This time of year lends itself to catching up on things that may have otherwise passed you by. For this humble game reviewer it means looking back at those titles I missed, looking for something to fill the usual holiday lull. Quite often I’ll find something that I regret not playing on its release, the most obvious of which was The Talos Principle. Hyper Light Drifter was one game that I passed on multiple times: first when it found success on Kickstarter and secondly when I saw it released on Steam. When I saw it come up again during the Steam Winter sale I figured, with nothing else better to play, it was time to give it a look in. I’m glad I did too as it hearkens back to games of yesteryear, and not simply because of its graphics.
I’d usually give you a brief summation of the starting plot here but I don’t think I could rightly do that here. Hyper Light Drifter is very much a game of “show, don’t tell” and to explain the opening scenes would be reveal too much of the story. Indeed the entirety of the main plot is told through pictures and simple in-game cut scenes, leaving the interpretation of what’s actually going on up to the player. So I’ll leave the usual plot analysis until the end but I’m more than happy to discuss the various theories about the game in the comments.
Hyper Light Drifter takes the traditional approach to its pixelart visuals, favouring a more authentic recreation of the styles of games long past. Numerous new wave pixelart games favour high definition versions of pixelart graphics which, technically, aren’t faithful to what was possible during the period. Hyper Light Drifter retains much of the other aesthetic elements, such as limited colour palettes and fixed lighting, which were also present in titles from this generation. There are some elements I’m not quite sure are completely true to the era, like the overlayed glitch effects, but I’m no purist by any stretch of the imagination. It’s one of the few games that’s built on GameMaker Studio that doesn’t look like every other title built on it, a testament to the amount of effort put into honing Hyper Light Drifter’s visual aesthetic.
Hyper Light Drifter takes after classic games like Zelda: A Link to the Past and other top-down adventure games. There’s a large map with distinct sections that you’re able to walk around at your leisure, although some parts are locked off until you complete certain actions. There are various upgrades scattered around, some of which can only be obtained through defeating certain bosses or completing challenges. Where it differentiates itself is through the combat which is much more twitch focused and relies heavily on precise timing by the player for certain moves to be pulled off perfectly. Honestly it was hard to shake the “Zelda set in a sci-fi landscape” feeling when I was playing it, a feeling that it seems many other fellow reviewers share. In my opinion this is the best way to utilise a player’s nostalgia: use it as a basis to create something new and interesting rather than beating them over the head with it.
Combat has an almost Dark Souls kind of feel to it; where the real boss of the game is yourself. I can’t tell you how many times I died just because I wanted to do something fast rather than taking my time with each enemy. Indeed none of the regular enemies are that complicated and most have really obvious telegraphs that you can pick up on quickly. However, if you’re like me, you’ll want to try and kill as many as you can as quickly as you can. This will often lead to you making mistakes and, of course, your inevitable demise. Once you get a feel for the enemies, and have a couple upgrades under your belt, the combat becomes both challenging and rewarding. This is then most expertly demonstrated in Hyper Light Drifter’s standout feature: the bosses.
The bosses of Hyper Light Drifter aren’t going to win any awards for originality but they are the most enjoyable aspect of the game. Nearly all of them are multi-phased, meaning that you’re unlikely to one shot any of them. It’s refreshing to see that many upgrades, like the projectile deflecting upgrade for dash and the sword, working on bosses as well. This leads to some interesting approaches to bosses and, of course, far more interesting ways to die to them. Overall the bosses themselves aren’t particularly challenging (I don’t think I was stuck on any particular one for long) but they are hard enough to ensure that you feel somewhat accomplished when you do finally beat them. The final boss is by far the coolest out of the lot and makes for a fitting finale when you finally get to face it.
The upgrade process is done well, consisting of finding little upgrade parts all over the map which you can then spend how you wish. There are some must have upgrades, like the aforementioned projectile reflecting ones, whilst others can probably be left behind (like the unlimited dash upgrade, you get 3 dashes by default). There’s also 5 additional weapons you can find scattered around the map which are mostly a matter of preference. Sure some of them help in certain situations, like the rain gun, but I stuck with the normal blaster for the most part. If you fancy yourself something of a completionist then there’s also numerous sets of armour around the map, each of which bestows a certain unique bonus to you if you’re wearing them. I myself didn’t go after them and didn’t struggle at all.
My main gripe with Hyper Light Drifter would have to be the lack of visual clarity. It’s a very busy game with highly detailed environments however it’s not completely clear what’s say, navigable ground, a drop into a bottomless pit or just part of the background scenery. Whilst the punishment for falling off the edge is low (1 health bar and being sent back to your last safe location) it can become somewhat frustrating when you’re searching for secrets. The forest map is the worst for this, its visual cues for “hey there’s something over here” often confused with your run of the mill props for the area. Further this means that some of the visual story telling is simply lost unless you really know what you’re looking for. It’s a shame because in certain aspects, like the above screenshot, it’s done brilliantly but in others it’s simply a visual mess.
Much like Dark Souls again Hyper Light Drifter’s story is told mostly through vague allusions to events with drips and drabs of text around the place explaining some points in a little detail. This means that the events of Hyper Light Drifter are very much up for interpretation and you’ll find many fan theories out there to explain events. Whilst the game play is more than sufficient to keep you engaged throughout the game’s duration it would have been nice if there was a little more of the story built into the main narrative. This is one of the cases where the lack of direct storytelling doesn’t harm the overall game that much and a troll through the forums after finishing it was a rather rewarding experience.
Hyper Light Drifter is a prime example of nostalgia done well; using the past as inspiration for a new experience that captures many of those feelings many of us felt all those years ago. The visual style is very true to the time, eschewing the current norms of high definition pixelart for a more traditional aesthetic. The combat is approachable yet challenging, ensuring that all players approaching this game will find reward in it. The bosses are by far the best aspect of Hyper Light Drifter, conjuring up many memories of the times I spent beating similar bosses back in my younger days. The only faults I can level at Hyper Light Drifter are its lack of visual clarity and direct storytelling, things that don’t detract too heavily from the core game but could definitively be improved. Overall Hyper Light Drifter is an exceptional title, one that I now wish I hadn’t passed on all those times.
Hyper Light Drifter is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with approximately 5 hours of total play time and 13% of the achievements unlocked.