Hyper Light Drifter Review (PC)
If you combined the hack-slash-evade combat mechanics from Dark Souls and simplified, top-down style Hotline Miami, and threw them into a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk world, you'd have Hyper Light Drifter. While it does borrow from those games, and others in smaller ways, this game is still a unique experience. Hyper Light Drifter’s sound and visual design do a great a job of building a world that feels surprisingly alive for being so empty. Narratively there are hints of a much larger story than what’s presented but without an actual payoff, you’re left wandering through an interesting and beautiful world that never really makes much sense. That’s only where the frustration begins with Hyper Light Drifter however thanks to some questionable design choices.
The opening cinematic sets the stage pretty well for the type of storytelling you’re in for in Hyper Light Drifter. Lots of things happen, but none of them logically follows one another or are explained in any way. The symbols and imagery from the cinematic persist throughout the game, so this cutscene really only serves to place questions in your mind that will presumably be answered later. The short of it is that you’re a drifter that has found himself in a ravaged world that looks like it’s starting to rebuild. A lot of the narrative is obtained through careful observation of your surroundings. Exploring a large avian temple that’s mostly in ruins let’s you know that a once proud race lived here. Other than small environmental clues, the game present the bulk of its narrative through still images. Speaking to NPCs will pop-up pictures that pretty clearly spell out the preceding events in an area. They all convey the same basic message: all of the different areas in the game have been desecrated in one way or another by an invading or intrusive force.
Subtlety is the name of the game in Hyper Light Drifter. From its pixel art visuals to the ambient synth music, Hyper Light Drifter places a lot of emphasis on style. That commitment to style works in terms of area variety and a couple of set piece moments like reaching the top of a mountain to see the dead, frozen giant in the background. The image-based conversations are also a good way to convey the plot, but the game’s overall simplicity almost makes that aspect of the game feel gimmicky. The game gives you the most basic story threads to follow in an area, and that’s it. There are monoliths and secrets scattered throughout the game that require dedicated exploration and translation, but all that does is slow the game’s pace to a crawl.
That’s where my biggest problem lies with Hyper Light Drifter. The game’s setting and story moments are all interesting and intriguing, but it never feels like it matters. This game is mostly all about combat. There aren’t puzzles in this game so much as combat challenges at every step of the way. Combat is strategic in that you have to learn your enemy’s attack pattern and dodge accordingly. This game’s combat is much faster and reflex-based than something like Hotline Miami or Dark Souls however. Often times you’ll be thrown into a room full of enemies and the only way to progress is to kill all of them. Mastering combat is key in that regard because that’s the only type of challenge the game presents.
Each of the four areas boils down to exploring the area to find at least four nodes to fill out a diamond symbol, beat the boss, and move on. You’ll find tickets that you can exchange for upgrades along the way, all of which are designed to help you during combat. While that might seem reductive, the combat itself is very satisfying. Mastering combat in each area is essential since every boss fight is an extension of what that area teaches you. These boss fights are tough, but you always feel like you’re fully capable of overcoming the challenge. Hyper Light Drifter’s great combat system makes you want to jump into the next area just to see what the game is going to throw at you next.
Unfortunately, the only other thing you do in Hyper Light Drifter, explore, is the worst part of the game. There are tons of secrets and each area has an extra objective that requires you to find all eight nodes to open a door, but finding them is tedious. More often than not exploring just means running up against every wall and object in the game just to see if you can find a secret. There are hardly any clues given as to where hidden passages are so it all feels very random and actually finding hidden areas and items never feels satisfactory. The fact that the majority of these secrets and areas are entirely optional and don’t directly affect the game gives you little incentive to even go out of your way to find them.
This is all assuming that the game’s starting area-the North Temple-didn’t completely turn you off of Hyper Light Drifter. Everything in Hyper Light Drifter is at its worst in this area. Even the combat, which is the best part of the game, feels unfair here. Enemies are thrown at you constantly and in large numbers, requiring you to memorize their positions, which means you’ll be trying these areas over and over again. There are sliding block sections that require lightning fast timing and memorization of seemingly random patterns. Nodes here are extremely well-hidden so you might be stuck for hours before even beating the first area. There are only four areas in the game, so when a quarter of the game feels so poorly designed compared to rest, especially the first area, it can make you never want to play the game again.
Hyper Light Drifter shows a lot of potential thanks to its great combat and solid world building. The fantastic sound design and visuals make the game aesthetically pleasing from start to finish, and the boss themes are some of the best I’ve ever heard. By the time I finished the game I was satisfied with myself for overcoming the boss fights and getting good at all of the different combat mechanics, but without any more knowledge about the overall story. I also found myself not caring about the story because going back to learn about it would mean more tedious exploration. Ultimately Hyper Light Drifter is a great adventure game that begs to presented in a better way. A more clearly defined story and more intuitive exploration would make this game the adventure that it wants to be, but without those things Hyper Light Drifter falls flat.
This review was completed with a purchased digital copy of Hyper Light Drifter for PC.