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One thing I often like to look out for is a game that tries its best to feel inspired and, in a way, kind of artistic. Hyper Light Drifter is, in some respects, one of these types of games.
Hyper Light Drifter is a 2D, highly pixelated action-adventure game that relies on its music, image-based narrative, and somewhat difficult combat to convey a visceral and heartfelt experience.
The gameplay is made up of one part platform-y puzzle type traversal through the world and two parts fast-paced combat, both of which require you to rely heavily on the Drifter’s ability to dash (or, more fittingly, “drift”) short distances ultra-quickly.
Drifting allows you to pass through the numerous gaps in the terrain, uniquely giving an entertaining platforming experience to a game with a mostly top-down perspective. Drifting is also an integral part of combat in that it allows you to maneuver around projectile attacks and close in on enemies for a quick and clean kill.
The Drifter’s main methods of attack come by way of an energy sword and a gun. The way these two weapons work together is clever. The gun is very powerful, but comes with limited ammunition, which can only be replenished by attacking enemies and breakable crates with the sword. The two work surprisingly well together, creating fun and varying combat.
Combat’s not all perfect, though. For one thing, the controls could use a bit of work. Playing with the mouse and keyboard can be a nightmare, especially starting off. The mouse works for aiming both your attacks and your dashes, which can make the faster, more difficult combat scenarios extremely hard to handle. For this reason, I highly recommend using a gamepad of some sort, though it makes shooting feel much less accurate.
One other problem is that Hyper Light Drifter gets a little repetitive. Each of the four major areas in the game is home to its own unique group of enemies, but they all pretty much have the same attack patterns. There’s always a little guy that bum rushes you, a big guy with a delayed attack, and a shooter that sprays numerous bullets around the same time. Once you figure one pattern out, the whole game starts to feel a bit simplistic.
Fortunately, the boss battles are a whole other story. Honestly, that’s where this game shines. The boss battles are screen-shatteringly difficult, but orgasmically satisfying when you finally beat them. Hyper Light Drifter also loves to send you into these arena-style fight sequences in which you find yourself trapped and forced to fight large waves of enemies all at once. In some cases, they can be even more challenging than the bosses.
Heart Machine has elected to combine pixel graphics with bright blues and purples for Hyper Light Drifter, resulting in an art style that is beautiful in some parts and a little confusing at others. The style is overall pleasing, but the way the colors sometimes bleed into each other can make it difficult to see what is platform and what is not. I found the lake area especially hard on the eyes.
Otherwise, this game is quite pretty, and I like the character design on the Drifter.
Hyper Light Drifter is also rather unique in that all of the narrative direction is conveyed through images, rather than spoken or even written dialogue. When you stop to chat to any NPC, they will reply to you with a series of pictures instead of text. That sort of narrative style is fun and creative, but it is also makes some moments tougher to understand. I found myself doubting my understanding of the overall story, because I wasn’t always 100% sure I understood the pictures.
The music in Hyper Light Drifter is mysterious and haunting and comes with both a sense of adventure and a sense of loneliness. It is a somber soundtrack that does a fantastic job at setting the tone of the entire game. Even the sound effects reverberate and echo in a way that highlights that loneliness. Somehow, the dark, dank atmosphere that the music creates makes the adventure feel more important to the characters around it. The music also makes any contact with NPCs feel like a hopeful and important moment.
Finally, Hyper Light Drifter is a bit of a short game, even while counting the embarrassingly high number of deaths that I have accrued. Because of that, I find it difficult to recommend it for its $19.99 asking price. The combat and the numerous upgrades you can buy definitely give this game some replay-ability, but barring that, I’d recommend waiting for a small discount. $10-15 would be more up my alley.
At the end of the day, Hyper Light Drifter is a surprisingly fun game with challenging combat, an okay graphics style, a unique narrative style, and a beautiful soundtrack.