Played on Windows
Also Available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows, Linux, and macOS
You know, I’m not sure what to make of Hyper Light Drifter. You can hear it in my First Look, I try to figure out what the game feels like. I call it Furi meets Zelda and then make the dreaded comparison to Dark Souls near the end. The fact is, I feel all of these have a value in comparison, but none are correct. So my task over the next couple of pages is to explain this strange game to you. I actually might prefer beating Dark Souls Solo instead of tackling this challenge.
I think the easiest place to begin with Hyper Light Drifter is the graphics. This game is rather impressive for the graphical style it’s chosen. There’s a feeling of almost an 8-bit to 16 bit aesthetic to the world and as you play it, it’s clear a lot of thought and work has gone into the visual style.
However I hesitate to call the graphics truly great because it’s the aesthetic choices that enhance the game, but those choices feel like limitations that the developer self-imposed. If there was a guy with no hands who could paint a picture as good as a graduate of an Art School, we’d call that great. However if Picasso tied both of his hands behind his back and used the same style, while it would be an interesting feat, I don’t know if I’d be as impressed.
The problem is Hyper Light Drifter appears to limit itself to a style from the 16-bit era and does so impressively, but at the same time, it’s easy to forget that it uses a more powerful machine and techniques that are far more advanced than anything the SNES could pull off. It also is around 300 times the file size as what the SNES would be allowed. I am not doubting the 8-16 bit era influences on Hyper Light Drifter, but I also have trouble being excited for them. They didn’t reach me the same way they have other people.
The biggest thing is that a lot of the environments in the game aren’t that compelling. There are beautiful vistas and gorgeous moments in the game, but they’re mostly moments. A lot of the game had me wandering around the area that feels the same, and when you’re in the woods areas, you see a lot of trees, the sunken city area has a lot of water. The area looks nice when you first enter it but by the time you leave the area, you have seen the same motif so many times you’re glad to go somewhere else.
There was a couple of points where I had to double back to find a door, or a location a second time, and the fact is I realized I had no clue where they were. The reason was, the entire area looks the same. Everything underground looked like a same-ish dungeon and everything above ground had the same feeling.
Don’t get me wrong on this. The graphics on Hyper Light Drifter are impressive at times, the fact there’s no words or story means the game has to be carried by the visuals, and it does that well, but something about the look of the game tried to reach out to me and it didn’t connect at the deep level that it was trying to. Maybe I’ve played too many indie games, maybe I overthought it or maybe I want more, but that’s just me.
The game looks beautiful when it tries.
Though, that story is interesting. No words are spoken in the game. This is claimed to be an homage to SNES games that couldn’t have any story in it while this is a bit untrue. Final Fantasy III And Legend of Zelda: The Link to the Past both disprove this. I’m not against a story with no spoken words, I’m just claiming that it’s not necessarily an homage to the 16-bit era as claimed.
In Hyper Light Drifter though, no character said a spoken line anywhere and in fact, much of the story is told through imagery shared by characters, and the imagery is rather good. I liked to see the attempt at a storytelling through it. Though I feel that promising an amazing story is an overpromise for this game. It’s an impressive game for the limitations that it sets for itself. No words and a purely visual game is great.
However, at the end of the game, I felt like I had to go online to get the full story. There’s a lot of people online who have dived deep into the lore and understood it far better than I understand even a normal game, and that’s great. I find it very worthy of a game to have this much lore and story with no words. Yet, I also feel like many of these people who understand and share the lore had to become scholars of the game to find the story hidden within. They had to learn a new language, understand monoliths, interpret pictures and moments. Even the way a few scenes are blocked, the positions of characters are clues to their full story.
The problem is most people playing through the game will not get this full story. Even if you find every monolith, you won’t be able to decode it. Even if you decode the monolith, you need to understand more, and so on. The amount of work to get even half of the story is monumental, and it’s a little too hidden for my taste.
There’s only a certain amount you can gain from the images.
