Hyper Light Drifter Review – Sword of the Stranger
This is no place for a hero but Hyper Light Drifter is an action adventure throwback that shouldn’t be missed.
Analogies can be disconcerting. That’s even if it’s something as obvious as Heart Machine’s Hyper Light Drifter being an analogy to the creator’s health problems. As the analogy thickens and Hyper Light Drifter is laid bare, you begin to question things. Where’s the analogy in the difficulty that spikes intermittently? Where’s the analogy in this bleak world ruled by obscurities that wouldn’t be out of place in End of Evangelion? What analogy exists in an homage to The Legend of Zelda era of 8/16-bit action adventure titles? There are many comparisons one could make to Preston’s health and the resulting Hyper Light Drifter but it’s amazing how much more the game has to say. Yes, even when it’s telling you nothing at all and beating you to death with supreme numbers.
"Enough can’t be said about Hyper Light Drifter‘s world building and exploration aspects. Whichever direction you choose – north, south, east or west – you’ll come across a “dungeon” that’s unique and gorgeously designed."
Hyper Light Drifter stars the Drifter, a lone wolf with a small robotic companion and a mysterious illness. The Drifter’s journeys bring him to a civilization of sorts and often do delusions of shadowy, ink-black creatures and hulking demonic robots haunt him. After an incursion into the ruins of this strange place, the Drifter awakens in a ruined city, having been rescued by a similarly sword-touting warrior. He’s now seeking a way to cure himself, though it’s unsure whether he knows why he’s so driven by the desire for that shiny four-sided bauble in his dreams. Call it instinct – what else is he going to do?
The Drifter is armed with a sword and the ability to quickly warp a short distance to avoid enemy attacks and traverse across large gaps. You eventually discover projectile weapons like your standard blaster and shotgun that refill energy as you slice things. It’s a pretty good motivator to wreck your environment, besides looking for secrets and health packs. You can upgrade the Drifter’s sword and war to use different skills like deflecting bullets back at enemies, slicing through three at once, projecting a barrier as you warp and much more. Upgrades don’t come cheap though – one has to discover the right amount of modules by exploring the world.
Enough can’t be said about Hyper Light Drifter‘s world building and exploration aspects. Whichever direction you choose – north, south, east or west – you’ll come across a “dungeon” that’s unique and gorgeously designed. On traversing west, I came across a race that had been enslaved when its citizens weren’t brutally murdered. A derelict robot told me the Drifter’s dreams weren’t just dreams. The crumbling structures and Eden-like utopia of the atmosphere contradicted the bloodshed and destruction that had played out.
"With these nit-picks aside, the combat is incredibly rewarding and equally pulse-pounding when you master it. The Drifter even stabs his sword into the ground to strike a pose when you’ve survived a particularly tough battle."
Each “dungeon” houses a different totem of sorts that has to be activated. These are signaled on your map and left as markers in the home town. As you collect smaller shards to enter the boss’s quarters, you’ll face a variety of enemies. Combat is no cake walk – it takes a few minutes to get your bearings on the Drifter’s abilities from the outset. In no time at all you’re bombarded with a variety of different creatures that have to be defeated to open the way forward. There’s the oversized mutant plant that rushes at you; annoying little plants that explode as they die; henchmen with guns; shuriken-throwing ninjas…and that’s just the first area. These encounters have to be cleared in order to open the way forward in classic Zelda-like fashion.
And honestly, they’re going to frustrate you, especially with the sheer number of foes thrown on-screen. At times you won’t have the right amount of health kits and thus respawn at an earlier point in the stage with no way to stock up (aside from traveling to any of the warp pads in the dungeon and starting over). The sheer number of patterns to keep track of, combined with that irritating delay when healing, makes Hyper Light Drifter‘s combat very rough in the early-going. Even as you earn more abilities and get better at using your guns for thinning the herd, you’ll still find instances that make the surreal atmosphere and beautiful exploration seem like a distant memory.
It’s also worth noting some of the odd bugs that can result from dying in the middle of a locked encounter and then respawning – in one instance, this actually put me outside of the door, making it impossible to complete the battle without leaving the subsection and returning. In one instance, an enemy seemingly glitched behind a barrier and couldn’t be killed, again prompting a return to the nearest warp pad. With these nit-picks aside, the combat is incredibly rewarding and equally pulse-pounding when you master it. The Drifter even stabs his sword into the ground to strike a pose when you’ve survived a particularly tough battle.
"Of the many worlds I’ve seen, Hyper Light Drifter achieves the difficult feat of staying with me even when I want to forget its many hellacious encounters."
Some may also take issue with Hyper Light Drifter‘s story-telling and it’s understandable. Think of a game like Dark Souls which gives you very little indication of what’s going on and where to go. Whether it’s the design of the game or the natural flow of the worlds, players eventually find a way. Due to Hyper Light Drifter‘s open nature, you can travel pretty much anywhere without knowing what you need or when you need it. I’d often come across sections that seemed impossible to complete with my abilities and trusted that I’d return once an upgrade was unlocked. The story itself is wordless, prompting you to be observant and piece it all together. It’s brilliant in a way but may come off as unnecessarily ambiguous at times. I’m motivated to go places, seek new challenges and explore this beautiful world as much as the next Zelda enthusiast but that sense of purpose could be added to with a more heavy-handed narrative at times.
Nonetheless, even with frustrating combat and odd design choices, Hyper Light Drifter may just be one of my favourite games this year. Decidedly Zelda-esque with its core exploration but brutally Dark Souls-like in its combat, Hyper Light Drifter mixes a dab of each gameplay style while offering its own unique brand of traversal, puzzle solving and story-telling. And that’s not even taking into account the beautiful art-style and soundtrack, the latter seemingly pulsating in your subconscious at all times.
Of the many worlds I’ve seen, Hyper Light Drifter achieves the difficult feat of staying with me even when I want to forget its many hellacious encounters. It may not be a game you revisit often like A Link to the Past but Hyper Light Drifter is an inspiring experience, warts and all, that enthusiasts of that era simply can’t miss.
This game was reviewed on the PC.
Throwback to 8/16-bit era visuals is utterly beautiful thanks to the art direction and soundtrack. Combat can be rewarding and fresh with every difficult encounter. Freedom of choice to go where you want with well designed dungeons.
Ambiguous nature of the story and generally information-less plot can seep into the game's lack of helpfulness. At times, combat can spike in difficulty and become frustrating. No real indication of where to go (and how to get there). Odd design decisions in some cases.
A mysterious obtuse premise and frustrating-at-times combat both hinder and bolster the appeal of Hyper Light Drifter. It's not the successor of Zelda but it's still an incredibly well-designed, beautiful action adventure title.
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