Hyper Light Drifter refuses to hold your hand, and the result is a fresh take on one of gaming’s oldest genres.
After trekking through countless indie games with retro graphics, it can be easy as a player to fall into pixelated monotony. Thankfully, developer Heart Machine vaults players over gaming clichés and propels itself into the same indie pantheon as Fez, Super Meat Boy and Legend of Zelda.
Starting with the game’s opening moments, how you play Hyper Light Drifter is open ended. You can travel in any of the four cardinal directions in search of crystal shards that will unlock bosses. Along the way, you’ll collect pieces that can be exchanged for new guns, maneuvers and bombs. None of these upgrades are necessary, but they make progression much easier and keep combat fresh.
Much like the upgrade system, enemy encounters are very much up to the player. The game allows you to aggressively attack enemies with charges, or you can stay back and use guns to try to even the odds before finishing a fight with your trusty sword. Later on, you can unlock the ability to charge and attack simultaneously or even deflect incoming bullets, which only add more depth to the fair but difficult combat.
The audio in Hyper Light Drifter is fantastic. Encounters with enemies and bosses feature orchestral tones while exploration is often met with ambient electronica that is damn-near soothing — something that I enjoyed after heart-pounding and occasionally infuriating battles.
Although retro graphics in indies may be bordering on passé, Hyper Light Drifter uses vibrant pastel colors to make each of the regions of unique. These environments often feature hints of rich unspoken lore. In fact, the lack of any dialogue is another factor that makes exploration so rewarding in Hyper Light Drifter. There are no helpful hints, and many collectibles require you to find hidden paths. The sense of reward upon discovering a new outfit or weapon buried in corners and off screen was enough to keep me searching regions long after all my enemies were dead.
Speaking of enemies, Hyper Light Drifter has many different foes that each utilize different forms of attack to keep you on your toes. It isn’t uncommon to enter a room where you’ll be charged by aggressive attackers while weak enemies fire at you from a distance. At first, these encounters feel like bullet-hell territory, but as your character acquires upgrades, clearing rooms becomes less of a daunting chore and more of a thrilling challenge.
Each of the four regions has its own major boss battle with several mini-bosses along the way. While the dungeon crawling and mini-bosses weren’t too tough, I did find that some of the major bosses were much more difficult than the others. In a traditional linear title, this ramping up difficulty is to be expected, but in games like Hyper Light Drifter, it’s frustrating that players can stumble into the hardest bosses right off the bat.
As you defeat bosses and explore, you’ll be presented with little snippets of a story that are more Dark Souls lore than they are Legend of Zelda story. Again, with no dialogue, many things become interpretive and occasionally hard to comprehend. As a result, the challenging gameplay that requires calculated attacks makes the vague story feel like more of a side note. I’m fine with this, and it serves the mysterious tone of the game well.
Hyper Light Drifter incorporates some very good ideas into its vibrant and violent world to pique gamer’s interests throughout the six-hour affair. While the story felt a little vague for my taste, it’s clear that Heart Machine’s efforts to create a polished combat and exploration game weren’t in vain. Sure, those who don’t know better may rush into boss encounters and get stuck, but patient gamers who enjoy searching every nook and cranny of the game space will find the experience much more balanced.
It’s not often to come across games in 2016 where players aren’t coddled by developers, and Heart Machine deserves respect for avoiding this condescending trope.
Hyper Light Drifter was reviewed on a Xbox One press copy courtesy of Heart Machine.
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