Hyper Light Drifter Review
Heart Machine’s debut game, Hyper Light Drifter, fully captures the aesthetic of decade old games that have shaped gaming. It borrows the retro look, the synth music, and challenging combat from older games. It then takes all of these ideas and morphs them into something that has its own charm; that stands out from the crowd of games that claim to be different and unique.
The most noticeable thing about Hyper Light Drifter is the visuals and the aesthetics used to create a world that feels lived-in and explored; colossal ruins covered in moss litter the main portions of the game; cobblestone with cracks in them that look like they could give at any moment; the main city/hub that provides both comfort and stress within the player because of the eeriness of it all. Now, tack on the stellar 8-bit graphics that makes the game look more fluid and full of life, and you have a world that is both fun to explore and fun to feel a part of. On top of the primary method of graphics used, the simple use of colors and lighting to give subtle hints to the player makes every bit of information on screen important. There isn’t a single wasted pixel that doesn’t either provide atmosphere, information, or a bit of both.
While people may come to look at the game in all of its neon-glory, the reason to stay is the challenging combat system that, when mastered, feels like some of the best in recent years. There is a simple attack that does moderate damage via a sword, and each hit of the sword generates ammo that your various weapons use up. The basic attack uses just one button, while using the gun uses up your L-trigger to aim and your R-trigger to fire. You can just press the R-trigger to fire your gun ahead of you as well, which provides much needed raw damage.
The variety of guns is a bit lacking, going from your basic pistol to a shotgun, beam rifle, and a rocket launcher. The variety in upgrades also is lacking, only giving players for ammunition to use for each weapon. To add to my disappointment about the weapons, players will soon realize that the best way to play the game is with the shotgun as a primary weapon. The shotgun is the best since you’ll be up close to enemies, and that it can take down the bigger enemies in one-to-two hits.
With that in mind, the combat itself just feels good to hit your enemies, watch them die, and then looks at the dead horde you just slaughtered. The combat is also reminiscent of Dark Souls or other games, where when you die, you know that you did something wrong; you didn’t memorize the attack patterns, or you forgot to stock up on med-kits, or you didn’t dodge in time. There is never a moment where the game is truly unfair, and it is aware of this at all times.
The use of storytelling in games such as these is often times hard to produce well, and comes sometimes come across as pretentious. Some games choose narrations to give exposition, and some games give it through dialogue bubbles that take ages to button-mash through. Hyper Light Drifter finds a happy medium through the use of pictures to give sentimental value to major events. Characters from time to time will give you small portraits of their events that, when pieced together, say who the enemy is and what the state of the region is.
You’ll also learn about the world through seeing things happen instead of being told. For example, the Eastern region has one species being killed by another. This is seen by the oppressed’s bodies laying out on the ground. No text needed; these people are being hunted. And while the game’s overall themes of sickness and depression are obvious, they fit in perfectly and don’t distract from the core elements of the game.
The music also adds to the atmosphere that the game has created, fitting in well with the epic arena battles and the boss fights. There is never a moment where you’ll think that the music didn’t fit whatever you were doing, be it fighting a boss ten times as large as you or exploring some decrepit ruins. Even just the sound effects of the guns and your blade hitting flesh sounds right. My complaint with the soundtrack isn’t with the tracks themselves, but rather the volume at which they’re played. I played the game with the music turned down as low as it could go within the settings, and it still became overwhelming within the actual cut-scenes of the game. Regardless, it’s a soundtrack that I’ll definitely be going back to just to jam out.
The flaw that plagues most indie games, and subsequently Hyper Light Drifter, is the core length. I beat the game in just under seven hours, and that is with a moderate amount of exploring for collectibles to upgrade my abilities. The zones started out large and expansive with nooks and crannies that cried to be searched, but the Northern and Southern regions were extremely short despite the challenge increasing significantly. I was only left with wanting more of Hyper Light Drifter by the end of it, and I had to say goodbye to a great game that I just wish there was more of. There is a secret arena that can be accessed, but it doesn’t hold the same euphoria of exploring the world that I became engrossed in.
It’s also a game that, after collecting everything, doesn’t have much charm in going back to. There’s very little to do outside of the story, and what there is to do it just isn’t compelling. The game is lovely for the first time through, I just wish there was more than the four sections to hack my way through. I don’t see myself going back to play the game years down the road, but I’ll never forget my travels while I was playing it.
Hyper Light Drifter is a fantastic debut for a promising studio that shows it can offer players with an engaging, difficult, and immersive game that just leaves players wanting more. The soundtrack, the visuals, the minimal storytelling, and the fluid combination of all of these makes Hyper Light Drifter a must-have for people who want to play something new and refreshing that promises nothing but good times.