Are you ready to get lost in a fantastical world reminiscent of the past years of pixelated gaming? That’s just how you’ll feel when you play Hyper Light Drifter and take on the challenge of exploring its vast world of monsters, ruins, collectables and secrets. Development for this classical yet modern game came to the world via a Kickstarter created by developer and self publisher Heart Machine. After asking for the humble amount of $27,000 and receiving over $600,000, Hyper Light Drifter was on its way to us. We braved the unfortunate delays from mid-2014 to spring 2016 and are delighted by the results of this amazing looking game as we set off on our adventure. It was well worth the wait.
To tell you what Hyper Light Drifter is about would ruin everything, for this is a game about the player’s discovery. Each person will take something different from the story and the whole experience and the pure joy of playing comes from exploring the world and discovering what it has to offer. To plainly explain you must traverse through all four regions of the world to defeat their respective bosses and collect artifacts until you reach the end. You will need to make sure you read every sign and symbol the game has to offer to find clues for where to go next. The environment will guide you naturally as long as you take the time to observe your surroundings and explore. Even your character will sometimes take control and you’ll watch in anticipation for which piece of the puzzle will be revealed next.
To help you on your way you are equipped with the ability to dash and slash. You’ll dash across gaps to find secrets, avoid deadly shots and get up in enemies’ grills to slash them to their end. This combination of moves makes combat feel highly satisfying as you smoothly work your way through each room and move precisely to defeat each enemy. You also have the option to shoot a gun either by risking everything and standing still to aim or dashing nearby and shooting from the hip which will mostly hit what you're close to. Adding the different style of guns, like the shotgun's close range blast or the rifle’s long distance precision to your combination of attacks allows players to personalise their play experience. Yet what makes this interesting is the limited ammo which forces players to slash enemies to refill their weapons. The dash, slash, and shoot was our favourite and most satisfying combination of combat as it made use of all mechanics in a nice feeling flow.
Unfortunately, you’ll start Hyper Light Drifter feeling very lost. We commend this game for not going down the road of mollycoddling tutorials like many games today. In fact there is no text in this game, only symbols. Symbols that don't mean a lot until you really start playing and experimenting. Occasionally you’ll encounter the odd NPC who will show you simple imagery and mark pointers on your map but other than that, you’re on your own. Well, there is the map to read but even that is on the frustratingly simplistic side so following it at first will make you more lost. This world is more about reading its own environmental language to learn what is around you. Once you recognise one symbol you’ll learn exactly what it does and will be able to go back and progress in other areas and push forward in more still. It's a process that feels very rewarding as you learn through gameplay and by reading what the world has to offer.
The game is pretty open as you can technically go any way you want at first and when you are blocked you’ll pay attention to what could potentially help you in the future. You’ll encounter collectibles like little yellow squares, green boxes, keys and interactive stones but figuring out what each one does is a task in itself. Once you’ve got it you’ll know what to look out for and when to look for it until it's second nature. It's not all in plain sight however, nothing really is amongst all those pixels. There are lots of hidden away areas throughout the world and thanks to the simplistic map you really need to look at every nook and cranny...or you could learn what to look out for. It took us until the third or fourth area for the penny to drop so the onus is very much on you to explore.
The initial drawback to this symbolic recognition was the first time we opened a menu when interacting with an NPC. Before even setting off on our adventure we hadn’t found any collectibles so when we were faced with this pop up we had no idea what anything was for...were these symbols decoration? Is this a shop? Am I equipping an item? As an introduction to the game this was very overwhelming. Even when starting out there is a diagram which took us some analysis to realise it was actually teaching us what to do for the whole game. Hyper Light Drifter is really about taking the time to sit back and analyse all the details around you.
On top of these symbols, these graphics are just stunning, at least for a pixel-art game.. Where the character might be simple pixels the whole world and creatures come together like a gorgeous piece of artwork. Between the detailed imagery in story pictures or the giant dead monsters lying around it takes the eyes a while to get used to but once they adjust it’s all pure art. Sometimes depth perception was a bit of an issue when entering a visually-new part of the world and learning what was a gap to our death or if something was a threat. Other than that it looks amazing.
Let's make one thing clear: this is a hard game. Collectibles aren't the only well hidden gem in the game but so are your health packs. You'll want to hang onto them as the enemies are tricky to get around and single use packs are spread out under hidden sections or tricky to notice spots. As you travel from room to room there is a series of enemies to defeat which all act differently and really test the player with their dodging and combat skills. You have limited health represented by only a few hit points so you’ll want to hold onto health packs and use them at the right time. Keep an eye out and use them at the right time or the slight delay for healing could be the end of your life.
When we said the game was hard we meant it - especially when it comes to facing off against bosses. They might be difficult, but the feeling of satisfaction you get from reaching the end of that lengthy health bar is significant. Like countless gaming boss fights, overcoming these threats is all about recognising their patterns, which you will have conveniently learned by defeating the enemies in the region it resides. It will prove a tough challenge, but not an unfair one - and the precision needed to kill them is entirely in your hands, and based on your prior knowledge.
Now, let's talk about co-op because that comes with its own challenges. A second player can jump in anytime they want for couch co-op. The second player can’t pick up collectibles or heal but it makes exploration and battling bosses a lot more fun as you work together. Having a new pair of eyes on the scene will make scouring those pixels for secrets much more fun. It also adds an extra layer to the gameplay as both players will die if player one runs out of health. However, player two can respawn by using up a sliver of health from player one but this causes a pause in action for this player. Do it at the wrong time and you might cause death for both of you, which may have happened to us...a lot...during the final boss.
To play the game to its finish will be a simple enough adventure once you’ve read its language yet to really understand the world and story you will have to spend a lot more time uncovering each single secret and collectible. After the twelve plus hours it took us to finish, we left still feeling a little bit empty storywise, yet it didn't take too much attention away from the whole experience. If you have the time to go back and search for every tiny detail then we strongly recommend you do.
Hyper Light Drifter is a beautifully crafted piece of work from its world design to the gameplay. Players will feel challenged yet accomplished as they progress through its secrets and symbolic meanings. The odds of you finishing with everything unlocked are slim yet the pure mystery of unlocking its world and story will leave you wanting to play more and return to collect everything you missed.