Hyper Light Drifter is a game that hit me totally unexpected. Just a few days ahead of release I even got word of this game – and instantly bought it at first sight! Not only is this game an open homage to Zelda, it also stands and defines its own style by a wide margin. The spot-on presentation and great soundtrack (courtesy of Disasterpeace) both play a great role in it, but there is way more to “Hyper Light Drifter” than the sum of its parts. Read more about that in the following chapters.
Update (2016-10-24): This game has been reworked from the ground up to run at 60 FPS, and I just made sure that it’s still bug-free by playing through it again! Today I can safely say that Hyper Light Drifter is now twice as awesome to play as the huge 30-FPS con-point is completely gone! This is hands-down one of the best indie-titles I’ve played so far. Therefore I’m increasing my rating from 8 to a well-deserved 9.5 since this game is close to perfect! It also offers local coop now (which I haven’t tested), but the effort put into this is commendable to say the least.
Of Images and Sounds
The first minute diving into this game you’ll know that you’re in for a treat: Aside from a few tutorial text queues the story of Hyper Light Drifter is exclusively told using an intricate weaving of images and sounds. Right after pushing that start button you’ll be immediately dragged into a world of melancholy, beauty and futuristic appeal, all expertly combined and wrapped in spot-on pixel art that never loses its appeal or visual coherency. The Soundtrack by Disasterpeace (FEZ amongst other games) does an amazing job of underlining the eerie yet beautiful scenery, giving your senses a lot to chew on in order to fill in all the smaller and bigger narrative gaps that the game does throw around so deliberately with its reduced style.
Get down with the sickness
The narrative starts with you being a hero of unknown origin and purpose. Terminally ill and haunted by very visual and threatening nightmares you’ll start with pretty much nothing but a few clues on why you are in this world and what your real purpose is. Soon you’ll meet various different races, some of which are being quite helpful, giving you small hints and bitpieces of information to help you to puzzle together the story. With little more than images to work with (and voices being just grunting or chirping sounds) it is amazing how much perceived depth there is in Hyper Light Drifter: there are stories of war, but also companionship, gruesome hints of genocide, slavery, but also pieces of hope and humor to be found everywhere. The game constantly urges you to explore more of its world, giving you almost absolute freedom in where you want to go, starting from the peaceful city hub that you discover early into the game.
Your crippling disease is not just a “motivation” gimmick – it’s also the main thread that keeps the narrative together. Your hero appears quite capable, but also brittle, near to death and urged forward to avoid the inevitable. His sickness seems to be part of greater evil that has befallen the world, but only a few chosen are affected as severely as you are. Smaller visual cues and hints give some insight into origin of your disease, but you’re always chasing for more areas and locations to unravel more of the intriguing plot.
And this exploration is done in the best sense of “Metroidvania” – given very few abilities right from the start, you can access most of the world right from the get-go. There are smaller visual hints in the world that lead you to tons of secrets like treasures, weapons and upgrades, a big part of which can also be unlocked in the central hub area via exchange of small orange currency items found in the world. The order and direction of new abilities to unlock is completely up to you: fancy new sword moves? Need bigger magazines? Or would you prefer bullet deflection with your swords? More healthpacks to carry? Just go and buy it! With so many things to unlock there is also quite a variety to the fluid combat of “Hyper Light Drifter” and – combat sure is the main driving element of the game and tons of fun.
Discover the limits
The aforementioned freedom of exploration and gear choice also comes with a few pitfalls: With no real direction or “quest system” provided, you’ll easily run into areas that clearly have a higher difficulty curve than others. Enemies overall are not that tanky and die with 2-3 blows each, but so does your hero. This leads to a lot of early game frustration, as this game is by no means winnable with simple button mashing. Instead it brutally forces a steep learning curve upon you, which can get harder if you run into the wrong area. The combat is fast-paced and requires timing, meaning that each of your strikes needs to be carefully planned! Evasion and use of cover is a must as you have no invulnerability frames and can get slaughtered in 2-3 consecutive hits. Even healing yourself requires standing still for a second, which is hard to time right when you get swarmed with 10+ enemies at the same time – a simple hit and your healing is interrupted and the medkit is gone.
Additionally you’ll also get guns to accompany your swordplay. All guns in this game have a purpose and pack a punch, but replenish ammunition solely with successful sword hits. This forces you to carefully balance your offense and defense during combat, combining quick strikes with devastating longer-range combos. With all the aforementioned upgrades in mind, frequent combat scenes in the early game can be punishingly hard, but once you learn to master the flow, it’s also highly rewarding to dispose large groups of enemies with no damage taken at all. Since the game uses a vide variety of enemies and colors, the combat can get hectic at times, making it hard to keep the overview and decide upon the right moves in the heat of battle.
All that said it’s a great thing that this game offers you control options, with both gamepad and keyboard + mouse combinations as viable input methods in their own regards. However, if you hate games like Dark Souls or agility-based timing sections, I’d implore you to take a closer second look at this game – it might just not be your thing.
Of Light and Shadow
With its visual fidelity, great animations, great sound and overall fluid combat “Hyper Light Drifter” had one big shadow cast upon its overall package: polish and technical limitations. Originally designed in “GameMaker: Studio” the game was shipped with a 30-FPS lock. This entailed an inherent small delay to all inputs and animations, making it sometimes hard to time your evasive maneuvers right. Additionally the camera panning in the game sometimes appears inconsistent, making tracking of your movements a bit hard at times. After continous complaints from the audience the developers worked really hard to solve this issue. And having played the game 60 FPS again in 2016 I can safely say that the negative points mentioned above are completely gone!
This leaves the last point: Difficulty! Checkpoints are fairly set for the most part, but sometimes force you to repeat certain areas (including the retrieval of secrets and power-ups) over and over again – something that can be very frustrating when you start low health to begin with. Unfortunately this point has not been changed, but after tons of gamer complaints the game now offers an easier difficulty or New Game+ with even harder difficulty for the true masochists out there.
With those negative things out of the door: All the problems I encountered are miniscule in comparison of what “Hyper Light Drifter” has to offer. The developers were working hard to iron out all the problems, with new patches and features (such as local coop!) being added in short intervals. Overall this game offers a unique experience and can very easily be recognized as a work of art, with visible effort and attention to detail put into each image. There are so many calm moments in between the fight that make you stop, simply to enjoy the music and scenery – and very few games manage to do it as effortlessly as Hyper Light Drifter. If you can stomach the hard difficulty and don’t consider checkpoints and lack of visual cues a huge downside, go for this game – you will not regret it.
Impressions Video and Screenshots
If the screenshots are not convincing enough, my impressions video might convey you the gist of the game a lot better: