Platforms PC
Developer Heart Machine
Publisher Heart Machine
Release Date March 31, 2016

Hyper Light Drifter is a 2D action RPG that pays homage to classic 8-bit and 16-bit games. Its DNA is made from games like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Diablo, with exploration and challenging combat its main mechanics. The game puts players in control of the Drifter, a character that has access to technology that has long been forgotten by the inhabitants of the game’s world, but is forced to search through the world and the ruins of [the] civilization before to find a cure for an illness he carries.

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I’ve played Hyper Light Drifter from intro to credits and I really have no idea what was going on during any of it. That plot summary right there? I lifted it from Wikipedia, verbatim (except some minor grammatical tweaks). Hyper Light Drifter is not a game that explains itself very well. Or at all, mostly. Obtuse would be a good word to describe it, in every part of the experience. I’d say there’s no hand-holding in the game, but that would be an understatement. And a pretty big one at that. The game never really explains anything. Or at least not in a straightforward way.

I mean, there’s a story here. There must be. There’s a story analysis on Reddit that reads like a dissertation (spoiler alert). I guess what I’m trying to say is I didn’t really get it. It had something to do with robots and post-apocalyptica. And the main character stumbles and coughs blood at regular intervals, which I now know, thanks to Wikipedia, is because he has an illness. There’s probably something to be said for a game when I can glean more about the story from a Wikipedia plot summary than from the game itself. Knowing my luck this is one of those instances when Wikipedia is wrong.

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I powered through the game without any real idea why I was doing what I was doing. There are characters you can talk to, although “talk” is a bit of a stretch. Characters who are willing to open up “talk” in what can best be described as comic book panels. With no speech bubbles. I gleaned a bit of information from these illustrations, and from some light environmental storytelling, but by and large I just soldiered on without paying the story too much mind. I explored, I found the purple triangles that I was meant to find, I killed some bosses, spoiler, spoiler, spoiler. Credits.

My total lack of comprehension doesn’t even mean it was necessarily bad. Some of the imagery I found in Hyper Light Drifter was memorably striking. The opening cutscene was excellent. The game is generally presented extremely well, with a bold art style that isn’t quite the pixel art you might be used to in other indie games. It makes good use of bold colours and is very easy on the eye. Combine that with an excellent, moody soundtrack and you’ve got the perfect ingredients for a very atmospheric world. Despite not “getting it” I can’t fault the presentation.

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So, with the story not really able to grab me in any way, it fell to the gameplay to keep me hooked in. The fact that I’ve mentioned twice now that I played the game from start to finish should be a dead giveaway that, yes, the gameplay is worth sticking around for. It’s a really fun game to play (for the most part). Like the narrative, there’s no real explanation of anything when it comes to combat. By pushing buttons on the controller I learned that I could swish a sword, shoot a gun and do a short-range teleporting dash (the latter being useful for combat and exploration).

Unlike the story, the combat in Hyper Light Drifter does begin to make sense as you keep playing. At first any enemies I encountered would give me trouble. Within a couple of hours I was a master of brawling with the weird and wonderful inhabitants of the game. Hyper Light Drifter’s combat is all about learning, which ties neatly into the lack of hand-holding found throughout the experience. Once you’ve got a handle on how to fight, it becomes a matter of learning how to fight the enemies you encounter.

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Each enemy has its own attack pattern, and the key is to learn it, so you know when to dodge and when to unleash a torrent of sword slashes/gun fire. Hyper Light Drifter’s progression of difficulty is subtle and masterful. You’ll face one or two of a specific enemy type, learn how to fight it and then more and more follow. Each of the four different areas of the game world have their own enemies, and learning what to do about them is where the real fun of Hyper Light Drifter (one part of it anyway, I’ll get to the other part in a moment). As you progress further and further into any given area, enemies start attacking in greater numbers, or in different combinations. It’s challenging, but always falls just on the right side of the fun, rather than frustrating.

At the end of each of the four areas you’ll encounter a major difficulty spike a boss, who is kind of an amalgamation of all of the enemies you fight to get to the encounter. On steroids. The first boss I encountered in my travels could attack with a huge sword swing, blast me with an area-of-effect attack if I was too close, shoot at me from a distance, and summon enemies to attack me. It felt incredibly unfair and cheap, whereas the rest of the combat up until that point had been more of the tough-but-fair variety. Luckily Hyper Light Drifter is a non-linear RPG, so I just trundled off to another area, found a less cheap boss fight and had a marginally better time.

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Though the boss fights firmly cross the line between fun but frustrating to plain frustrating, there are only five of them. They’re still incredibly out of the blue difficulty spikes. I mean, I get that boss fights are supposed to be harder than regular fights, but there’s nothing in the rest of the game that prepares you for the level of challenge you’re about to face. And that last boss fight? I wanted to snap my controller in half fighting it, as I would any boss that can make the entire arena explode if you’re not lightning quick with your reflexes. I may be biased against the final boss fight though – a bug (technical, not enemy) killed me just as I killed him, forcing me to repeat the whole thing many more times. You can imagine my howls of fury (though this was the only bug I encountered, it certainly was memorable).

I did eventually best that first boss I encountered, thanks in no small part to a cool upgrade system (and a lot of luck). In Hyper Light Drifter you don’t earn XP, or really get anything from the enemies you fight. They’re just obstacles. Nor do you improve your stats to get incrementally more health or damage. You purchase new moves and abilities in combat, such as the always badsass ability to deflect projectiles with a swing of your sword, or more space for health kits. There are a lot of upgrades to acquire, and they’re unlocked by purchasing them with a currency of small, yellow squares.

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And this is where the second really enjoyable part of Hyper Light Drifter comes into play – exploration. The world you find yourself in is full of nooks and crannies to find and generally pillage for health kits, upgrade squares or those purple triangle thingies that advance the story. There are so many tracks off the beaten path that I’m not really sure Hyper Light Drifter even has a beaten path. But damn, this world is a fascinating one to explore. Part of it is down to that striking imagery I mentioned earlier, and part of it is the compulsion to find more upgrade squares, get more upgrades, and be that much better at kicking ass. Because kicking ass is a universal language that we can all appreciate.

Summary

Hyper Light Drifter is a whole lot of fun to play, although it’s probably too obtuse for its own good at times. While there are probably a lot of people who will praise the story, I’m not too proud to admit that I just didn’t get it. It doesn’t help that it’s presented in a series of images that almost feel like they’ve been randomly slapped together. But that doesn’t matter – what matters is that Hyper Light Drifter is a whole lot of fun to play. The combat is really well done, and truly engaging, and the world is ripe for exploration thanks to the huge amount of hidden goodies, excellent art direction and brilliant music. When a game is this fun to play, who needs a story?

7


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