I took the time out of my schedule to play some Hyper Light Drifter, in between packing my boxes to send off to storage. I’d been hearing about it from some of my friends on Steam, so I picked it up to see what all the hubhub is about.
This game by indie shop Heart Machine, has you taking on the cloak of an unnamed drifter collecting forgotten knowledge, technologies, and broken histories. The game presents its narrative through its own visuals, as well as slide-show dialogue. There is absolutely no written dialogue, and it doesn’t need any to get its point across.
The gameplay is straightforward and simple, like most 16-bit games during the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo era – you have dash, slash, and heal. You also hold a button to interact with objects and characters. For the few hours of gametime I’ve put in, I found that there are three ways you can die: by running out of health via falling off the level, by getting ganged up on by either an impossibly strong enemy or a horde, or the level itself kills you with its gimmicks.
You know the Thwomp block in Super Mario? It’s kind of like that. Time your move wrong, or make a bad judgement, and the level will punish you for it without an ounce of mercy. That isn’t to say that getting through a level is impossible; quite the contrary, in that the moving blocks and barricades will show a pattern which you can make use of. It’s also the same with mob fights: You have to know how to deal with each type of mob, in addition to knowing how to deal with them when different types are thrown at you at the same time. Liberal use of the dash button became the gospel.
Sometimes, the fights are so absurdly difficult that it takes more than fifteen tries to make any sort of observable progress beyond getting beat into a pulp. Usually, in most RPGs, that indicates you are either too poorly equipped for the level, or you’re just plain not good enough. In reality, I had accumulated enough points to upgrade my character, but I deferred doing so – this was a drastic handicap for me.
In one example of level design, one particular room was a maze of walls that rose or vanished into the floor when you killed groups of mobs, changing the topography of the room and subsequently exposing you or shielding you from enemies that are shooting at you. This particular section of the level was frustrating enough, and I cheered myself after I finally cleared the room. I proceeded to the next room, only to find myself short on health and heals, and facing a bunch of laser-beam crow-casters. I was promptly slaughtered, and respawned in the room I had just cleared, complete with the mobs I had to defeat twenty times before I could get past it.
The game was basically telling me that I had to fight through all those enemies again, for an indeterminable number of repetitions before I could clear it and reach the next save checkpoint.
I promptly closed the program.
Hyper Light Drifter is a good game at its foundation with good mechanics and gameplay, but it periodically inspires a level of aggravation akin to what you would encounter in the Dark Souls franchise. I sometimes wonder if that was unintended (or intentional) on the part of Heart Machine, since it’s so deceptively enjoyable otherwise.
If anything, Hyper Light Drifter needs to do a better job with the save checkpoints. If you don’t mind that little issue, Hyper Light Drifter is worth a play.