I don’t fault the game for not having words, but I do question if the game made the story a touch too hard to access for anyone but their hardest core fans. It’s great to have a piece of the story or a major moment locked away. Hellblade does this with its runes, where if you miss even one you miss a major and critical part of the story that defines a character. However Hyper Light Drifter takes most of its important story and tucks it away in the same style, and I feel a little betrayed by that.
At the same time, the experience in Hyper Light Drifter is solid for when you play through it. The character is clearly weak at the beginning of the game, coughing up blood and probably not long for the world. As I did a minimal amount of research for this review of Hyper Light Drifter (ok I read Wikipedia to see if I missed anything), I found out that a developer, Alex Preston was born with a congenital heart disease, and had a rough life. That’s definitely a downer, but at the same time, it started to put the game into a new light. The character is clearly dying in Hyper Light Drifter with his bloody coughing, but at the same time, you see how much he perseveres and everything he does. There’s a great emotional struggle throughout the world.
Of course, again, none of this is said in game and without that knowledge, I was unaware of that motivation. However, in hindsight, I started to realize how the game is set up and it makes a little more sense to me. There are some great moments, and then a few cliched moments (oh no he passed out on his way to a boss… clearly he’s dead and that’s game over).
Now I’m being a bit hard in the story department and the truth is that I don’t hate the story, I just wish I got more than a hint of it in the actual game. I got a whiff over the course of 15 hours, and it wasn’t enough to make me obsessively study the game to get the rest. I just wanted some meat to eat when I ended up getting a bone and was told to experience the meal in my mind.
Honestly I don’t remember where this is in the game, I would say the beginning of the North area, only from other images around it. Everything looks a bit too much like everything else.
With the story and graphics out of the way, I can talk about how the game plays, and the fact is, I don’t think I’ve come up with a suitable comparison. Alex Preston has said the game is like a mix between Zelda: the Link to the Past (one of the best games ever) and Diablo. I do see small parts of the former in the game, but I also would ask “What?” to the Diablo comparison.
I would actually say this plays more like Zelda: the Link to the Past meets Furi with limited but recharging ammo on the guns. That… probably makes no sense either. Alright, let’s do this the old fashion way.
In Hyper Light Drifter, the “Drifter” has a light sword (no it’s not Star Wars either). He explores areas searching out enemies and can kill them with normal attacks, some enemies are of course harder but he will have to use a dodge/dash mechanic to avoid damage in most cases. He also eventually earns a gun which he can fire and recharges by attacking enemies with his sword. Each strike recharges one bullet in the gun. In addition, there are health items that are pretty liberally spread around, so the Drifter can collect those to restore his health. This is, in fact, the only way to restore his life.
The coughing of blood and his weak life is never a gameplay element in this game. You might be in perfect health and as you walk through a room he’ll cough up blood, or see images. This is the cognitive dissonance between the story and the gameplay, but it doesn’t really get in the way. You can assume the 6 life points he has is very short for a normal human, or any other rationale you want, but gameplay and story don’t cross over as much here.
Is it just me or are these hoodie wearing birds? Are they crows? A murder of crows? Nah that’s dumb.
The main gameplay has the Drifter exploring areas for stone tiles, there’s a number of them in each area, and the player has to search for them. There are harder enemies like I said, and some that feel almost like minibosses, or areas that perform like arenas or gauntlets, but for the most part, it’s the exploration that drives the Drifter and player onwards. There’s nothing that he can’t overcome with a little work.
As the player explores, he’ll also find yellow card style objects which are pieces of an upgrade system. With four of them, he’ll earn an upgrade “point”, and with this, he can earn new sword attacks, changes to his dodge, room for additional healing items, a thrown bomb or more. In addition, there’s a number of items that the player can find while exploring, including outfits, and new guns. Each gun is different and has a different style, but the game allows the player to choose the weapon, upgrades, and gun that he prefers.
The upgrades are permanent but at least with the guns, the player is able to choose which gun he wants at any point and choose which gun might perform better in a current situation, even allowing quick swapping between two different guns if situations change.
This might sound complex and it is at first, but the game flow does well. There are three areas you can reach at the beginning of the game, and each one will challenge the player but it also will give you plenty of time to get used to the controls. The controls themselves are quite tight, while most of the areas aren’t too hard, there is a boss in each area and those will definitely challenge you.
