The realm of video game fitness has always been one fraught with sentiments of skepticism and distrust. After years of failed attempts, our belief that these sorts of games can measurably influence our fitness is at a low. Yet no matter how many years pass, the concept never ceases to inspire new attempts.
From as far back as the Atari 2600 with experiments like the Puffer exercise bike, developers have been doing their best to find some demonstrable way of gamifying exercise. It’s easy to see why: what better way to incentivize people to work through physical exertion than with the antithesis?
VR, then, seems like it could be a match made in heaven, and Hitstream is one of the first games I’ve seen besides Boxing titles and Beat Saber mods to fully marry the hardware with a full-fledged fitness game. But does it do enough to stand out amongst the last 40 years of attempts? Or like so many of those, is hit and miss at best?
Punch the Pounds Away
It’s no surprise that the core focus of Hitsteam’s mechanic is music: if there’s one element that spurs you on during an intense workout, it’s the rhythmic thumping of an EDM kick drum.
The game revolves around punching panels to the beat of a song. The pads are colored orange or blue to signify either left or right, and you’ll need to pay attention to the direction with which you’re supposed to strike if you want to score. Anyone who plays this will immediately draw parallels with Beat Saber, which has you doing essentially the same thing but with Light Sabers instead of virtual fists.
Similarly to that game, you’ll also have to dodge incoming walls which will involve side-stepping and squatting, while other moments will have you positioning your head to connect with the direction of flying hoops. Sometimes, rather than punching your way through, you need to catch brightly lit orbs as they fly toward you. It’s a simple move set, but an effective one: any more complex would feel like too much to think about while breaking a sweat, so the game manages to strike a good balance.
You also score higher for how much force you punch, and I thought this was an excellent addition to keeping the player focused on progress rather than just going through the motions. It’s often too easy to fudge these sorts of games by doing the bare minimum, but that constant target of punching with power keeps your heart rate up throughout.
You won’t be stood statically as you are in the traditional Beat Saber session, either. Stages require a pivot in 360 degrees to quickly move to a new lane of incoming panels, and the game does a good job of guiding you through each movement with neon trails.
So, what about the music? Well, I enjoyed all the tracks and found they got me suitably pumped to punch the heck out of the barrage of rhythmic missiles, so it did its job. Styles mostly follow the traditional four-on-the-floor EDM stuff which always works great for this sort of thing, and I didn’t come across a track I didn’t get along with.
While it’s easy to write Hitstream off as a dressed-up Beat Saber clone, there’s a clear distinction in that these sequences feel like proper aerobic workouts. Rather than being a random flurry of movements, you’ll be squatting, punching, and ducking to carefully choreographed movements to ensure you’re using your whole body. Also, Hitstream looks nothing like Beatsaber.
Cardio in the Clouds
It’s a very bright game, and I always appreciate this sort of aesthetic in VR. I find that titles which render these sorts of vivid colors are always more immersive, if only for the stark contrast between your bedroom or living room setting.
The game positions the player in a drone view of sorts overlooking several idyllic vistas, and whether it’s the dizzying neon of a cityscape or the crisp bursting orange of a sunrise creeping over a mountain range, each 360 image was appropriately enticing.
And yes, they’re all images, which I have to say did lessen the atmosphere sometimes. Most of the scenes looked great, but those with water were a little jarring since there was no movement. There were also others where the resolution looked a little off, and the result was that you felt like you were strangely suspended within Google Earth.
The level aesthetics fit the bill for the most part, though, and thankfully, they’re not too busy as to make you feel nauseous. Of course, you don’t have a lot of time to look around, so those smaller aspects aren’t exactly a dealbreaker. Hitstream throws you straight into the action whether you’re ready or not, and I like that about it.
A quick tutorial level shows you the ropes, but then you’re in at the deep end. No matter your level of fitness, it’s likely you won’t do very well at first, but because the game is score-based rather than you having to restart if you miss several consecutive hits, the steep difficulty curve isn’t really a hindrance. Levels are nicely segmented into a neat hierarchy of difficulties and durations, and I found these to be varied enough to sustain long periods of training without things getting boring. As is the case with the best rhythm-focused games, there’s always the scope to add more later, so the nature of the game feels fittingly future proofed.
This is a well-structured game with core mechanics that are engaging and addictive. It’s easy to see how people who really hate cardio could get into something like this, and with VR adoption rates increasing, I can see leaderboard battles unfolding in droves. I couldn’t really fault the game aside from the aforementioned minor niggles – but after spending several hours with Hitstream, those recursive doubts did seep in for another reason.
An Emerging Reality…
In actuality, my biggest gripes with the game stem from my doubts about the hardware. On paper, there seems no better way than to immerse yourself in an aesthetically exciting and motivating environment for exercise. Blocking out the consistently grey clouds of the U.K. with the mountain tops of an alpine paradise is certainly an encouraging prospect, and to fully encapsulate yourself from a visual and auditory sense does a lot for focus. But I can’t say I enjoy getting hot and sweaty within the 15x25cm confines of my Rift S.
