Hyper Light Drifter Review0 Comments
Reviewed on: PC
Also available on: Mac OS X (Linux, PlayStation 4,
PlayStation Vita and Xbox One versions coming)
Developer: Heart Machine
Publisher: Heart Machine
You don't see an indie game like Hyper Light Drifter very often, or at least, you see very few that do so well in accomplishing what they set out to achieve. Lots of indie games list influences and inspirations from titles that came before them, but very few actually nail what makes their influences tick quite like this game does — at least in terms of gameplay mechanics and style. However, in terms of presentation, Hyper Light Drifter is a thing of odd half-measures. It's beautiful to look at and listen to, but it's unnecessarily cryptic and obtuse in terms of narrative or direction. It's a fantastic game, but it's a frustrating one at times, and it's certainly not for everyone.
If I had to tell you what it's like, I'd say it had most in common with Zelda games. Now, some may say that this game is trying to emulate A Link To The Past, but I would disagree with that assessment. If anything, this game is most like the original NES Legend of Zelda, because both games drop the player directly into the unknown and expect them to just "figure it out" with very minimal exposition or explanation provided. It's not a game that holds your hand, and as much as I respect that design choice in terms of how it sells the atmosphere and shapes the combat system, I think that the game loses a lot of potential impact because of that. Becoming lost in a game's world shouldn't require actually being or feeling lost, and that's something that A Link To The Past improved on from its last top-down predecessor.
Hyper Light Drifter tends to lean on the "die until you get it right" school of thought, and while I love that holdover from the late 80s / early 90s gameplay theory playbook, it doesn't lend itself to giving players a foundation from which to build their skillset. Thus, the game about an alien on an alien planet becomes wholly alienating as a result, and it takes a lot of time and effort to surmount that. Prepare to die a lot while you figure out how each section is handled. Beyond that, it expects players to search every nook and cranny for every little thing they can possibly get their hands on, all in order to unlock new areas, upgrade weapons, etc. That isn't bad, and I loved doing that, but it's a part of the game that will elude some players and utterly frustrate others.
The combat system is tuned to a science, and is by far the best part of the game. You must learn to attack deliberately, as spamming anything — sword swings, gunshots, dashes, etc. — will net you and quick and violent death. Different types of enemies have a distinct set of patterns they rely on, so they're easy to beat once you know how a specific type ticks. Bosses are also challenging without feeling impossible...unless it's the last boss, which will test your sanity for a good bit until you learn his particular bag of tricks.
The visuals are lovingly brought to life via a well-animated pixel aesthetic, and the end result is a joy to look at. Its charm bleeds from every single area of the game, and packs the world with so much surface personality that you feel compelled to explore it all. The soundtrack is stellar as well, and is courtesy of Richard "Disasterpeace" Vreeland. I think the music deserves special mention due to it being a major driving factor in the player's feeling of loneliness, which is a distinct theme of this game. The only time the score goes into high-octane mode is when it's boss battle time, otherwise the soundtrack is as minimalist in execution as the game's plot is. That's not a bad thing, though. The music is beautiful and fits the tone of each passing screen so well that you forget you're listening to a soundtrack, which is pretty high praise, because the music just becomes an integral piece of the organism. It's pitch-perfect.
The game's story is fractured at best, told in small glimpses and never elaborated on with context. Without spoiling anything about the game itself, I felt like the plot was just slapped together and left for the audience to figure out for themselves, and there's not enough of it to really invest yourself into in the first place. There's a lot to be said for not spoonfeeding an audience everything they need to know — I am a Yoshiyuki Tomino fan, after all — but Hyper Light Drifter hits the opposite side of the spectrum entirely and negelcts to hand you anything at all. You're just expected to do, and I think a game with this much time and money afforded to it should have had more attention paid to the driving motivations of the main character — ergo, becoming the player's own motivations.
Hyper Light Drifter is a beautiful game, unapologetically adherent to the gameplay principles and mechanics it relies on, and is a worthy homage to the legendary franchises it emulates so well. That said, it is not a perfect game in any way, and it does not quite succeed at being the total package that all of its spiritual predecessors are famous for being. It is well worth your time to play, but it favors a certain type of methodical, exploratory player, so I cannot universally recommend it to everyone in good faith. If you're into Zelda games, the Souls series or really liked Fez, I can see this being a must-play. If you didn't say yes to any two of those previously-stated criteria, then it's in your best interest to research this game before you buy it. If you said no to all three, then steer clear, because this game is simply not for you.
Scoring this is tricky, because as much as I loved the game and as much as it got right in the gameplay department, I cannot recommend it to absolutely everyone like I can most of the games it seeks to call peers. It certainly looks like it has mass appeal, but the lack of coherent narrative and missing its relevance to progressing through the game is a giant strike against it achieving that appeal. Therefore, I can't rate it as highly as I would like to, because the game is somewhat short, very sweet but incredibly difficult to truly understand. As I said before, Hyper Light Drifter is geared towards a very specific kind of player, with all of the good and bad aspects that this entails.
That said, the ride was totally worth it, and the good most definitely outweighs the bad. I hope they add more to it in the future. This is a bright start for Heart Machine, and one they should be very, very proud of.
The review copy of this title was a digital code provided by the publisher.
An incredible, pulse-pounding, nigh-indecipherable adventure.