I compared this game to Furi above for a good reason, the game’s tight controls constantly reminded me of Furi’s. The gunplay is solid, though I will say Furi’s infinite bullets allow for a completely different game, however, Hyper Light Drifter can be a bit more forgiving at times, though both games are really well designed.
The bosses are where Hyper Light Drifter’s challenge really lies. While some rooms will frustrate gamers, many are just minor challenges to avoid damage and get to the next stone piece. Once you have found three in an area you can open the boss door and challenge them.
Here’s the first boss with his very damaging but interesting attack.
The bosses are excellent in both design and style. I first challenged the northern boss, and he was a difficult fight. I actually found myself frustrated quite a bit while fighting him. I kept at it, and never felt like I was fighting an insurmountable wall. Instead, each attempt brought me closer to a full understanding of his fighting style, and my final fight with the boss had me dodge most of the attacks and take the boss down with almost no damage due to the repetition and the patterns the boss uses.
In fact, all the bosses in this game are based on pattern repetition and precise controls. A few of the bosses are harder than others, the final boss is unbelievably difficult, but has the same weakness. Repetition and practice made me a better gamer that eventually allowed me to take him down as well as all the others.
At the same time, the northern boss was one of the hardest in the game because I hadn’t bought any upgrades, the upgrades in the game will actually power the player up quite a bit, and in fact, a few of them (the spinning slash) are ridiculously powerful when used at the right time.
There are a couple of upgrades that aren’t as necessary in my opinion, especially the multiple dash upgrade that I never seemed to be able to pull off reliably, but it’s up to the player to find the upgrade he wants the most. Sadly there’s no way to try out an upgrade before buying them, but overall even a poor choice will only set the player back a couple of upgrade points and can be useful.
As for the difficulty, it is what you make it. If you want to go for a no upgrade run, that’s possible but it’s going to be a challenging run of the game, where you need to learn many enemies’ strategies and late bosses will likely frustrate you. On the other hand, if you want to try to get as many upgrades as you can before challenging bosses, the game should be a bit easier, especially with the healing item upgrades and the bombs. In addition, there are a couple of post-game modes that will make the game decently harder as well, so even those who want a severe challenge will be taken care of here.
There’s tons of little platforms you can find and explore, some just give you healing items like this one.
There is also a decent amount of exploration in the game. While I did complain about how similar a lot of the levels are, there’s a ton of secret paths and hidden areas. The main game will only show you the location of a couple of the stone tablets required. However, there are eight in each area that can be found. There’s also the mentioned monoliths, as well as additional keys, outfits, and hidden items all over the game, so if you want to hunt them all down, there will be a lot to find in this game. Though the rewards in the game are a touch on the weak side in my opinion (mostly costumes) it’s perfect for the collector, or the explorer.
Ultimately, that’s Hyper Light Drifter. While I’ve been critical of the game here, I will admit, graphically it is memorable. While the story won’t really stick with me as much, the gameplay is so well done, I might attempt another playthrough in one of the other modes. The fact is Hyper Light Drifter is a good game, and its gameplay and challenge was so perfectly tuned that I like this game more than I should.
To me, the one thing I remember is every boss feels challenging, and yet every boss also feels weak once you pass it. Yes, this is a touch of the Dark Souls, though hardly as punishing. You need to learn the fight you’re on, beat it and then learn the next. The fact is, Hyper Light Drifter made me enjoy my time with it, even if I lacked those major moments or the connection to it on a deeper level.
I give Hyper Light Drifter a
I want to thank my Steam Friend Biker for recommending this game to me. It’s something I’ve wanted to playthrough for quite a while, but haven’t taken the time\
I’m glad I did because I found something that has the perfect blend of gameplay and challenge, and that’s what Hyper Light Drifter excelled upon in my opinion.
Final Thoughts: While the story and graphics didn’t strike me in the right way, the gameplay and challenge were fantastic. It’s hard to make a comparison with this game, but that is due to its uniqueness and style.
Stats: 19.7 hours 5/23 achievements earned.