Review: Hyper Light Drifter

Games like Hyper Light Drifter don’t come along too often. The game has style for days, controls really well, and challenges players with gameplay that is incredibly rewarding and fun provided they can rise to meet the challenge.

The most conspicuous aspect of Hyper Light Drifter is the overall style of the game’s presentation. Strong choices are made all around; from the striking jewel-tone color pallet to the intricate detail of the pixel art, to the completely wordless cutscenes right down to the brooding, atmospheric soundtrack. Every stylistic choice works together to make a game that is as beautiful as it is mysterious.

An example  Hyper Light Drifter's  mystery. What iis this game where you kick a ball about a grassy field...

An example Hyper Light Drifter's mystery. What iis this game where you kick a ball about a grassy field...

Dig beneath the surface of Hyper Light Drifter any you’ll find that the gameplay has as much to offer as the stylistic aspects of the game. Like most games of the type, Hyper Light Drifter is essentially a mix of combat challenges and puzzles.

Of these two activities, combat is where the game really shines. The game starts players off with a sword with a three-hit combo and a five shot pistol. Finishing a sword combo leaves you open to attack and ammunition for the pistol, or other guns found throughout the game, is recharged by doing damage to enemies or destructible objects in the environment. Because any enemy in the game is fully capable of killing players, especially in the early game before key upgrades are unlocked, every enemy encounter is a balancing act between dealing and avoiding damage both from enemies and environmental hazards. The number of enemy types is fairly small but the ways that the game mixes those types makes each combat challenge unique and keeps things interesting throughout. The crown jewels in the combat of Hyper light Drifter are the boss fights; without spoiling too much, each one is is a bit of a riff on a classic action game boss type, except somewhat more difficult and impeccably designed.

Compared to the combat of Hyper Light Drifter, the game’s puzzles suffer somewhat. Most of them consist of either finding an entrance to a hidden area or a platforming challenge. After a fashion, you will begin to decode some of the more subtle aspects of the level design which will make finding the hidden areas much much easier which reduces this aspect of the game to scouring rooms looking for specific design motifs indicating a chest, key, hidden gun or character skin. I hesitated earlier when I used the word ‘platforming’ because there is no jumping in Hyper Light Drifter. Regardless of weather or not your character leaves the ground the essence of timing your movements to avoid positively dastardly environmental hazards remains present in the game hence, platforming.Now that that is settled, while the platforming in Hyper light Drifter is occasionally very difficult, the rewards for completing a challenge sometimes seem a bit thin. Sometimes it feels like you unlock one challenge only to find another challenge waiting for you at the end.

I wrote about wordless cutscenes above; in fact the entire game is completely wordless. English words appear in the menus and pop-up tutorials but no character in the game ever expresses his/her/itself in anything more meaningful than a series of still images accompanied by hieroglyphic motifs. Much more commonly all you get is a tiny speech bubble of an hieroglyph. If that seems confusing, it is but not in a way that’s obnoxious, at least not to me. The rest of the game being what it is, a tightly controlling, beautiful, challenging action game, made some of the obfuscation around the narrative an interesting mystery to solve as opposed to a confusing mess.    

Since this review is somewhat late-breaking it’s necessary to address some popular comparisons that have arisen surrounding Hyper Light Drifter, specifically this game has been compared to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and the Dark Souls series of games. Of these two, the Dark Souls comparison holds the least water as far as I’m concerned. Dark Souls games are challenging to play and difficult to understand, so is Hyper Light Drifter, therein the comparison ends. Playing a Dark Souls game is like reading a novel where one of the major plot points in each chapter has been deleted or moved to an appendix; there’s plenty of information around but some of the most important bits are missing and the challenge is in finding that information. Hyper Light Drifter, on the other hand, is more like translating a book written in a language you can’t understand; the information’s all there the challenge lies in decoding it all. It is a subtle distinction but an important one.

The Zelda comparison makes some more sense but not enough to be fair to either game. It would be fair to describe Hyper Light Drifter as an homage to or even a subversion of games like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. These games share a perspective and similar kinds of action but Hyper Light Drifter deliberately casts aside many elements that the classic games have leaned on since the genre’s inception in the 8 bit era.

Hyper Light Drifter is interesting in what it does without. In a climate where many games are choosing to become more complicated, this game has striped itself down to just the most basic elements. This creates Hyper Light Drifter’s only real flaw: it feels slightly incomplete. To be clear, I wouldn’t say the game is unfinished, unpolished or overly short. I just very occasionally felt like something about the game was missing, as if it were a jigsaw puzzle with one missing piece. I don’t know what that piece was, an alternate melee weapon type or a different way of navigating environments maybe. This would be my only real criticism of a really amazing accomplishment in game design. Everyone should play Hyper Light Drifter, unless you really hate difficult, unforgiving games.

Hyper Light Drifter gets a 9/10