The first thing that springs to mind when I think of Hyper Light Drifter is how utterly beautiful it is. This game is an artistic masterpiece, both visually and aurally, with a picturesque style and soulful soundtrack. The audiovisual elegance of this game manages to make a post-apocalyptic world breathtakingly resplendent – endearing, even. This is why I therefore lament the fact that the game is locked at a measly 30 frames per second. Hyper Light Drifter would have been perfect had it not been constrained by such a strange limitation.
You play as the Drifter, exploring a world devastated by… something. Or many somethings. The game doesn’t exactly specify what happened. It looks like it’s been many, many years since the apocalypse as everything has been reclaimed by nature. Equipped with an energy sword and the power to dash all over the place, you set upon a quest to… outrun an inky-black monster and pet a dog with a halo? Honestly, the game doesn’t really explain anything. It’s like an extreme case of ‘show, don’t tell’.
The narrative style of Hyper Light Drifter is minimalistic, to say the least. The only instances where there are words on the screen are during tutorial segments that explain how to perform a certain move or very briefly give an explanation on some of the more obscure mechanics of the game. Everything else is communicated with images and icons, like when you encounter an NPC that tells you to to go hunt down a boss with a sequence of images and a red skull icon. To Heart Machine’s credit, it’s pretty clear what you must do. Some of the more obtuse instructions can leave you wondering for a while, but eventually everything becomes clear, like how the currency of the game works. Except for the map – that thing is kinda useless. In my playthrough I just ended up memorising the locations themselves. Like, I’m really good at knowing where stuff is in the eastern region. Do I get an achievement for that?
While the obtuseness does accentuate the enigmatic feel of the game, I would be lying if I told you I was fine with not knowing what the story was all about. I’ve beaten Hyper Light Drifter, but search me if you will, I have no idea what the game was even about, which is a shame since the world of Hyper Light Drifter is so fascinating. The opening cinematic got me, dare I say, ‘Hyped’ to discover what this universe had to offer. Unfortunately, the game decided to remain shrouded in mystery. Now, some would say that the esoteric lore is what makes the game what it is, and while I don’t necessarily disagree, I still prefer clarity over mystification. If you are like me and love you some good ol’ lore, here’s an extensive speculation over what the story could be all about.
But enough with the game’s atmosphere, let’s talk combat! If you’ve ever played one of the older Legend of Zelda games (like A Link to the Past), then the gameplay should be familiar to you, though Hyper Light Drifter requires precise timing for most of it’s moves. This is where the 30 frames per second limit makes itself felt. The games doesn’t feel choppy by any means, but considering the action-orientated combat, the more frames you have, the better it is. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve missed the timing on deflecting a bullet or performing a chain dash, something which I’m pretty sure could have been solved with a higher framerate. In spite of this, the combat does have it’s enjoyable moments, especially after you’ve bought most of the sword and dash upgrades and know the enemy’s attack patterns well.
In addition to your trusty fluorescent sword, there are guns you can find throughout the world, and they can pack a real punch. I found myself wandering the ruins with the shotgun and blasting the larger, tankier enemies at point-blank range for the most damage, and boy is that satisfying. There are six guns you can collect (assuming there are no secret ones) and they all use up ammo that you can recharge by destroying environmental doodads, like shrubs, but you will get more ammo if you damage things that can damage you back.
You’re also able to buy grenades to help against large crowds. The grenades themselves replenish over time, but I can’t say I’ve encountered many situations where they were vital to my survival, so in the end I just forgot about them. A bigger arsenal is never a bad thing, though.
I would be remiss to talk about Hyper Light Drifter without mentioning one of the more rewarding aspects of the game: exploration. This is, in my opinion, where the game thrives the most. Hyper Light Drifter doesn’t lend itself to cheap tactics and hide the secret areas in completely random places that are impossible to find unless you probe every corner of every region (I’m looking at you, Doom). Instead, secret areas have subtle hints that clue you in – either by placing a symbol of a square with another shape inside it near the secret in question, or by hinting that something else might be around the corner with the level design. An example of the latter would be a ledge that seems to continue off-screen, giving the impression that it might be the start of a hidden path. Hyper Light Drifter is chock-full of those, making exploration a lot of fun.
So, would I recommend Hyper Light Drifter to you, dear reader? If a limit of 30 frames per second doesn’t bother you, then absolutely! The game oozes personality, and the combat is fun despite the framerate lock. The sense of wonder I’ve experienced wandering the reclaimed ruins of this vibrant world has kept me coming back for more. It’s been a blast playing that game, and while I have no desire to do a New Game + where you die in two hits, and one from the hard-hitters (basically an exercise in frustration), I’m happy I got to experience this gem of a game. Heart Machine made a veritable work of art. I’m excited to see what they make next.