What started as a highly successful Kickstarter on September 12 of 2013, meeting its modest $27,000 goal and going on to raise $645,158 before the end of the campaign, Hyper Light Drifter is finally out on PC, with Xbox One and PS4 ports on their way. It’s an isometric pixel art game that is compared by its lead designer to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and also evokes elements of the Dark Souls franchise.
The game’s opening cutscene depicts some sort of apocalyptic event where we find our character, the Drifter, standing in a pool of blood, surrounded by countless bodies. They cough blood that turns black upon hitting the ground and quickly congeals into something sinister. The Drifter takes off and soon finds himself on a cliff in the presence of massive, mechanical beings. We then experience a surreal moment of the Drifter standing at a monumental doorway, and upon passing through, we are greeted with a vision of glowing gem. As he reaches out, the black shapeshifting creature from before takes hold. The Drifter wakes up, and this is where we start the game.
That entire scene, along with the rest of the game, features no dialogue. This makes for an engaging experience, as every bit of the story is either conveyed through the actions of the silent protagonist, stories from other characters told through a series of images, or the environment. Exploration is hugely beneficial to understanding the game. While there are secrets and collectables that make up the criteria for a 100% run, none of it ever feels like that. You can get money for upgrades wandering down a path that you know isn’t the way to the next event, a dead end with a sprawling backdrop of fallen mechanical giants, or a switch that opens another path somewhere on the map. Another element that makes the game so engaging is the soundtrack, written and recorded by Disasterpeace, who some might know from the Fez soundtrack and others from the indie horror hit It Follows. If you’ve heard either of these soundtracks, then you can expect a certain retro electronic soundscape. His style works well for the game, and the songs are impeccable.
The gameplay is simple: swing your sword, shoot your gun, dash. It seems easy enough, but don’t be deceived, as the game makes it easy to learn but difficult to master. Every enemy you encounter will only have one or two clearly-telegraphed attacks, but they are quick. That means you have to stay observant and alert in combat. While going through the game, you’ll get money to spend on upgrades or finding new guns, but none are clear upgrades. Instead, they are utility-based, and there are no straight damage ups or health upgrades. Unlocking the ability to deflect enemy bullets with your sword is great, but doing so leaves you stationary and open to other attacks from any direction. Unlocking more ammo for guns will make it easier to pick off enemies from afar, but you’ll eventually have to jump into the fray and slice away at foes to regenerate more ammo. It's very satisfying to make progress in the game because you never feel as if your character’s weapons or power level have made it easier - you just get better at playing, which is something I feel a lot of modern games now don’t do in order to show everything the game has to offer to players of lesser skill. While some may call it exclusionary, I believe differently. If you enjoy the game, then you do your best to improve because you want to see the end.
While these are reasons I praise this game, they are also its flaws. The fact that the game doesn’t tell you anything, even where to go, can be frustrating at times. Choosing the wrong path when you stand in the center of town, which acts like a hub world, can artificially create a significant difficulty spike, something I experienced myself. Making little progress over a long period of time, I teleported back to the hub world, selected the other path, and reached its end in no time and with very few avoidable deaths. There are also secrets switches throughout the game that open new paths. While every switch has some sort of identifier that matches its corresponding roadblock, there are a lot of them, and I find myself having a hard time remembering identifiers. This leaves you running blind through random areas hoping to come across a newly-opened secret path. Lastly, while the game runs at a solid 30fps on any machine, the game is also locked at 30fps. As you progress, you start realizing some deaths many not entirely be your fault since he combat relies on precision and a locked frame rate impacts reaction time. It can exaggerate input lag, making the game unfairly difficult at times.
These flaws are worth considering since they can turn people off to the game. I don’t blame them, but if you can look past these flaws or find a way to deal with them, this is an adventure game worth checking out.
- Alex B.