Hyper Light Drifter is a beautiful yet punishing game that will challenge and delight you in equal measures. Visually stunning, particularly if you enjoy pixel art and games with a retro-feel, Hyper Light Drifter mixes modern combat techniques and asks you to unravel a mystery in a very dangerous world.
Hyper Light Drifter is an interesting one to describe as much of the delight in the game is figuring out the story, narrative and your place in the world for yourself. At the start of the game you’re given a sword, taught the basics and then it’s off you go against a series of tough enemies.
Figuring out what to do and where to go in the game is no small feat as chats with other people in the game are presented as fictional language, which reminded me of the movie Arrival (text in image form). There’s a gorgeous opening cutscene in the game which provides you with some context with our hero surviving a huge attack on their home planet and being confronted by huge Titans and a mysterious monster who appears to be chasing us throughout the whole game. Our hero seems more than capable with a sword but appears to have some deadly affliction as they regularly cough up blood.
Narrative aside the game is relatively open. Similar to games like the early Legend of Zelda games we view our hero from a top-down point of view moving from screen to screen battling deadly enemies. And these enemies are VERY deadly indeed. Similar to FromSoft games the battles can be punishing and time-consuming, but ultimately they are very satisfying when you secure victory. Hyper Light Drifter isn’t really done justice in screenshots alone, so if you haven’t played the game yourself then it must be seen in video form rather than still screenshots. The fluidity of the movement underlined with the soaring music and audio design makes for a breathtaking experience.
The world to explore in Hyper Light Drifter is a beautiful one. It’s a neon pixel-art world where the colours pop out of the screen, and this stunning visual slightly helps soften the blow for all those times you’re going to die. The map is divided into four main sections with your hub in the middle full of shops, vendors and upgrades. It’s up to you to head to each of these four locations to investigate and ultimately defeat the enemies that live there. It’s fairly freeform, you can pretty much take on the zones in the order you see fit.
It’s similar looking to Zelda, but not in the fact you have to identify a dungeon, go there and kill a boss. There’s more to it than that. As well as taking out a boss there are four terminals which are located in their own mini-dungeons off the beaten path from the main overworld areas. Finding your way can be tricky early on, but once you get the hang of things it starts to click. There’s an element of wandering and discovery in Hyper Light Drifter which I loved, but it may not be to everyone’s tastes.
Much like many games before it dying is part of the learning curve in Hyper Light Drifter. The controls are relatively simple – there’s a slash, dash and shoot. Dashing helps you get over small gaps and out of the way of enemies. Be careful though as enemies are varied and clever, so you’ll need to utilise the dash and learn when to use it. Swinging the sword is fairly self-explanatory and is going to be your primary weapon, and then there’s the gun. There’s only a limited number of bullets in this pistol, so use it wisely. You can reload the weapon by slashing with the sword and using elements in the environment – this is a nice technique which keeps you from using the gun all the time, and tempts you into using the sword and your environment.
This does mean that combat is certainly a challenge in Hyper Light Drifter. This model may put some people off but do persevere with it because the narrative and satisfaction payoff is huge. As well as the game looking beautiful it’s a feast for the ears too. The score, the audio design all brought together makes Hyper Light Drifter a memorable audio experience which adds to the sense of doom and mystery.
The Zelda comparisons are fair from a visual and perspective view but dig a little deeper and Hyper Light Drifter has you focusing much more on the combat element rather than solving puzzles to get from A to B. Rather there’s going to be a ‘tough-as-nails’ enemy or series of enemies in your way as you go from A to B via another letter entirely. There’s a good variety to the enemies from swooping birds to robots that emerge directly from the ground in surprise attacks. There are range attackers which can be frustrating and its best to take them out ASAP otherwise they’re going to sap your life quickly. The boss fights are memorable and tricky in equal measure and require timing, practice and patience. They all have set patterns and you’re going to need to study their movements to figure out their weaknesses and then focus on them. It’ll only be a matter of time before you’re taking them down, but beware – it’s going to take a bit of time.
Aside from the battles and the systems to get to grips with there’s plenty to mesmerise you in the game. The artwork and audio design work so well together to create an atmospheric and magical experience. Disasterpeace is responsible for the wonderful soundtrack to the game and this further draws you into the world that Heart Machine has created, marrying fluid movement, delightful graphics and brilliant audio.
It took me far too long to get to Hyper Light Drifter, and just in time too because Heart Machine is well into development of their next project Solar Ash, which was showed off during the PlayStation 5 showcase. What I would say is don’t sleep on this one. Yes, it can be difficult, but the reward is great and I can almost guarantee you’ll enjoy your time with this one.
Developer: Heart Machine
Publisher: Abylight Studios
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC, PS4, Xbox One, Mac
Release date: 31st March 2016