Even after a ten-minute workout the thing becomes itchy and uncomfortable, and for the half-hour sessions, I always need to pause the action – and my momentum – to readjust and wipe my brow. Is the problem exacerbated by my particular headset? Maybe, but I imagine many others will find the same no matter what device they’re using.
Whether you experience the other problem I had will depend on which device you own, however. In what now seems like an archaic piece of design compared to the Quest 2, The Rift S is a tethered device.
This became a pretty significant problem when I was pivoting to the next lane as directed by the game. Eventually, rotating anti-clockwise back to my starting point became a workout in itself as I tried to untangle myself to get back into it. This is certainly built with wireless devices in mind.
I truly enjoyed Hitstream, and the developers should be commended for pulling it off. As we’ve seen time and time again, it’s no easy feat.
I was impressed by how it managed to jump the oft-thought insurmountable hurdle of translating exercise into a video game in a way that doesn’t feel gimmicky, and I found the mechanics to be intuitive and the music always awesome.
But it did make me consider something else: that it isn’t necessarily that all those previous games were bad, but that the hardware was a hindrance. It was ultimately my headset that felt like somewhat of a barrier to fully immersing myself in these workouts, and it does make me think we still have a long way to go.
Nevertheless, this is definitely a step in the right direction; I can certainly see how Hitstream could be that one thing that really clicks someone disillusioned with exercise. Irrespective of what I think are shortcomings for the VR medium in this space, the ability to shut off from the world, being able to detach yourself from your own insecurities or the anxiety that comes from going to the gym, is going to be a big perk for some people. I remember reading a story on Reddit about a guy who considered Ring Fit Adventure to have changed his life, and I can see this title having a similar resonance.
Hitstream will provide you with an exciting take on traditional cardio workouts. It’s not going to replace going on a bike ride or hitting a real-life punch bag, but I’m grateful for continued efforts to make fitness feel fun rather than a chore.
- A brilliant arrangement of motivating tracks
- A good balance between depth and intuitiveness in the mechanics
- Scope for endless replayability thanks to a well-structured, varied stage system
- A couple of less-inspired level backdrops
- It can be cumbersome for tethered players and uncomfortably sweaty no matter which headset you use
BoxVR: If you’re looking for a workout that focuses Soley on hitting stuff, BoxVR is a great bet. It features over 100 different tracks across a wide variety of music genres, and it even allows you to customize workouts using your own music.
Beat Saber: Although not officially a fitness game, Beat Saber will most definitely give you a great workout during certain game modes. If you’re wondering where to start, this thread on Reddit has some good information.
Hot Squat 2: New Glory: If you’re wanting something basic to ease you in, Hot Squat is another good choice. The premise is simple: squat down to fit your body through human-shaped holes as they speed towards you. It’s nothing particularly innovative, but it provides a surprisingly solid workout!
Knock Out League: Here’s another great VR boxing title – and one that pits you against human opponents. This is what I’d imagine Nintendo’s Punch-Out!! would look like if they released a VR version, so safe to say, it’s chock-full of fun cartoonish fighting. It’s often a hard workout, and you really feel it after numerous rounds with the game’s wacky opponents.
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: This Game Seems Pretty Challenging. Will I Cope if I’m not Very Fit?
Answer: Hitstream indeed throws you in at the deep end, but that’s not a bad thing. You don’t have to be shooting for high scores right away, and as long as you keep practicing, you’ll get there. There are 10, 20, and 30-minute workouts to choose from, too, so start practicing with the 10-minute variations.
Question: Can this Replace my Cardio Workouts at the Gym/outdoors?
Answer: I don’t think Hitstream, or any video game fitness system, should fully replace dedicated exercise sessions outside the house. Keeping things varied is important for staying motivated. I think it would be best to use Hitstream as an addition rather than a replacement for your normal workouts. Plus, I think there’s a lot to be said for getting outside and training in nature – my favorite workouts of all are bike rides around the countryside near my house, and that feeling can’t be replicated by the gym or a game.
Question: You Mentioned Some Issues Playing the Game with your Particular Headset; is There a Particular HDM you’d Recommend for Hitstream?
Answer: Go for an untethered headset such as the Meta Quest 2. If you have to use a tethered device, try to keep the cable over your shoulder and behind you. It’s not ideal but keeping it in this position will help avoid wrapping yourself up! Regarding the sweating issue, I think that’s going to be an issue no matter which HMD you use.
Linden burned through several hours of Hitstream’s dynamic aerobic workouts over the course of the last few days. He’s slowly but surely improving his high scores on the 30-minute sessions, and as the frequency of his bike rides decreases during the winter months, he’ll be pumping many more hours into the game to come.