Hi-Fi Rush is a beacon of hope. The rhythm-based character-action game from Tango Gameworks showed up at this week’s Xbox Developer Direct, only to be surprise-released moments later on Game Pass and Steam. And while the sudden arrival was a novelty, the game itself feels appropriate in its timing. It’s a power fantasy about tearing down an evil corporation whose executives treat workers like fodder in the endless pursuit of wealth.
In a different time, the premise itself might have seemed trivial. Protagonist Chai, a kid obsessed with music who constantly spouts puns, approaches Vandelay Technologies for the promise of robotic augmentation. An incident leads to his iPod being inserted into his chest, and now the world is in sync with his playlist — a mix of an original score with licensed tracks from the likes of Nine Inch Nails, The Black Keys, and The Prodigy.
Vandelay immediately deems the protagonist a defect and sends an army of angry robots to terminate him. Blending combat reminiscent of the Devil May Cry series with the spirit of rhythm-infused games such as No Straight Roads and Metal: Hellsinger, the game sees Chai band together with a crew of surprisingly likeable characters to hack, slash, dodge, and jump to the beat, all in an attempt to expose Vandelay’s evil deeds to the masses.
Across 12 levels, you move from QA to the finance departments of the company, each office corridor replete with Vandelay propaganda, surveillance bots, and gold statues of the CEO. Speaking with the robot NPCs elicits venting about overwork and their fear of layoffs. They also ask Chai not to be a narc whenever he spots them taking five by lying down on the floor.
An early level puts you up against Zanzo, a boss in charge of developing SPECTRA, an AI designed to let Vandelay control people’s thoughts — a poignant scenario, considering the latest trend that is already proving to be a disaster. As you plunge through the R&D department, one of Zanzo’s employees warns him about wasting budget on increasingly extravagant, yet ultimately useless weaponry. He (unsurprisingly) ignores this warning, and Hi-Fi Rush is quick to make fun of the mistake: The game’s UI displays a percentage bar to show his budget shrinking in real time. “Balancing creativity with realistic goals is the mark of a good leader,” says one of your teammates. “Clearly Zanzo needs guidance.”
We’re only a few weeks into 2023, but layoffs are rampant across tech and media — even at Microsoft, which owns Hi-Fi Rush’s publisher Bethesda — as people continue to fight for unionization. Hi-Fi Rush is a cathartic, hopeful takedown of the corporate systems (and the people in charge) that churn through workers like any other expendable resource.
Much has been said about the use of quips in Forspoken this past week, comparing the dialogue to Joss Whedon’s work, and citing it as yet another casualty of the Marvel-ization of storytelling. Hi-Fi Rush is also at fault in this regard, but its satire is so poignant, and its characters so earnest, that it works. Chai’s jokes can be silly, but he’s unwilling to let his and his teammates’ spirits flicker, determined to keep moving forward and shutting down the deluded plans of Vandelay’s c-suite. Context makes all the difference.
The shadow drop was novel in and of itself, but the game is a triumph. The gorgeous animations and Jet Set Radio-esque art style are vivid and arresting. The array of tutorials, visual aids, and clever mechanics makes the rhythm aspects approachable to genre newcomers. And the vibrant, positive energy is present in every beat, keeping you tapping your feet as you take down a corporation built on a lack of vision. Hi-Fi Rush is a cathartic anthem that arrived at the perfect time.
Hi-Fi Rush was released on Jan. 25 on Windows PC and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on Xbox. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.