Surprise drops for video games are nothing new, but not really in the triple-A space. Hype and analysis fuel that arm of the game industry in a constant self-sustaining cycle, even more so for titles from a console maker’s first-party studio.
So when Microsoft used its recent Developer Showcase to announce Tango Gameworks’ Hi-Fi Rush and then release it on the same day, calling it a surprise would be an understatement. Microsoft’s game output has been notoriously hit-and-miss, and other than some leaked concept art from months ago, there wasn’t any indication that the game even existed.
But the game isn’t just here, it’s pretty great, and that’s surprising to consider for a number of reasons.
Tango changes its tune
Tango is best known for horror adventures such as The Evil Within franchise and 2022’s Ghostwire Tokyo. Those aforementioned games drew influence respectively from director Shinji Mikami’s Resident Evil tenure and Japanese folklore. Developers often change genres, but Hi-Fi Rush is as far from Tango's pedigree as you could get. At first glance, its cel-shaded art style would make you think you’re watching a Cartoon Network show from the late 2000s or early 2010s. At all times, it’s loud and boisterous in a good way; the game opens with lead character Chai jamming out to The Black Keys’ “Lonely Boy” as a robotic desk worker looks at him in irritation. In cutscenes, events are timed to hit with the beat, and the environment does the same thing while you actively play: platforms rise in a musical order or move in time with the music, and Chai even snaps his fingers while standing idly.
Comparisons between this game and Insomniac Games’ underrated 2014 shooter Sunset Overdrive (or Sega’s 2000 platformer Jet Set Radio) are inevitable. With a focus on rhythm and style, Hi-Fi Rush is the most-PlayStation 2-ass game the Xbox has ever put out. It feels like the offspring of Devil May Cry and Guitar Hero; the former is to be expected since Mikami was an executive producer on the first Devil May Cry and fellow character action game Viewtiful Joe, as he is here. You can see how Dante and Nero have influenced Chai, who rocks a prosthetic arm and an electric guitar as his melee weapon. His prosthetic doesn’t have a function that lets him stop time (at least, not as far as I’ve seen), but you wouldn’t be wrong in calling the kid Nero for the millennial generation.
Hi-Fi Rush constantly has its soundtrack rocking thanks to Chai's MP3 player (implanted, naturally where his heart used to be). It rewards players for hitting enemies or dodging attacks on the beat. The music running in the background will get you to tap your feet, and it can feel great to hear the guitar come in when attacks match the beat. Admittedly, this isn’t anything new—2022’s Metal Hellsinger and Soundfall both had similar mechanics, even down to an on-screen metronome that helps keep you on the 2 and 4. But it really comes alive in Hi-Fi, and it makes you wonder why this isn’t more common in the character action genre.
Hi-Fi Rush comes at the right time for Xbox
After Microsoft laid off thousands of employees and faced criticism of how it’s managed 343 Industries, there’s been the question of Xbox’s place in the games space. Compared to Sony and Nintendo, both of whom have a reliable release schedule, Microsoft is on considerably shakier ground, which clashes with its desire to snatch up other studios. Beyond that, the idea of what an Xbox game actually is is up for debate; the console doesn't have an identity of prestige like Sony, nor does it have the eternal fuel of nostalgia that Nintendo does.
Hi-Fi Rush doesn't hit those concerns, but it does manage to give Xbox a win that it's desperately needed for some time. Thanks to a surprise same-day release, it managed to avoid getting caught up in any narrative that could’ve scuttled its potential to entice players, as we’ve seen with Halo Infinite or this week’s fellow big release, Forspoken. In the triple-A space, the worst thing for a game to have is baggage attached to it, and unfortunately for Microsoft, nearly all of its big games like Redfall or Starfield won’t be able to avoid that.
On the other hand, Tango basically showed up with Hi-Fi Rush underneath its clothes and caught everyone's attention. In just a few minutes, the studio managed to give a little slice of the game before stepping back and letting audiences see what it’s all about. And if the game’s Steam reviews and sales are any indication, players are taking a shine to it.
Outside of its presentation, it's a fun game with a cool gimmick that manages to feel like a throwback, which is far from unwelcome right now. Having a cute robotic cat doesn't hurt things, either.