Drifter: a person who moves from one place to another without a purpose or plan. That is, perhaps, the best description as to what you do in Hyper Light Drifter – with a minimalist take on storytelling, which foregoes words in favor of a visual narrative, and lack of a clear sequence of quests to carry out, you are thrown into the world to do as you must. You have an issue to solve, though how exactly you’ll do it isn’t clear. And it’s this lack of hand-holding, coupled with fluid, fast-paced gameplay and a lush world that beckoned me to explore it all in one sitting.
While the developers spared no color in crafting the environments and levels, Hyper Light Drifter is very much set in a ruined world: from the torn buildings to the piles of bodies and the co-existence of both melee and energy weapons, this is not your cookie-cutter fantasy game. As a Drifter you are tasked with the recovery of artifacts and lost technology, though your character has a more pressing issue at hand: a rapidly deteriorating ailment that makes him cough blood and pass out. The search for some way to placate this disease is the game’s quest, and the only motivation given to you: Hyper Light Drifter is a terse game and at no point does it over-expose you to the world’s lore or your character’s specifics.
Hyper Light Drifter plays out as a typical action-adventure game, placing an emphasis on both its combat sections and the actual exploration of the world, by which you’ll find resources to upgrade your skills and weapons and discover secrets and hidden characters. With a moveset that favors mobility and speed, Hyper Light Drifter’s combat is a constant affair of dashing and striking at your foes when they are vulnerable – you can accomplish this by striking with your sword, shooting one of the several weapons you find or chucking bombs. Your ammunition is fueled by your sword’s attacks, which both removes excessive ammo management and encourages doing stylish combos with both firearm and blade. Perhaps due to his disease, your Drifter is a frail hero: two to four hits from an enemy will kill you, although the difficulty of having such a low health pool is heavily mitigated by an abundance of health potions. Each of the game’s areas is divided into an exploration sequence, where you go through swarms of enemies and hazards, such as crushing blocks and flaming traps, to collect four pieces that will unlock the region’s boss fight. While reaching them is relatively straightforward, finding all of the area’s secrets and collectibles can be a bit obtuse and require extensive screen-scouring, as not all of them have clear pointers to their location.
The peaks of your quest are, unquestionably, the boss fights: unlike your Drifter, these larger creatures have massive health pools and varying movesets that you’ll need to learn to dodge as required in order to defeat. While you can defeat them without upgrading your Drifter’s weapons and skills, much like you can beat the game in a ‘vanilla’ state (bar, perhaps, one power), some boss fights are clearly easier to fight if you’ve spent some time gathering the world’s currency and buying the upgrades: the second boss I faced, a giant Toad, was easily brought down by my sword’s charged attack, while the fourth boss – which used a bullet-hell-like ability – was made easier by my ability to parry his projectiles. While I certainly died a few times (though not many, I’ll brag), with sufficient caution even these foes can be defeated in one or a few attempts. To the game’s merit it also has a steady influx of different foes: each of the sections will present the player with multiple new enemies that have different behaviors and tactics, from swordsmen and swooping birds to ninja-like toads that throw shuriken at you.
I’d be remiss not to mention that which first caught my attention about Hyper Light Drifter: the aesthetics. While you can see from the screenshots above that the pixel art is gorgeously detailed, the developers took it a step further with extensive environmental and actor animations: the trees bristle and the flames glower, and every action you take with your Drifter has an appropriate animation. After unlocking the ability to chain dashes one after the other, at one point I had chained seven or eight of them together and was at a much higher speed than the regular running – once I stopped, instead of a straight-out halt the Drifter began a dust-raising skid that gradually subsided. And you have a flowy cape.
The other aspect, the soundtrack and sound design, gave me an itch the moment I started playing: while the game certainly did look a bit like FEZ due to both using pixel art, the soundtrack was eerily similar. A quick search answered me why: Hyper Light Drifter’s soundtrack was also composed by Disasterpeace. While Hyper Light Drifter seemed to have more dissonant tones and battle-appropriate crescendos that wouldn’t fit in a puzzle game like FEZ, the similarities are there – a non-issue, as the composer’s eery tunes are more than fitting for Hyper Light Drifter’s contrasting and bizarre world.
That’s not to say that all that glitters is gold, of course. While the lack of hand-holding is comforting, allowing you to explore the world at your will, the map and ability purchase can be a bit on the opaque side of things the first few times you use them – the initial uncertainty as to whether you need certain skills to find everything or not also means you might needlessly skip certain sections. The lack of clarity as to where to go first in each section also led to some ultimately boring and needless backtracking, as more than once I had to go through entire areas I’d cleared before to take that different turn I’d decided not to, something that was prevalent throughout the Western section (persevere! I advise) – fortunately, these either don’t happen often or the developer included a means of quicker travel the second time you go to a previous section.
Hyper Light Drifter brings something fresh to the table – an action-adventure game that doesn’t drown you in its storytelling, that doesn’t hold your hand and that isn’t afraid of being hard when it’s supposed to be hard. Boss fights might seem overtly punishing at times, but once I set my recklessness aside I realized it was just a matter of tackling this as I would boss-fights from the NES/SNES era: cautiously and without damaging the controller because at that time I didn’t have the income to buy a new one. It manages to pay homage to the 16-bit era of gaming all the while being more beautiful than the games of yesteryear were, and with gameplay both fluid and challenging, all the while keeping you drawn in to your character’s fate with very limited exposure as to who he is.