Borrowing from the likes of Dark Souls, Hyper Light Drifter isn’t a game that delivers a straight forward narrative. Instead, it delivers a world that, if you look hard enough with a keen eye, has smatterings of lore tucked into each nook and cranny.
You play the nameless eponymous drifter (which is an occupation in this world) and your goal, to put it simply, is to unearth buried technologies, forgotten centuries ago, in a quest to extinguish a malevolent evil, all the while helping a God regain its lost power and cure what ails you. It’s just a dash of cliche coupled with a little bit of bad ass etherealism. There’s a great amount of mystery and deeply rooted symbolism in Hyper Light Drifter; a lot of worthwhile reading pours from safely stowed monoliths in the game’s perilous lands, though it’s in an encrypted language.While you may feel inspired to whip out the notepad, like many did for Fez, and crack this uncommon tongue, I wouldn’t worry. There are already a great number of bright minds who’ve gone to the trouble of posting translations along with speculation of what it all means.
I appreciate that the game doesn’t simply spell it all out for us. It encourages us to dig and find the meaning. By exploring. By talking to the central town’s occupants, despite the conversation being free of any kind of written dialogue. It’s a refreshing way to tell stories, and I hope more developers get on board, particularly for these kinds of vast action-adventure titles with rich, inviting worlds to get lost in.
Hyper Light Drifter is a game full of carefully nurtured, classical sensibilities. One area this is clearly evident, without even having to pick up a controller, is the game’s art style. The pixel art is so charming and intoxicating. I spent a long while just wondering already cleared areas just drinking up the atmosphere in those quiet moments.
The central hub city is a dense cluster of industry, whereas each of the world’s regions are all distinctly different. The north is full of snow-capped mountains; there’s a striking bit of imagery that shows one of the game’s Titans – a colossal being from a bygone time – decayed, skeletal and clinging lifeless to the side of the peak. It’s tiny details like this that, bit by bit, help flesh out the game’s lore, especially in a game with no written dialogue that relies of visuals to tell its story.The map’s west holds a crystal forest, its blue grass and lush, purple tree canopies evoke a weird feeling of safety; though it’s far from it. East is an overgrown temple built upon a lake and overrun with a cunning breed of ninja frogs (you read that right). Down south there lies a dust bowl, littered with the bones of many who’ve come before you.
Three cheers have to go to Disasterpiece. Without overstepping the mark, his score does all of the heavy lifting when it comes to setting the scene for Hyper Light Drifter in its most memorable, serene moments. Even when the warm swells ramp up to an edgier, sawtooth buzz, the score is always doing exactly what’s needed.
Hyper Light Drifter is unwavering in its hard-line approach. It picks you up and throws you as far as possible into the deepest end of the pool. Not only does it practically leave you all at sea, it doesn’t once throw out a courtesy buoy. It’s, at times, unapologetic in its brutality. The more you might reach out for a helping hand, the more it recoils.
Like it’s older brother of sorts, Dark Souls, Hyper Light Drifter isn’t a game for the weak-hearted hack and slash enthusiast. Button mashing is the fast track to winding up dead in a game like this. While the combat mechanics and gorgeous animation encourage you to act like a bit of a cowboy, it also demands precision. Too many wrong moves will bring you undone quick smart against some of the game’s harsher fights. Though you may lose track of your deaths, you’ll return to the battlefield a little wiser each time; hopefully having better learned the attack patterns of each creature that hopes to gift you a quick death.
The drifter starts his journey with both his energy sword as well as a handgun; that’s both of the close and long range genre staples covered. In your travels you’ll come across other bullet hoses, though none of them can be souped up in any meaningful way. Your sword, on the other hand, is subject to three upgrades, as is your dash. It’s certainly a limited selection of upgrades, not even half as thorough as other games of this ilk.
Though I admit the upgrade system had me baffled at first. Then again, nothing you do in Hyper Light Drifter is blatantly explained to you. Each new trinket you collect appears, nondescript, in your inventory just waiting for you to figure out its purpose. I like it in theory as the gears and tidbits we’re digging up from a long gone civilisation would be a mystery. It’s fairly clean and intuitive once it all clicks into place, though.
In another triumph for the humble indie game, Hyper Light Drifter delivers the year’s best action-adventure hybrid so far. It’s best in class on all fronts that count, offering up razor sharp gameplay, an ultra-stylish coat of paint that, when served with a smashing synth, drips an unforgettable atmosphere.
The Xbox One version was primarily tested for the purpose of this review.