Hyper Light Drifter review

April 8, 2016 by Daniel Starkey

Not All Who Wander are Lost.

Circuits are etched into the skin and soul of this world. Winding pathways hint and guide, texturing the remnants of some long-dead people. Set against a fluorescent palette of pinks, blues and reds, these winding paths, like you, are on the edge of the living world.

You are a drifter in a broken land, laden with an unknown illness and searching for a cure. Centuries, perhaps millennia, after the apocalypse, you find that the earth clutches its secrets and its history with the last of its fading strength. Doubled over coughing and vomiting blood, you too are on your last legs. But you muster the vigor to press on anyway.

Hyper Light Drifter eschews exposition outside of tutorial snippets. That interpretation then, is just what I've been able to intuit from its liberal use of affecting visuals. It'd be wrong to say that everything is open to interpretation, as some bits are more open than others, but Hyper Light Drifter builds and wields a powerful visual language.

Characters shift and sulk, breathe and move with wistful texture. Decay and rot has given way to lush greenery and naturalistic beauty, but that's a veneer. Beneath that lies the pain of loss and the scars of some forgotten war. These people and these spaces wear their stories. The blend of pixel-art charm and festering wounds of the past are a sweet tragedy. Like a parent trying to shield a child from a reality too callous for a young mind to understand, there's an eerie twist here. Odd as it sounds, that theme makes its way into the gameplay as well.

Hyper Light Drifter is unapologetically hard. Not Dark Souls hard, but it does set lofty goals of its players. Your health is limited and most enemies can kill you in 2-3 hits. That, combined with the fact that they can often knock you off a ledge or into a geyser of flames, mean that death comes quick and often. But that difficulty belies quite a bit of cleverness.

Your health bar is small, but you can carry several health packs that you can use at any time. When you're on death's door, you've got to find some extra time in the bustle of combat to heal up and keep up the fight. As in Dark Souls, it adds another layer of timing and planning to play, but means that skilled players won't have to bother with the system at all.

What's more, battles are just as lethal for your foes as they are for you. The majority of the time you'll juggle between three main abilities. You can swing a sword, shoot a gun and teleport a few feet to dodge or move in for an attack. Chaining these together well, while maintaining an awareness of everything else that's on screen -- other enemies, projectiles and hazards -- is essential. Most areas load you down with foes that are always on the assault. It's easy to dodge one attack and fall into another, so it pays to be careful. When it comes, though, success is both exhilarating and artful. There's an expressiveness to your own movements that's intoxicating.

That said, some of combat's finer points are… obtuse. While Hyper Light Drifter opts for a minimalist approach to its narrative, something I fell in love with from its opening moments, it's easy to overlook some critical pieces of play. I didn't learn, for example, that I could upgrade my character's abilities until more than halfway through the game. And while I'm sure it's possible to press through without them, on a first run many are essential.

One boss in particular, a magic-wielding samurai covered in crystal shards, can unleash a furious volley of attacks that are tough to evade. I thought the boss was impossible until I picked up chain-dashing (an upgrade that allows you to evade several times in quick succession). Again, more skilled players than I will find a way to win, I'm sure, but during my run, but I couldn't cut it.

Hyper Light Drifter does let you upgrade your character whenever you'd like, though. The whole world is open to you from the start, and there are check points that connect each of the game's four main areas -- corresponding to the four cardinal directions. Each locale has four minor bosses and one area boss. You can complete them in whichever order you like, and warp between certain checkpoints. While I'm sure many won't have quite as much trouble as I did, those that do will be happy to know that once you hit a roadblock, you can go somewhere else and start chipping away there. Unless you've cleared everything else then, you're never stuck. At the same time the ability to warp about makes the world a lot smaller than it should be and a lot bigger than it is.

At about ten hours (for most players, I took much longer) Hyper Light Drifter begs to be poked and prodded more. I left feeling that I could spend many, many more hours here. Even with the upgrades, though, there aren't many pieces to combat. If it lasted as long as I wanted, play would start wearing pretty thin. As it is, I'm left simply wanting more.

It'd be easy to pass Hyper Light Drifter as yet another nostalgia cash-in, but I think it's quite a bit more than that. I have no great love for older games. I find them tedious and obnoxious and unrefined under the best circumstances. That may be a product of the fact that I grew up almost entirely within the age of 3D games, but it's tough to say.

Either way, Hyper Light Drifter ostensibly channels Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and manages a great deal more. It's challenging and admirable to build a game that can guide its players to its goals, but it’s a great deal more impressive when every inch of that journey drips with humanity. With its droning, ambient soundtrack and its eloquent visuals, it weaves something special. While not at all unique, Hyper Light Drifter Drifter is enriching, a welcome experience that distills play to its essentials and adds plenty to keep critical minds sated.

Verdict: Yes