Game Review: Hyper Light Drifter
Nick Smit takes on Hyper Light Drifter and lives to tell the tale.
Hyper Light Drifter is a challenging Action-RPG that features a breathtaking visual aesthetic, satisfying gameplay, heavy themes, and an impressive capacity for visual storytelling.
You play as the titular character who, from what might be inferred from the opening section, has travelled to a land built upon the ruins of a long-forgotten high-tech civilisation in the hopes of eradicating a virus that they carry. I say ‘inferred’ because the story of Hyper Light Drifter is told without a single spoken word, with the only in-game text being used to teach the game’s mechanics. For this reason the narrative of Hyper Light Drifter is highly interpretative, aided in no small part by perhaps the most complex implementation of pixel graphics I’ve seen, which manages to be deceptive, disorienting, beautiful, and unnerving all at the same time.
Mixing smooth algorithmic lighting with the discrete nature of pixel graphics allows Hyper Light Drifter to create some stunning imagery, with a particular thematic focus on purple that pulls a Jessica Jones and basically ruins the colour for a while. The information gleaned from the varied environments and ‘speaking’ to other characters by sharing pictures deftly explores sobering concepts like mortality, extinction, genocide, and cultism in a way that is uniquely facilitated by your own interpretations. The fact that a little work is required to discern the exact objects on screen brings about several shocking moments as you piece together the scene in front of you. A bright and colourful locale will often, upon closer inspection, reveal a gruesome detail or implied event that maintains a consistent feeling of unease quite befitting of the main character’s condition.
It’s exceedingly rare to play as a character with a chronic disease, let alone a seemingly terminal one. Prone to coughing blood an hallucinations, playing through the Drifter’s symptoms injects a distinct kind of hopelessness into the player’s experience. Despite speed, skill and lethality, the Drifter’s disease has made them ultimately frail. This is strongly reflected in the gameplay, which is focused on dodging enemy attacks via a dash mechanic and making opportunistic strikes when the risk of being hit is low. Combat feels like a high-speed version of one of the top-down Legend of Zelda games, but with the high stakes and prevalent use of projectile weapons synonymous with bullet-hell titles. The Drifter can take very little damage and is commonly taken right off their feet when hit, driving home the fragile nature of the character and establishing a notably challenging playing experience.
This is where my only real gripe with the game is, as the high frequency of death combined with a considerably long respawn animation can quickly lead to frustration. The fact that the animation is beautiful doesn’t detract from that fact that it’s been most of what I’ve been looking at for this 40-minute attempt at a boss battle. With that said, enemies and bosses are far from unfair, sporting only a few attacks each that once learned can be avoided and countered. Learning what to do in a boss fight is usually not far from beating them. To aid you in this, Hyper Light Drifter uses limited RPG elements to open the door for new tactics. While it is possible to complete the game without upgrading your equipment and skills, adding abilities like reflecting projectiles by striking them or absorbing them while dashing to your repertoire will make some encounters much more manageable.
Overall, Hyper Light Drifter is defined by this elegance. From a combat system that is easy to understand but with the potential for considerable skill in execution, to visual story-telling techniques that can be taken at face value or analysed for deeper meaning, Hyper Light Drifter offers a deeply enriching experience for anyone willing to take up its challenge.
Images: Screenshots from Hyper Light Drifter by Heart Machine.