A cryptic laser show with sword and speed.
As a stylish rekindling of old-school action games, Hyper Light Drifter lets its basic combat mechanics, and heavily inferred story do all the talking, subduing you in a hypnotic trance of sound and color. While it excels in all of those beautiful, pixelated spaces, it also obscures too many pieces of its time-traveling story for this world of death and savagery to make sense.
Hyper Light Drifter is provocative. In its first impression, it radiates light and warmth and tone through incandescent rays of kaleidoscopic neon graphics, staticy sounds, and upbeat digital tunes that set the stage for a colorful sci-fi world. Its pixel art is brilliant, conveying detail through subtle touches – like a blast of air causing ripples in the water. Despite its pixelated trappings, it grapples with mature themes: extinction, genocide, cultism, religious symbolism, and time travel.
We want to hear it.
Developer Heart Machine’s slick fighting systems are equally distilled, marrying melee slashes and long-ranged firearms with slippery dashes for a simple, potent foundation. That’s built upon through purchasable skills, which give you the option to add complexity where you want it. For example, precisely timing your dash allows for another, and another, and another, chaining dashes for as long as you’re able to keep the rhythm without running into anything. Similarly, you can upgrade your sword to reflect incoming projectiles back at attackers, perform a dash-lunge, or hold your slash for a powerful, charged AOE swipe in the style of The Legend of Zelda: A Link To the Past.
Its storytelling is a wordless experience that requires interpretation.
With the exception of a grenade ability, these upgrades don’t introduce completely new mechanics, but instead only add interesting elements to your beginning skills. That adds flavor to the combat systems without overcomplicating things. But most impressively, they’re all optional – to the point where you can finish Hyper Light Drifter’s roughly seven-hour campaign without purchasing any upgrades at all, if you’ve got the raw skill to pull it off.
And while I wouldn’t consider Hyper Light Drifter overly hard – I was able to defeat most bosses on my first or second encounter, with the exception of two disproportionately difficult ones – I would also shy away from calling it a style-over-substance kind of experience. It takes a commendable risk with its bold storytelling that intrigues, but doesn’t fully pay off in the end.
We want to hear it.
Its storytelling is a wordless experience that requires interpretation. Interacting with an NPC conveys information in storyboard-like sequences. Its repeating, dreamlike cutscenes are cryptic. For me, all this reinforced the idea of drifting through time and space because for a large part of Hyper Light Drifter I was grasping for a handhold as to what the hell was going on.
Heart Machine’s slick fighting systems marry melee slashes and long-ranged firearms with slippery dashes for a simple, potent foundation.
I gathered bits and pieces of the story: an apocalypse, an illness, time travel, and a mysterious dog all play a part. Again, I can’t really be sure how it all fits together exactly, because though I have my theories, they’re just interpretations of a stylish, intriguing series of events and images that never fully makes good on its grand setting. What few direct answers do exist are trapped inside monoliths hidden in secret coves and behind locked doors.
While this genre has a long and proud history of secrets hidden in this fashion, and I did enjoy them at first, the way these story fragments are frustratingly stashed in each of the world’s four regions became increasingly annoying. At their best we’re given a clue, like a ledge that seemingly has no other purpose, and keen observation is rewarded. At their worst, you’re required to throw yourself against each and every wall just to alleviate the anxiety you might miss a hidden opening, or path of proximity triggered, invisible platforms. Something as essential as the keys to understanding the story shouldn’t be hidden behind so much busywork.
Hyper Light Drifter is a gorgeous, trendy hunk of stylish old-school sensibilities mated with the iconic hues of pixelated indie charm. It’s a return to simpler control schemes, building on sound mechanical fundamentals rather than trying to wow with new ways of interaction within each and every checkpoint. Though its wordless storytelling took some of the thrill out of completing the campaign, Hyper Light Drifter is a joy to play, (and replay in the new game plus mode) its mechanical excellence and stylish veneer.