The world is in danger. There is a foreign power that is killing people, spreading a strange illness. You can stop it.
This may be the premise of so many games, and yet it feels hauntingly new in Hyper Light Drifter. There is no dialogue, no explanation. It can feel purposefully obtuse and frustrating, and yet also hauntingly mysterious. What more do you really need to know for sure other than that there are some big monsters and threats in the world, and you need to fight them? Hyper Light Drifter provides just enough explanation for you to imagine the actual lore and story of what you’re playing.
If the game is fuzzy about the details of the story and lore, it more than makes up for it with the precision of the rest of the gameplay. There have been many comparisons to Zelda, and they certainly make sense – you fight with melee or ranged attacks, collect shards that combine to open new areas, solve puzzles and find secrets. There are minimal upgrades, which is what makes Hyper Light Drifter seem old-school in some ways but also incredibly modern and innovative. With such a solid delivery on core mechanics and gameplay experience, it’s best to allow Hyper Light Drifter to shine in its own light instead of in Zelda’s shadow.
The world is divided into four areas plus a central town. In the town, you can acquire certain upgrades to your sword, your dash, your guns or bombs and your healing item capacity. While these can make gameplay easier, they by no means make the game easy. Even with a fully upgraded sword, you will need to hit enemies the same number of times to kill them as prior to upgrades. Rather than leveling to make maps easier, players need to learn each enemy’s animations, figuring out when to attack and when to dodge/dash away. Death comes easily and often; even “easy” enemies can swarm and kill you. Plus, with a set health bar that you can’t upgrade, even late in the game it only takes a couple hits to be killed. By adding such an imminent threat of death, it makes progressing through each area of the game feel like a major success. Overcoming you fragility in the face of great danger makes you feel uniquely powerful in Hyper Light Drifter.
The game automatically saves when you enter a new area, but with some maps being quite large, dying can mean restarting an entire section. However, much like rogue-likes, instead of feeling discouraging or unfair, it becomes an incentive to try again, to be better. Bosses frequently took me numerous attempts as I learned their various mechanics, found my window of opportunity and learned to exploit weaknesses. It made each boss battle feel like an accomplishment, something I managed through player skill rather than easy upgrades.
Guns are recharged through melee interactions, either with the environment or other enemies. While you might be able to pick off a few enemies at long distance, it’s not sustainable without also getting into the thick of things and using your sword. This helps keep combat feeling difficult but fair, and ensures that rather than scrounging around the environment in the hopes of finding ammo, you can actually engage with the threats in order to shoot more.
There is so much to be found in each area. While you need four shards to raise the area’s pillar, opening up new sections and furthering progress towards the end boss, there are actually eight shards in each area, plus a ton of secrets. I tried to thoroughly explore each section, but every time I thought I was done I’d realize that there was more to find. Hidden paths revealed new keys, new upgrade points, new pathways. Each time I thought I was done, I’d get stuck trying to figure out yet another door, yet another pathway. At a certain point I decided to simply move forward, to carry on to the end of the game, but even as I watched the credits roll I knew I hadn’t actually experienced everything the game has to offer.
There is even more to Hyper Light Drifter than solid gameplay and level design. Despite sporting art familiar to the 16 or 32-bit era, the game looks and feels incredibly beautiful. Exploring ruined towns, being saved at a camp fire, or checking out the view of the city are all impressive. It seems to draw on the archetypes that our brains love to see, letting our minds fill in any gaps that 8-bit drawings leave.
One of my favorite parts of the game has to be the soundtrack. The music is similarly retro-esque, but finds the right balance between being unobtrusive and impactful. Boss battles felt unique and exhilarating, with the music helping me to find my groove in the major battles. And yet, it was only when I would die and hear the music stop and start that I would notice it. Each area had individual atmospheres, primarily created through the soundtrack, differentiating the experiences in the various parts of the world.
Hyper Light Drifter is ideal for a weekend of gaming. It can be completed in about seven hours, so it doesn’t require an insane time investment. However, with tons of secrets to be found and an intense and difficult New Game Plus option, there is plenty of replay value. Currently for sale through the PSN for R279, there is no question of the game’s value for money.
Last Updated: August 4, 2016