This past weekend, I had the opportunity to pick up a game that has gained some fame as of late. Another inductee of the Kickstarter funding method, Hyper Light Drifter is an indie title that promises a nostalgic experience that hearkens to the golden days of hardcore, old school gaming, while offering tight controls and intense, satisfying combat. Tempted by the game’s colorful screen shots and the staggering volume of recommendations on Steam, I decided I simply had to experience what so many others were giving perfect 10/10 scores.
First things first: if HLD does anything right, it’s look good. I mean damn good. The colors are vibrant, the visuals are all stunning in scale and design, and the style of the environments and characters is unique and mesmerizing. On top of that, the animations of the setting and sprites are executed exceedingly well — especially those of the title’s main character. Multiple times throughout my playthrough, I had to stop what I was doing and just stare at the screen, trying to take in the scenery. The game claims to pay homage to retro gaming, but I don’t remember any game from the 90’s looking as great as this.
And it’s easy to see why so much attention was given to how the game looks once you play it: every other aspect of the game is built around it. The gameplay is fast and brutal, but it never feels unfair, as the enemies and environments telegraph their threats clearly and with style. The plot is similarly integrated with the visuals — in Hyper Light Drifter, not a single spoken line of dialogue is presented. Instead, the game gives you elegant cutscenes and rare conversations with npcs who present their stories with only a couple images. This style of storytelling is surprisingly powerful, and the ruins and ancient mysteries that have melded with the environment are the only other clues the player gets pertaining to the history of the game’s world.
Essentially, everything revolves around exploration and combat. You will spend most of your time running around the game world in search if a series of diamond-shaped devices. Upon finding and activating them, you will unlock additional areas and bosses, encountering secret rooms and hidden treasures as you do so. While searching for these, you will have to navigate treacherous environments littered with traps, and use the character’s dash/teleport move to cross dangerous ledges and precariously narrow platforms. I found the environment to be almost as threatening as the enemies themselves, with the potential to make you restart an area with just one ill-timed movement. The combat is fast paced and deadly — a skilled player can dispatch enemies quickly and ruthlessly, and likewise, it only takes a few seconds to go from full health to watching the drifter collapse in a pool of his own blood. Timing is important, as an open swing or a dodge too soon or too late will leave you vulnerable to heavy damage. Concentration and reflexes are a must, as well as a balance between defense and offense. Too eager, and you’ll find yourself taking too much damage too quickly. Conversely, you can’t hesitate to be aggressive when an opening presents itself, or you risk becoming overwhelmed as enemies close in. The way the combat feels should receive great praise — controls are responsive, and landing hits on enemies or pulling off a successful dodge is incredibly satisfying.
The enemies themselves all vary widely: some will try to overwhelm you in numbers, while others are large, hulking monsters who can absorb multiple hits, and some will be swift and will evade and attack nimbly . Some use guns, some use melee, and some will shoot you with rocket launchers or cast devastating techno-magicks. Often, enemies will take advantage of the environment and will be placed in creative ways specifically to give you hell. Its not uncommon to have to retry areas three or four times, learning the enemies’ patterns and attempting a different approach to a troublesome area. And I haven’t even discussed the bosses yet. So yes, you will die in this game. A bunch.
Despite the game’s difficulty, it’s hard to get frustrated at it. Enemies are vividly animated and if you pay attention, you can tell when they are about to attack, and which attack they’re going to use. Death is frequent, but fair, and each attempt goes more smoothly than the last. Checkpoints are frequent as well, so punishment for death feels less like soul-crushing failure (I’m looking at you, Dark Souls) and more like practice for getting better at the game. All that is required to progress is a little determination and opposable thumbs, and some experimentation with different approaches and techniques doesn’t hurt either.
In between treks in the deadly wilderness, players can make use of a handy quick-travel feature to return to a central hub, where a small community of survivors can be found. You can use rare golden chips you acquire in your travels to trade for upgrades and special moves, or explore the area and interact with the local denizens. The area provides a sense of safety and civilization to a game that is otherwise lonely and bleak, and I enjoyed interacting with the various npc’s and goofing around with the side activities that can be unlocked here as the game progresses.
Something else worthy of mention is the sound design. The music is excellent, with subtle synth tunes providing ambiance for the particular moment, fading in and out of earshot. The soundtrack has great variety, from soft, enchanting melodies that echo the wonder of the ancient world, to dark, haunting tracks that inspire dread, foreshadowing the ancient evil that lives buried deep in the depths of the most sinister locales. The music makes you feel the right feelings at the right times — upbeat, anxious songs accompany the intimidating bosses, while somber tracks accompany your treks through corpse-ridden ruins. It’s not often that a game’s soundtrack makes you feel something, and I’m surprised to admit that’s exactly what this game’s music did.
Naturally, not everything about this game floored me, as it has it’s faults. In particular, I have to talk about how confusing exploration can be. While it’s all well and good to have an environment that branches off — and I would gladly prefer that to a linear, boring one — knowing where to go next can be a pain in the neck. There were more than a couple points in HLD where I spent long stretches of time running in circles and consulting the in-game map (which is mostly useless, I might add, although very pretty), and it was at these points that I considered putting the game down. Which, if you think about it, is pretty silly, considering I never felt this way during the boss battles, many of which required upwards of six or seven tries.
I also have some complaints about the story itself. While the visual storytelling shtick is pretty awesome, not to mention unique and well done, I feel it still wasn’t enough. I get that minimalist storytelling is popular in gaming right now, and that it adds an air of mystery and wonder, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that I had absolutely no clue why I was doing the things I was doing. The long forays into the forgotten wilderness and ruins, the struggles the player endures against debilitating traps and horrendous fiends, the pursuit of various diamond shaped machines and their activation — you’re never told what the drifter is actually trying to accomplish, or why it’s worth it. The game shows you the Drifter is suffering from a deadly illness, it foreshadows some ancient evil that was probably responsible for whatever the heck it is that left those giant piles of bones everywhere, it tells you the stories of the victims of the post-apocalypse world… but from game start to game end, you don’t know why you’re hunting diamond shapes and killing bad guys. This issue comes to a head at the plot’s conclusion, which wasn’t as satisfying as I thought it should be. I feel that is mostly due to not knowing to what it is the hero actually accomplished, or even knowing what it is he was working towards this entire time.
Some people are going to call me an idiot for complaining about the lack of a solid plot, and explain to me that half the fun is the speculation, and that I’m missing the whole point of having this kind of narrative. I’m just saying — if there is no clear motivation to progress in a game plot-wise, then it suffers from the lack thereof. The characters, the setting, they were so unique and full of character, and I kept wishing there was more, possibly some unlockable transcripts that fleshed out the world more. Aside from some cryptic sentences that some players managed to translate from some obscure secret rooms, there really isn’t anything to supplement the pictures and mysterious images presented to you. There was so much potential for building a rich story here and I feel like that potential was wasted.
Anyways, other than that, the game is solid. It was a bit short, having finished it in only a couple sittings, but it was the perfect length for the type of game it was designed to be, and I think things would have dragged on a bit if it were any longer. Those who want more after finishing the game can always opt for a new game plus, and discover the vast amount of secret areas and unlockables they missed on the first go. I definitely recommend this game to anybody who enjoys exploration based games with beautifully crafted worlds, or for fans of quick, challenging combat, or for whoever enjoys videogames at all, quite frankly. This one will stay in my memory as a beautiful, fascinating game.