Hyper Light Drifter
US: 31 Mar 2016
Danger and mystery are often synonymous with each other, and that core relationship drives the Hyper Light Drifter experience. The game raises many questions, offers few explicit answers, and thus creates a world in which players face unknown threats around every corner. At the same time, Hyper Light Drifter instills a strong sense of exploration and uses its danger and mystery as tools for environmental storytelling. After finishing the game, I didn’t want to leave the brilliantly designed virtual space. I was ready to brave obstacles yet again to uncover more clues about the protagonist, his motives, and the world that he inhabits.
The fact that Hyper Light Drifter resonates on that level with no real text to speak of points to one of the game’s greatest accomplishments. It builds an entire world and backstory through minimalism. Characters communicate through unintelligible sounds, objects with strange symbols represent currency, and the game’s equivalent of cutscenes are short vignettes that use the inherent power of imagery. These simple narrative devices are enough for players to intuit that the protagonist (the Drifter) carries some kind of crippling illness and searches for answers to his current situation in a land of dormant giants. The distinct approach to storytelling occasionally obfuscates key plot threads, but it compliments the ambiguity of the Drifter’s journey.
The visual design also goes a long way in establishing Hyper Light Drifter‘s cryptic exposition. Just a cursory glance at the game is enough to make one’s jaw drop, but the way in which the art melds with the themes of the game elevates it to another level. Broken cliffs and the corpses of hulking colossi punctuate the world and hint at some kind of pseudo-apocalypse, but its vibrant colors tell the story of a once-beautiful land. There may be destruction, but Hyper Light Drifter features no shortage of purples, pinks, and light blues. The contrast between dissonance and harmony also applies to the soundtrack, courtesy of electronic mastermind Disasterpeace. The moody compositions often sound beautiful on their own, but in the context of the game, they linger in the background and add to the dark, tense atmosphere.
Tension emphasizes the game’s narrative themes, but it also highlights core gameplay mechanics. The world of Hyper Light Drifter is dangerous in the most literal sense of the word—players will die repeatedly and respawn at the last checkpoint. The cyclical nature of combat feels impenetrable at first, but it quickly reveals itself as a conscious test of patience and pattern recognition. Instead of dying and repeating the same strategy again and again, Hyper Light Drifter requires players to learn from their mistakes and make necessary adjustments. In fact, some combat encounters are best approached as miniature puzzles in which ability use, enemy isolation, and aggression are all key factors.
The combat distinguishes Hyper Light Drifter as a difficult game, but not an unreasonable one. Only brief issues concerning invincibility after taking a hit cause moments of needless frustration. Otherwise, the game presents a clear set of rules and expects players to adapt accordingly. Crude tactics such as button mashing have no place in Hyper Light Drifter. Challenge has already proven to be one of Hyper Light Drifter‘s more divisive elements, but it makes sense within the context of the game’s mysterious world and heightens the thrill of victory. Sure, it took me a half dozen tries to defeat the first boss, but perseverance leads to euphoria.
The difficulty also allows for player growth. Death counts may be high in number at the beginning of the game, but strategies and tactics improve over time. The controls become second nature, and eventually players can reach a zen-like state in which they become one with the Drifter’s sword. Naturally player growth requires the player to actually improve, but Hyper Light Drifter also includes purchasable upgrades that go a long way in easing the pain of death. Don’t expect to learn a bunch of new abilities in the first few hours, though. Currency is in short supply, and just one upgrade is enough to make the difference between success and failure in a boss fight. Let’s just say that the ability to deflect enemy bullets made my life a whole lot easier about halfway through the game.
The game features a lot of combat, but the game offers brief moments of respite as well. They usually signal opportunities for exploration, as all kinds of secret items and locations populate the environments of Hyper Light Drifter. There are hidden key pieces that open locked doors, strange monoliths with a decipherable language and even a few mini-games back in the central village. Some secrets are more obvious than others, and the in-game map does a poor job of communicating the player’s location and progress. Minimalism usually works in the game’s favor, but in the case of the map and item collection, it feels tedious and unnecessary.
Despite a misstep or two in its design concerning exploration, the many secrets add to the spirit of discovery and compliment the rest of Hyper Light Drifter‘s focus on mystery. The game feels like an enigma at times, but the best riddles inspire dedication and near-obsession to arrive at an answer. Hyper Light Drifter inspires those qualities in its players, and the fast-paced and difficult combat presents a wonderful conduit for interaction in its seemingly lonely and strange world.