Review: Hyper Light Drifter (PC)

Hyper Light Drifter is a game many would describe in relationship to other franchises; a mash-up of old-school Legend of Zelda and Dark Souls first and foremost. While these descriptions would be apt, they only scratch the surface of what Heart Machine has developed here. True to the real beauty of independent games, Hyper Light Drifter builds on the legacies of video gaming while bringing about something new and refreshing.

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Hyper Light Drifter masterfully uses its 8-bit art style convey a beautiful and alien world.

The player is cast into an alien world – a world so far into its future that advanced society has collapsed, and technology and myth are effectively one and the same. Environments are colored in vibrant and bright hues of green, blue, purple, red, and hot pink. Decorating this beautiful landscape are countless ruins, the collection of millennia of history. Among these ruins are the skeletal remains of ancient giants the size of mountains – one is literally leaned against the side of the game’s tallest mountain. The result is a game world filled with beautifully bittersweet imagery and mystery.

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An NPC at the start of your adventure explains how he and a friend were protected by the mysterious hero you are following, all told only through beautiful pixel art.

Hyper Light Drifter digs in deep on that particular aspect of mystery – there is no verbal or written communication, except for a few tutorials at the outset. NPCs tell you their stories by showing you the images of their past, while more tangible material such as currency and item upgrades are measured in diagrams, not numbers. Ultimately, the game expects you to pick up on the patterns, and the design is intelligent enough to make it feel quite natural. The end result immerses you in the alien world; you feel as though you are communicating in way beyond human understanding.

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Your inventory and character sheet. Everything you need to know displayed only in symbols and diagrams.

For example, you will find gold chips scattered across the world, and each time one is picked up you see it added to a diagram that has four slots for such chips. Upon filling out all four slots, you receive a coin that matches the design of what is listed next to items in the shops located in the town that acts as the hub of your adventures. Quickly enough, you realize the progression system at play here; it is one that rewards deep exploration with items that can help you overcome the most dangerous foes of the game.

Such rewards will go a long way in helping you on your journey, but it is ultimately your skills and patience that will achieve victory in combat. The game approaches battles with the ‘fair but tough’ design mentality of Dark Souls games – although it tends to be much more forgiving. Enemies are incredibly diverse and most are unique to their respective zones. The variety ranges from weak cannon fodder creatures, to lightning-fast enemies that require you to learn their attack patterns so as to just survive. Some areas will hold only a handful of enemies so as to keep the action flowing, while others will function as ambushes throwing you into a gauntlet as a final challenge before reaching important areas.

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An early boss that offers an immense challenge that is fun if you are patient.

This is all capped off by the bosses, some of which are the toughest I have faced in a video game. The difficulty may offer frustration early on if you are impatient – again, much as Dark Souls would – but your patience is rewarded amply. The forgiving nature of the game allows you to easily take a step back at any time to recalculate your approach; checkpoints occur often so you will not lose a lot of progress. As well, you lose no currency or items on death and you can teleport back home at any point in the game. Should you come across a particularly difficult section in the game, remember that it rewards exploration and take some time to explore other areas. This will allow you to unlock new items and to practice your skills. Each boss will test you with only one path to victory: the patience to wait and watch, and to learn their patterns. In the end, you will be rewarded with important items, currency, and beautiful narrative scenes.

The player’s character is armed with an energy sword as their primary weapon, and it is a joy to use. It flows with grace and deliberate force, surprising you with the quality of animation being presented in what is effectively NES-era graphics design. The melee combat is supported by secondary ranged weapons such as laser pistols and rifles that charge up as you slash at objects and enemies with the sword. This interdependence of the weaponry allows you to dance both naturally and strategically between melee and ranged combat. This is made possible by the dash system which acts both as a dodge mechanic and a jump maneuver for navigating environments. With the press of a button you propel yourself to the speed of light (hence the name of the game), allowing you to dodge and flank enemies, or to leap over the gaps that define the strange, alien topography of the world.

As mentioned, rewards for exploration and defeating bosses are quite notable and helpful. Your laser pistol can be replaced with hyper-futuristic equivalents of shotguns and snipers, while your sword strikes can be buffed with power and dash attacks. Finding treasure adds to the sense of adventure, without overwhelming you with items to the point where it just feels like “loot”. Instead, each item is both a meaningful reward and an important addition to your toolkit for future challenges.

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Your map to the game’s world.

This world of challenge and exploration is littered with nooks and crannies to uncover: the aforementioned treasures as well as secret dungeons and the glowing keys scattered across the world needed to unlock new areas and advance the story. That story begins with a seeming nightmare – or a memory – of the world’s past, which faced a strange apocalyptic event centered on the keys you are collecting and the giants whose bones now define the landscape. Throughout this world, you will meet characters that tell you their tales through beautifully created pixel art that shows rather grim events – war, genocide, and the ominous presence of the game’s bosses. Through such imagery, the game pushes you forward to uncover more of the history of the world.

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Mysterious ruins cover the landscape; some of which you must interact with to progress in your journey.

All of this is presented in a beautifully crafted combination of 8-bit art and music inspired by that same era. While these are the foundations of the game’s style, they are not the technical limits of the presentation; the game noticeably employs animation quality and sound design that would not be often seen in an actual NES game. The end result is a striking sensory experience that captures the tone of the game’s mysterious and alien themes.

Hyper Light Drifter hits so many of the right notes that it is hard to criticize it. A handful of early glitches that seem to have been already fixed will largely go unnoticed by most players by now. The worst I saw was a glitch that had me dying repeatedly at a checkpoint. That would have been worth a negative mark if it wasn’t so easily fixed by simply reloading from the main menu to that exact same checkpoint. Ultimately, any shortfalls present are ones made by mistake and even those are minor and are already fixed or being fixed.

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One of the many stunning scenes you will come across. Yes, you can reach the top of that mountain and get a closer look at the giant.

This is a game that will test and reward your patience with combat that is as deep as it is fast, and will break your heart with the beauty and mystery of its ancient, dying world. All of this is lovingly put together in a package that is held together by a striking presentation that is hard to forget.

Rating: 5 out of 5

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