I was looking forward to Hyper Light Drifter as a nice change from the extreme difficulty of Salt and Sanctuary [Be sure to read Mr. Vice’s glowing review of that before you leave. – Ed.]. After finishing up Salt, I thought a nice, retro-looking, Zelda-style, top-down action game with a mild challenge would be a nice way to simmer down before Dark Souls III arrives.
What I wasn’t expecting was to be booted in the nethers again so hard my tender bits burst out of my ears. It turns out Hyper Light Drifter is not a very nice game. I mean, it’s an excellent game, but it’s not nice. It doesn’t play nice. It wants to hurt you. Over and over again. It lures you in with its colourful pixel-art facade and then almost immediately ramps up the challenge to a heart-twinge-inducing, controller-pitching level.
Usually I’d start off by explaining the premise, but that’s a bit difficult here. There’s not a single written or spoken word in the game. The opening depicts the unnamed player character arriving in the war-ravaged game world. He has some trippy visions of giant robot monsters and a strange dog-like creature that seems to be trying to guide him somewhere, and then he passes out. He awakens by a bonfire, eventually encounters a deadly monster, and is rescued by a guy who looks fairly similar to him.
After he wakes up in his saviour’s house in the hub town, the game begins in earnest. Whatever’s going on seems to be linked to a diamond-shaped stone monument in the center of the town. Each point of the diamond is linked to a distant temple – one in each cardinal direction, each housing a device you must activate. You can immediately go north, east or west, but the path to the south temple is locked until you complete the other three. What’ll happen when you activate all these contraptions? That would be telling.
Which way you go first is really down to personal preference. You’ll have to see which of the three immediately available areas you can handle with your starting equipment. There’s no leveling-up in this game. Monsters don’t drop items or money. Hyper Light Drifter is old school. There are shops offering new movement abilities, upgrades for your gun, new techniques for you sword, bombs and increased health kit storage. The currency you use to buy things is hard to find – monsters don’t drop cash like candy like they do in other games.
I went north first and collected enough currency to afford a health upgrade. After the first two or three areas I was beginning to think the game was quite relaxed. But then the ambushes started. It’s one of the game’s favourite tricks, locking you in an area with enemies. And not just two or three – I mean about 15 of them, usually of different varieties. You only have a few hit points, so you really can’t afford to get hit much, which is easier said than done when you’re confined in a small area with enemies that shoot, charge, explode when they die, and so on.
The bosses are even worse. Like the normal enemies, you need to learn their attack patterns to know when to dodge, slash, shoot and so on – it’s just that the stakes are much higher. The first boss I fought took me roughly 20 tries. The next one took me around 30.
The game is pretty sprawling and labyrinthine, but it’s not quite as intricate as a Metroidvania type of game. For one thing, almost all of the secrets can be found with keen observation or relentless wall-hugging. They don’t require special abilities to reach, so keep your eyes open for those health kits and currency items, which comprise most of the secrets. There are also keys which open doors that hold more interesting items like new guns and outfits. Those are really rare, so you need to search every nook and cranny to find them all.
With its mega-attractive visual style, Hyper Light Drifter really does stand out. Its unique colour palette uses lots of blues and purples, which reminds me a bit of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. The animations are also very cool, particularly the main character’s, with the way way his cloak swings around as he slashes or slides to a halt. The world is beautiful and very well put together, the way you can see, for instance, a dead giant robot clinging to a mountain in the distance, and eventually you travel there. It’s very impressive. The partially animated story scenes are also very well done and leave a lot to interpretation.
Honestly, I wonder if I can keep up this pace. Two hard-as-hell games in a row, and Dark Souls III‘s out tomorrow. Hyper Light Drifter is a beautiful and compelling game, and it’s a lot tougher than I expected. If you haven’t had your fill of menacingly difficult games, give it a try.