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Review #047: Hyper Light Drifter (Nintendo Switch)

Reviewed By: John B.

Developed By: Heart Machine Published By: Abylight Studios Category: Action, Adventure, Role-Playing Release Date: 9.6.18

Download Hyper Light Drifter from the Nintendo eShop here.

Hyper Light Drifter has won so many awards it almost seems silly for me to throw my two cents into the discussion. It was released to nearly universal acclaim in 2016. Every gaming website loved it, players on Metacritic loved it; heck, even Toonami got in on the action. But just in case you weren’t sure and needed my opinion (thank you for the ego boost) to make up your mind to pick up and play HLD for the Switch; you definitely should.

And You Thought Your Healthcare Options Were Bad

Our hero is a lonely drifter, wandering around a fantasypunk wasteland. He is beset by strange enemies, and in the act of making his escape he is infected with a mysterious illness and/or dealt a nagging injury. I was never able to tell whether he was sick or injured; most places on the web say sickness, so I guess we can go with that. He sets off in the wake of a Doberman with a square halo in search of a cure, and ends up caught in a series of battles for the fate of the world.

If I have one complaint about the story, it’s that it doesn’t use words to explain itself. Hyper Light Drifter is completely dialogue-free; some NPCs will tell you their story in a series of panels, but it’s up to you to determine what the heck they’re trying to communicate. It’s not like the pictures aren’t fairly clear, but it’s about as barebones as it gets. I only complain about it because of how involved I became in the setting. I’m the type of fan who loves games with tons of deep, extraneous lore. I read every book in Skyrim, every note in Dragon Age, and every raider’s journal in Fallout. HLD builds a beautiful, engaging world; all I want is a way to lose myself in it even further.

Driftin’ Ain’t Easy

As the Drifter, you’ll wander around exploring a breathtaking landscape. There are four areas of the world to explore, plus the final dungeon. There are breakable items like crates and other assorted boxes laying around to be broken, several of which contain goodies like healing items and energy. Every four energy bits you collect completes one full unit. Upgrades for your weapons and abilities can be bought in town with energy units. There’s only one town, which makes things simpler; and by the end of the game, you’ll be dying for something simple. OK, you’ll actually be dying because the game isn’t simple, but metaphorically you’ll be dying for something simple.

There are also secret areas scattered around the map, containing goodies like keys for special doors or monoliths to activate. Some of these secrets harken back to the problem I have with the lack of text; there’s no context to what some of these secret items are for. The keys aren’t too hard to figure out, but there’s no hint as to what the monoliths could be for until you get them all. Still, finding all the secret areas, figuring out how to get into them, and ransacking them for energy bits, or, God willing, a new outfit is one of the more rewarding parts of the game experience.

Navigating around the map is generally simple, but every once in a while you’ll find yourself in the middle of a brutally hard pathfinding puzzle. Most of the time you’ll just be looking for a switch or elevator to move around, but there are some dash-related challenges that are simply ridiculous. Dashing across gaps from trapped panel to trapped panel requires split-second timing, and I mean you have to be precise. The game is very finicky about the timing of your button pressing; if you hit the dash button even slightly out of time, you’re screwed. These puzzles show up most often for extra items that are not required to finish the game, which is good, because I got fed up with some of them and just moved on after the hundredth try.

git gud nub

Combat is fairly simple to understand, but ridiculously hard to execute properly. Your Drifter has a melee attack, a ranged attack, and a dash. Melee attacks have a pretty short range, but then they are melee attacks, so that’s understandable. For your ranged attacks you can fire in whatever direction you’re facing with the regular trigger (ZR by default), or you can aim your attacks with the left trigger (ZL by default). When you aim you can’t move, however, so it’s not always useful to try to aim. Dashing is a good, but not foolproof, way of getting out of trouble. Most regular enemy fights aren’t too bad, except for a few scenes where the game just fills the screen with baddies, but for the most part fights aren’t too bad…

Except for boss fights. Holy crap are the boss fights tough! Boss monsters attack quickly and/or relentlessly, so keeping yourself in one piece is a heck of a challenge. Making matters worse (and this doesn’t just apply to boss fights, but it is felt most keenly in them), healing isn’t instantaneous. There are a few frames of animation each time you use a medpac, during which you can’t move, and then a few frames more for the health bars to regenerate; and during all of this, you’re standing still. If you get hit during any of it, the regeneration stops and you still lose the medpac. Finding a few seconds to stand still and heal during a boss fight is really difficult. In one small concession to player sanity, the game does restart you at the beginning of the boss’s room if you die during a boss fight, so at least there’s no backtracking to worry about.

A Beautiful Place to Die

For as often as I got frustrated by the boss fights and finicky dash controls, I always forgave Hyper Light Drifter because it’s just so damn gorgeous. The pixel-based art style is smooth and detailed, creating a compelling and enthralling aesthetic. The overall design of the game is unique and alluring. Character animations are smooth and sharp. The four different areas of the game are distinct, yet still feel like they’re all part of the same world. Discarded and decaying weapons and monsters hint at the brutal and tantalizingly deep history of HLD’s world; I said it already, but I wish we could have gotten some journals or something to read to fill that history in.

The music is likewise outstanding. For the most part, Hyper Light Drifter adopts a minimalist electronic score. World exploration is accompanied by slow, quiet, reflective tunes that echo the grand emptiness of your surroundings. Fight music is more frantic and urgent, befitting the Drifter’s desperate struggle for life. Whatever quibbles I have with the gameplay design, the game’s art direction could not be more perfect.

Drift to the eShop at Hyper-Light Speed

So just buy this game. Even if you’re not a fan of brutal action-RPGs this is a game worth playing just for its beautiful design sense. While I did complain about the difficulty of the game in some areas, I always had a huge feeling of accomplishment when I finally overcame a challenge that had been frustrating me. After I beat the second boss I actually screamed out loud I was so happy. And did I mention that the graphics are frickin’ amazing? (They are, by the way.) What I’m trying to say is, even though not every individual thing about the game is perfect, when everything gets packaged together you end up with one of the most amazing game experiences of the last few years.

Final Score: 10/10

Download Hyper Light Drifter from the Nintendo eShop here.

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