Hyper Light Drifter Review
Stumbling through the blizzard after a particularly violent battle, our hero limps to the bottom of a set of crumbling steps. He sits, rests a moment, a trail of blood dotting the snow behind him. He pulls his cloak around his face, sword tucked out of sight. A deer darts across his field of vision and stops, for the briefest of seconds they lock eyes; what are we doing here? Where are we going? The deer disappears into the storm as our hero gathers himself and trudges forward, slowly up the steps, sword at the ready, on to the next fight.
Playing Hyper Light Drifter reminded me repeatedly of Zatoichi, the wandering drifter travelling a lonely road for reasons not entirely clear. He silently moves from fight to fight, protecting the innocent, drawing danger and evil his way. Zatoichi throws his enemies off balance by disguising his true nature, his sword and his skills hidden out of sight, there’s no reason to suspect this shambling figure could, at any moment, release a devastating tide of death. Hyper Light Drifter achieves the same deception.
Heart Machine’s action RPG is a breathtakingly beautiful alien world where enormous sun-kissed water temples, deserts, snowy mountain paths and lush jungle are intertwined with mechanical remains. There are echoes of Studio Ghibli, most notably Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind here, nature and machine are mashed and mangled together in this post-apocalyptic setting. Some terrible event has left the most of the inhabitants of this world dead and those who remain are haunted by the terrible things that have happened to them. As you pass silently through their camps they mutely inform you, through comic book cells, of the violence they have survived at the hands of an unknown enemy. Nothing here is as it seems, and Hyper Light Drifter catches you off guard, presenting to you its beautiful, melancholy world before shocking you with its brutal, all-encompassing combat.
There are other indie games that possess the immediate, surface-layer beauty of Hyper Light Drifter, others that play out to soundtracks as impressive as what Disasterpiece has created here, but very few back up their style with gameplay as satisfying and deep as what’s on offer in Heart Machine’s homage to the 8 and 16 bit era.
Early combat can seem overwhelming and enemies come in many clever and dangerous types, from shuriken chucking frogs and laser firing robots to gun-toting ninjas, snipers and sword-wielding warriors who can match your every move. Boss battles, especially the first one should you choose to head north from the game’s central village starting point, can at first seem like impossible affairs. But Hyper Light Drifter manages to achieve what all great action games do: it provides the player with the abilities required to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, as long as the player is committed to the perfection of their skillset. There is no button-mashing here, you are forced by way of great enemy design and a smart, perfectly balanced, upgrade system to master every skill at your disposal, slowly morphing from shambling beginner to stylish samurai master.
To begin with combat revolves around a basic dodge, sword slash and weak pistol attack. Connecting a hit with your sword recharges your pistol ammo and it’s from here that the combat cleverly develops, always pushing the player to think, to know the enemy.
Over time you’ll unlock the ability to string dashes together, absorbing enemy fire and turning it into ammunition for your growing armory of guns. Your sword will become capable of charge attacks as well as knocking enemy fire stylishly back at its source, and your dash will develop a shield which absorbs attacks and turns them into further ammo, encouraging you to zip around the battlefield, picking your way through the chaos. Defensive play is viable, you’ll often need to pick enemies off from range, but you’ll always need to go on the offensive in order to recharge your guns, creating a beautiful flow to the combat. You can only ever stand off for a limited amount of time, you are forced by design to engage the enemy head on in situations where you might normally creep around and deal with things at long-range.
Every arena becomes a puzzle: which enemies do you need to take out first? It’s addictive stuff which only gets better as the game progresses. Indeed the final area of the game, located in the south and unlockable only when the North, East and West bosses have been defeated, is easily the best part of the game, a tightly constructed gauntlet of tough enemies, mini-bosses and platform puzzling, topped off with an epic boss battle, a true test of everything you have learned on your solemn journey.
Story-wise, the tale is very much left open to interpretation; it provides a blurred and nightmarish backdrop to proceedings. Some terrible demonic force has descended upon the planet unleashing evil across the landscape through a central portal, which must be shut down by travelling to the four corners of the land, deactivating nodes, interacting with strange monoliths and destroying the lords of each direction on your compass, gradually releasing evil’s poisonous grip. There is no doubt that the narrative element of Hyper Light Drifter is its weakest point; what is the strange illness with which your character is inflicted? Have you and your world been poisoned, are you immune somehow? Who is that strange dog you seem to be following? But it also suits the otherworldly nature of this game that nothing is explained with any real certainty, that you are left with as many questions as answers.
It’s rare that you’ll come across a game which so readily leaves the player to figure out every facet of its systems, that refuses to handhold and assumes a knowledge of its genre. In the beginning you’ll be baffled by its map, its objectives, even its system of currency and upgrading, everything is presented in an almost alien fashion. There is a difficulty barrier that some players will be unwilling to work past, you will die repeatedly as you perfect your skills and learn to read your enemies, you will be confused and lost in the strange and otherworldly landscape and you will be stopped in your tracks by the boss fights. However, if you’re willing to persevere, you’ll find in Hyper Light Drifter, one of the most perfectly balanced, stylish and intriguing action RPGs of recent times.
Review originally published on 8th April, 2016.
A beautiful, haunting world set to a fantastic soundtrack.
Tough yet rewarding combat.
Steadily improves, leaving you ready for new game plus.
You will die a lot
Story is vague and doesn't end satisfyingly.