. A few of these fall into common “soundtrack” problems, in that they’re more of an ambience than an actual piece of music, meant to build a feeling of suspense or dread, and don’t make much sense without the scenes they accompany. Most, however, make for a nice listen. The composers had more freedom with these, able to use slower tempos or sparser arrangements to match different moods. Masatoshi Yanagi’s “Reflection” is a highlight, an uplifting piece from a critical story moment. I also like Shuichi Kobori’s “The Hideout”, a chill groove that’s a perfect pairing with its namesake. Generally it’s hard to pick specific tracks out of the mix, aside from the Glass Pyramids’ songs, because the music maintains a similar feel throughout the whole soundtrack. I did enjoy the bonus “Secret Song (Making Things Is Hard)” that acts as the closer, however, with its heartfelt message from John Johanas to the players about all the work and passion the Tango Gameworks team put into the game. Thank you, Tango Gameworks. You did good.
The soundtrack proceeds roughly chronologically in terms of when pieces appear in-game, which makes it easier to recall the scenes in which each piece features, but I doubt I’ll listen straight through its hefty runtime very often. Instead, music from Hi-Fi Rush will pop up when I’m shuffling music during day-to-day listening, and it will bring me back to the joy of playing this game. Particularly memorable tracks will recall specific scenes, while others may just remind me how great the combat feels, or how uplifting the story is. All of it will be welcome, because Hi-Fi Rush is a game I want to remember. If you enjoy the game, the soundtrack is definitely worth a listen, especially since it’s on sale at the moment.
So there you have it: Hi-Fi Rush is a ton of fun, it sounds great, and it’s a blast of color to brighten your day. And it has a cute robot cat. If you’re intrigued, it’s available digitally on PC from Steam (with 25% off at the time of writing), and on Xbox.