I’m one of those few thousand people who threw a few bucks at Hyper Light Drifter during its Kickstarter, as the project looked interesting, and I would surely check it out after release. Then, with a week’s notice, the game came out, and everybody proceeded to announce their adoration of it. While I would love to do the same, I genuinely cannot say I like Hyper Light Drifter. Yeah, after going through this game, trying to find everything without a guide, I never want to play it again.
Hyper Light Drifter Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux
Developer/Publisher: Heart Machine
Normally I begin these things with a general plot and concept summary, but I barely have a clue what Hyper Light Drifter is actually about. You play as a swordsman with a nifty cape who has some sort of premonition about his own death and an apocalypse before he is sent on a journey to recover sixteen triangles scattered around the outskirts of a small town in order to do… something. I think save the world or some such thing. There is no dialog, no exposition, and everything is explained to you using visuals, including occasional snapshots of characters’ lives.
What’s there does paint a desolate image of a cruel and unforgiving world, one filled with magic, mysticism, and splendor to some degree, but one I honestly didn’t care about. It clearly has a deeper story hidden inside it, one made from very subtle hints, its own alphabet, and plenty of inferences for the player to make. Yet it is so cryptic and vague that I simply lost interest in whatever story Hyper Light Drifter had to tell as time went on.
Thankfully, the core gameplay, that of a simplified overhead, character action game with an emphasis on mobility and exploration, is enough to hold a game on its own. You maneuver around enemies, foretell their simple attack patterns, get a few hits in, dash, and then possibly hit them from afar with a shoddily aimed gunshot, as you often lack the time for precision. As it stands, the gameplay is decently fun, and there is just enough diversity in your expandable movepool, gun variations, and enemy types to keep things interesting.
However, due to the minimalistic art pixel style, one with a very deliberate color palette, detailed animations, and no outlines separating the characters in the background, combined with the layout of certain areas, the game can get more than a little hectic, and with it, difficult. I don’t think the game is explicitly hard, at least aside from the few moving blocks and vanishing platform challenges, those can be obnoxious, but I probably died a couple hundred times within fifteen hours. Not due to my skill level– well, partially due to my skill level– but also due to the health system.
This is a very minor and petulant little complaint, but something I thought about every single instance when I was hit throughout the game. The health system incorporates holdable health packs that are used to restore your five pip health bar when in combat, and you can find these packs scattered throughout every room in this game, often hidden in a corner of a secret alcove. You are also trying to save up every health pack you receive for the boss at the end of an area, which you would need to backtrack to if you were to teleport away and tediously restock on health packs, as you need to physically find them at designated locations in the game world.
What I’m getting at is that you are discouraged from using health packs, and always want to maintain a full stock, which means intentionally dying in troublesome encounters only to try again, which isn’t very fun. If health packs were an automatic use thing hidden in the world, and your default health was twenty, then I would be fine with this, but it isn’t, and this is my second least favorite aspect of the game because of this.
Number one goes to the collecting element of the game, wherein the player is tasked to scour the world, search every nook and cranny, uncover invisible platforms, and pay attention to inconsistencies in the tileset to locate hidden rooms. There are few things I love more in games than searching for secrets, upgrades, and general cool collectibles in games. It’s why I adore the for lack of a better word, Metroidvania genre.
Unfortunately, the search for 32 gemstones, 16 stone tablets, 16 keys, and a total of 160 upgrade tokens was one of the most mind numbing and irritating compilation of eight hours I spent with a game. Why? Because of the cryptic nature of some of these secrets, the lack of online resources to help me locate said secrets at launch, and the lack of in-game help to uncover and locate these secrets.
You have a map that offers a decent idea of how the world is connected and where you can go in order to get from area A to B and later C, but it is minimal in regards to telling you where that last blasted upgrade token is. You are not told if there is a secret in a room ala Metroid or Zelda dungeons, and there is no way to track what specific collectible you received beyond the tablets. To sour this already bitter gumball, I struggled to recall the composition of the game’s world and connect areas in my mind. Locales bled together and even after trekking through an area five times, I often guessed its general area.
On one hand, these collectibles are largely optional, and those you need are listed on your map. That said, I am of the mindset that any game with a large number of goodies that you are rewarded for collecting should be judged on the merits of how enjoyable the trek to 100% completion is. If that somehow belittles the game, then that just means the game is poorly designed. In the case of Hyper Light Drifter, never was I so eager to beat a game so I could put it away and forget about its existence.
Oh, but I suppose the game is beautiful to look at, right? Yes, yes it is. The more minimalistic breed of sprite art featured here is very endearing with it swift motions, careful placement of every pixel, and a diverse enough tileset to make the world feel varied and vivid. All while maintaining a lovely color scheme rich with light blues, pinks, and dark purples. It is downright gorgeous at points, with certain moments and set pieces having me titter back in my chair with childish delight. All as the atmospheric and daunting synth heavy soundtrack enhances whatever tone the game wishes to create. In regards to presentation, there are few recent titles I would place above this beautiful little prince.
Maybe it’s due to my desire to hit a self imposed deadline or my stupid obsessive tendencies, but Hyper Light Drifter was a chore. A chore that began as a splendid and cool frantic little action game with oodles of mysteries and secrets, and one that most people view as such. After narrowly exploring the world, desperately hunting for collectibles I was unable to uncover the first time through an area, any desire to touch this game ever again dissipated. As stated before, I perpetually loathe uttering such a sentiment, as there are few things that bring me more joy than playing a well crafted video game heavy on action and exploration. I can see myself enjoying Hyper LIght Drifter in another reality, but in this one the best I can muster is cold indifference.