In many ways, games are just as powerful (if not, more so) at stirring thoughts, ideas, opinions and feelings within us as artwork, film or music. After all, video games are a convergence of those three mediums. Some games, however, challenge our emotions in a different way. They give us a character but don’t explicitly state what their journey means to them, what they stand for or even what their name is. They give us the tools to make all of those connections on our own. They demand more from us. It’s in these titles that we are pushed to not only play how we choose to, but are allowed to actualize most of the story in our own way, as well.
While I wasn’t sure what to expect from Hyper Light Drifter as it’s been in development since 2014, I was pleased to find out the futuristic action/adventure title was one of those rare games.
Right out of the gate when the first cutscene loads and we’re given a curious image of HLD’s protagonist, we aren’t given any more definitive direction with the storyline besides a few surreal images and the drifter sleeping by a campfire. Simple, subtle and infinitely peculiar. The rest of the game follows this minimalistic approach and offers no written exposition, opting to show rather than tell players the experience through a series of powerful images, atmospheric sounds and emotion-rich musical pieces.
Hyper Light Drifter focuses on the adventure of a cloaked drifter. The story opens with a dream-like cinematic where the drifter finds himself in the wake of a brutal war where giant creatures have laid waste to an entire civilization. It is then revealed that the drifter struggles with a fatal illness and the catastrophic colossi end up meeting a mysterious demise. After this we are spirited away into a strange door led by an Anubis-like dog. It’s all very bizarre and sudden but is shown alongside an unrivaled 16-bit art style and phenomenal original soundtrack – quality that is maintained throughout the rest of the experience.
Three minutes, no words, minimal explanation but marvelous presentation and we’re ready to strike out into the colorful world around us. A quick tutorial is the only time words are present on the screen and lasts all of two minutes before we’re on the road.
Although there isn’t much conventional expository direction, the sights and sounds alone say more than enough, making players crave further backstory. It’s one of the few games that can get players emotionally invested by showing us why we should care rather than telling us, and it works like a charm. From there, players will spend the majority of their time fighting enemies, collecting weapons, treasure and backstory, and moving the subtle story to its eventual climax.
Combat is comparable to Zelda, where players will use real-time button presses to attack with a sword, grenade or gun. It’s simple, but effective. The main difference is that in HLD, enemies will more than likely come at you in swarms. It’s up to the player to take on these gangs of foes in a way that not only favors each particular situation, but also plays to their strengths. For example, when fighting enemies who mainly rely on long-range attacks, I choose to hang back, wait for the projectiles to pass, then rush in when the bad guys are stuck reloading. With ultra-responsive controls, multiple guns and an intuitive dash mechanic, any strategy becomes a viable possibility.
HLD gives you the tools and speed to be any type of combatant, making the fights fun, addictive, and most importantly, fair. The speed at which you can move and the enemy assortment HLD offers creates an exciting arena where reflexes are rewarded just as much as a strategic battle plan. It’s a mixture that can often times be difficult to pull off, but HLD achieves that balance. Boss fights showcase this mixture of clever combat and difficulty while also putting some of the game’s most intriguing pixel art on full display amidst the chaos of battle.
Given that the game is scheduled to arrive on PS4 or Xbox One later this year, PC players will have to choose between using a controller or keyboard and mouse. As the game boots up, the developers state that HLD is meant to be played with a controller, and I can’t stress enough how true that is. If you’re planning on playing this game, using a controller is a must as mouse and keyboard controls destroy all of the speed, responsiveness and comfort the game offers.
Diststerpeace, the composer for Fez, took on the sound design and original soundtrack, and knocked it out of the park for HLD. The music carries the same profound weight as the aesthetics and does its job complementing what is happening on-screen with a brooding, futuristic sound that somehow brings forth the feeling of nature as well as the unknown technology that is rusting all around the world. Even by itself, the OST stands firmly on two legs and is well worth a listen for anybody into video game/electronic albums.
Ambient sounds mix with compelling images as cyborg scorpions burrow into the sand of a desert where raindrops “plock” onto the roof of a nearby crashed ship. This is just one of the myriad game-defining examples as every second of HLD is pure poetry. This is thanks to the strong art and sound direction that continue to establish an even stronger bond from the moment the game begins. Alone, these two facets deserve resounding praise. Together, they help to realize an incredibly ambitious vision that might not even be possible without them. If nothing else, play this game to admire the pairing of these two driving forces.
One of the strongest aspects of the visual design comes in the decision to have NPC conversations show up as art panels rather than text boxes. Sure, the blacksmith could have told me about how he and his friend were saved by the other mysterious drifter in the game, but instead we get to see the event unfold in a series of visually stunning boxes. It’s a personal touch that not only helps flesh out the lives of seemingly unimportant characters in the world – giving them a story to call their own – but also helps paint the bigger picture that is the HLD story.
Hyper Light Drifter has one of the most successful combinations of scenery, music, ambiance and story I have experienced in the last 10 years. The full game clocks in at about 6-10 hours for the casual gamer and can give upwards of 17-20 hours of enjoyment for those who want to collect everything. Secrets are often tough to find but small hints such as the camera briefly panning toward treasure or a small imperfection in a wall justifies the difficulty. Alternate cloaks, robot allies, swords, sword abilities and upgraded dash mechanics are all unlockable, some with the use of currency found throughout the land. Cloaks and allies give the drifter small buffs such as easier dash animations or bullets that recharge faster (each successful sword attack charges your guns). Again, it’s not overtly stated that the buffs happen, but some clever players on Reddit discovered the stat-altering effects after some testing within HLD. That’s ultimately the theme of this game: subtlety. Subtlety in its story and the innate ability to imply and evoke so much while showing so little.
HLD isn’t without its downfalls, I’ll admit. There could have been a little more care given to the game’s pacing leading up to the climax. The world is made up of five sections and once the first four are beaten, you go to the fifth and immediately fight the end boss. While this did jive with the flow of HLD and its unpredictable nature, an extra half hour of fighting mixed with its inspired visual storytelling to flesh out the game’s lore could have been the difference between near perfection and perfection in the finale’s impact. It’s a nitpick sure, but one that people who already think the storyline is too confusing will have a hard time accepting.
While a new game + option is available, it only offers enhanced difficulty in the form of decreased life as well as sword and dash upgrades being unlocked from the game’s start. Different enemy attack patterns (especially bosses), the inclusion of a few more weapons and an alternate ending would have been nice additions. A boss rush mode would have also been a welcome inclusion, in that these gorgeous fights can’t be played back-to-back over and over and over again, but maybe that’s just the Shadow of the Colossus fan in me.
Either way, Hyper Light Drifter is one hell of an experience. It’s secretive, fast, ambitious, challenging, emotional, bloody, tense, fragile, concise, deep and so much more, but it allows the player to experience all of those things in their own way by showing the outline of a complex storyline and letting them fill in the blanks. I’m almost tempted to simplify it by saying it’s “Journey” with fighting, but doing that seems to categorize it when it demands to be treated as a unique, but equally as impactful adventure, which I wholeheartedly agree that it is. Not only is HLD worth the $20 price tag, but it’s worth the time of any gamer. Get on Steam, buy it, download it and play. This isn’t one you should miss.