I love Hyper Light Drifter. I hate it, too.
Within the span of a few minutes, I’ll internally praise the game for its “decision” to never hold my hand, and then I’ll curse the game for being too hard. I’ll love the way Heart Machine decided to offer up a UI devoid of language, and then I’ll get frustrated that I don’t know exactly how a given system works.
As I step back from the game in between sessions, though, I find myself sweeping the negatives under the rug in favor of the positives. I’m cranky about the lack of tutelage in the moment, but I’m happy for the difficulty once I’ve cleared a challenge or walked away.
Hyper Light Drifter is like that: its joy comes in ripples; the highs are discovery and overcoming challenge, while the lows are being completely lost and dying 30 times at the hand of the same boss.
It was worth the wait.
Precise gameplay meets harsh difficulty.
Hyper Light Drifter is a mostly top-down action-adventure title. With a map and perspective that can easily be compared to what we find in the classic The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, players move from screen-to-screen, both above ground and below, as they fight enemies and gather bits of triangles around the world.
Exploration is hazardous. Both in the literal sense that sometimes moving from point A to B can be difficult, and in the sense that the game is rife with tough baddies.
In one-on-one combat, basic enemies don’t present much of a challenge. Your dash serves as a dodge, your sword slash is effective, your gun precise and your grenade powerful. Up the ante in crowded rooms filled with disappearing floors and waves of enemies, and Hyper Light Drifter really shows its true self. As you dash your way around bird wizards while trying to slice back rabid, dog-like beasts, you’ll die a few times. Then Hyper Light Drifter will toss out more baddies alongside these low-ranking losers, and the game ramps up.
The difficulty can be unforgiving. Frustrating, at times. The death and respawn animation is the same every time, and it can’t be skipped. This is bogus when you’ve fallen in the same space again and again and again and again.
You can double that frustration for bosses, too. However, and the bosses are a great example of this, I was never frustrated with the difficulty of Hyper Light Drifter‘s combat specifically. Its area design and animations, sure, but its combat never had me cranky. It felt like I was getting beat by the game and its clear rules, not by broken design.
As the same massive bird boss killed me dozens of times, I never once thought the segment was too hard or the design of the battle was poor. I thought I needed to grab a better mastery of the dodge, make use of the enemy’s openings and win victory by making my slashes and shots count for something.
Few games illicit a literal fist pump from me at regular intervals. Hyper Light Drifter did. After boss fights, tough combat sections and area discovery, I was pumping my fist.
Speaking without words.
Hyper Light Drifter is a gorgeous game. Its story is told in pictures without text. Whether that’s through the world building done by the background and foreground art of each individual scene (like the giant clawing to the mountain in the background of the image above) or in actual cutscenes, this game never literally speaks in either text or voice.
On some levels, it works. The ninja frogs hate the rabbit people, so they slaughter them. Why? I have no idea. How does that fit into the grand scheme of things? Not sure. Why is my Drifter dying? No clue. The set pieces make sense. There were giants, the world is dying. The plot points, though, don’t
That aversion to real language spreads to the UI and discussion with NPCs, too. Things as simple as currency and upgrade systems that can be explained away with text are left to visual cues and diagrams. Here’s a shot of a menu in one such upgrading spot for my gun that I took early on. It’s pretty, sure, but does it mean anything to you?
Hyper Light Drifter will teach you its menus, map and systems only through discovery and trial and error. It’s the opposite of modern gaming conventions in that regard.
While I applaud the notion to drop text in favor of visual cues, learning the ropes does take a little too long for my taste. Figuring out currency, upgrades and the progression system is a guessing game for a while. I recognize that Heart Machine was up against it when they decided to drop text-based instruction, and the balance they did wind up striking is fine enough. It could be better, though.
Figuring out what do to next or how to proceed is a point of contention for Hyper Light Drifter. Not everyone will welcome this game’s method of instruction, or lack thereof. For me, when I was finished, I wound up liking it. There were times during play, however, that my foul language would suggest otherwise.
Even when I felt like giving up, I knew I was enjoying my time with Hyper Light Drifter.
This is a strange video game. Hyper Light Drifter feels like The Legend of Zelda, Dark Souls, Fez and Ninja Gaiden all wrapped up in a delicious, colorful ball of exceedingly challenging candy.
It’s hard. It’s fun. It made me scream in frustration and jump for joy. Hyper Light Drifter is both maddening and delectable. Its story teeters between jaw dropping and nonsensical, and it presents a wealth of interesting and underdeveloped characters. Why do I have a robot? Because he looks cool.
Hyper Light Drifter has its fair share of design issues, but it so perfectly nails that sense of discovery and reward after challenge that they’re all forgivable. You’ll get lost in sittings, thanks to the look, the feel and the music.
You will get lost. You will die a lot. You will get mad at the respawn animation. You will feel like you’ve done things in the wrong order. You will love the music. You will be terrified by the giants and their past.
You will fist bump when you beat that stupid bird man boss.
Disclaimer: We received a code to play Hyper Light Drifter on the PC.