Games like Hyper Light Drifter don’t come along too often and that’s unfortunate.
Hyper Light Drifter is a 2D action game with RPG elements that was released earlier this year and recently won the Jury Choice Award at IndieCade 2016. The award is well deserved because the game is by far one of the best looking, most polished, best playing games released this year.
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, and right down to the brooding, atmospheric soundtrack. Every stylistic choice works together to make a game that is as beautiful as it is mysterious.
Dig beneath the surface of Hyper Light Drifter, and 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 those 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 the player’s character, 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 make 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 while, 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 and reduces this aspect of the game to scouring rooms looking for specific design elements indicating a chest, key, hidden gun or character skin. Platforming may be thee wrong word to describe the other type of puzzles in the game because there is no jumping in Hyper Light Drifter. Regardless of whether your character leaves the ground, the essence of timing your movements to avoid positively dastardly environmental hazards remains present in the game. 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.
One of the most interesting aspects of the presentation of Hyper Light Drifter is the game’s wordless cutscenes; 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. All players 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. Dark Souls games are challenging to play and difficult to understand; so is Hyper Light Drifter, but 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, but 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 player 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, the game never seemed unfinished, unpolished or overly short. It’s just that, very occasionally, the game felt like something about it was missing, as if it were a jigsaw puzzle with one missing piece. It is still difficult to say what that piece was – an alternate melee weapon type or a different way of navigating environments, maybe. This is the only real criticism of a really amazing accomplishment in game design.
Since the initial release of the game, two features have been added to Hyper Light Drifter. Shortly after release, a drop in, drop out local co-op mode was added, alleviating some of the difficulty issues for players with helpful friends. Even more helpful for players who found the game too tough is the more recently added Newcomer mode which disables some achievements but gives players more health and ammo at the start of the game.
Hyper Light Drifter 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. Everyone should play Hyper Light Drifter. The game is available on Steam, XBOX One and PS4 for $19.99.