Just drifting along
As you get older, it’s easy for rose-colored glasses to slip in front of your eyes and for you to pine for the simpler times of your childhood. As a gamer of a certain age, this means I’ve embraced the indie scene, which is comprised of game developers also of a certain age that churn out low-budget titles that often pay homage to those games of yesteryear. Sometimes, however, indie games—like Hyper Light Drifter—do just enough poorly to remind us that there is a reason why game publishers continue to innovate, having mostly left the 8- and 16-bit eras in the past.
In Hyper Light Drifter, players take on the role of the titular Drifter, a futuristic Ronin character whose energy sword and gun has thrust him into the role of a de facto protector of a small village. The Drifter’s world has just bounced back from the brink after giant monsters had attacked, but were miraculously wiped out, in no small part it seems from the Drifter himself. The people who survived are now rebuilding amongst the hollowed out corpses of these terrifying creatures—and the Drifter is not about to let his world succumb once more.
At least, that’s what I think the story is all about. Taking inspiration from many of the games from the NES and SNES eras, Hyper Light Drifter has no voiceover whatsoever. Trying for a “less is more” approach, the game also removes all text post-title screens, trying to convey the story instead through odd flashbacks by our hero, and the occasional pictures painted by local citizens. Unfortunately, instead of less is more, this method of storytelling felt more like “less is less,” leaving me guessing as to what was going on and offering little motivation to keep pushing the Drifter forward through the world. In fact, if I hadn’t been playing this game for the purposes of this review, I’d probably have stopped about halfway through and been happily done with it.
Another aspect that made it difficult to discern what was going on was the pixel-art motif. It’s a hit or miss art style in my opinion, and in this case, it missed the mark entirely. The bright color scheme could not make up for the fact that the rough edges of the characters and environments felt like they didn’t belong in an adventure that was going for such an epic tone, and made it so I could barely discern friend from foe at times.
Even though Hyper Light Drifter is a narrative and visual mess, there is one saving grace: the combat. The Drifter can dash around to avoid enemies, use his sword for up close damage, and fire away with his guns to do distance damage. As you find upgrade chips around the world, you can upgrade how much health the Drifter can carry, acquire more powerful guns, or do more advanced techniques with the sword like reflect bullets back at enemies or do a dash attack. While it’s not the deepest combat system, Hyper Light Drifter does push it to its limits to make each encounter difficult enough to be a challenge, but not so much so that you become frustrated enough to quit fighting.
The favored tactic of Hyper Light Drifter to accomplish this is to fill the screen with enemies. Although most enemies fall after two or three hits, dashing and dodging around the room to avoid the constant pursuit of a dozen foes reminded me of the punishment games like Bloodborne could dish out, and was a welcome treat. The only thing more epic than fighting a dozen smaller enemies was taking on the game’s half-dozen bosses and countless mini-bosses as I looked for the four keys in the world that opens a portal to the final boss.
Speaking of looking for keys, one other interesting aspect of the game is that it’s filled with a lot of nooks and crannies that lead to special items and power-ups for the Drifter. Exploration is a key part of any adventure game, but circling back to the visuals, finding ways to those hidden areas was made a little extra difficult by the fact that I didn’t know what I could or couldn’t interact with most of the time. I felt like I blind man without his cane as I would poke and prod nearly every wall, tree, and bush in the world, on the odd chance it would fall away or I could walk right through it and into a room filled with goodies. If you want to use the game’s map, you’d be better off trying to read hieroglyphics, due to its inability to do simple things like accurately track the player’s position.
Hyper Light Drifter’s creator Alex Preston has said that he wanted to bring the best of games like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past back to the forefront. Although the influence of those games is clearly seen in this effort, it is far short of the high bar those great games of yesteryear set. Instead, Hyper Light Drifter reminds me more of the mediocrity that era of game would sometimes produce, with strong core gameplay, but not much else. If you want to keep your rose-colored glasses in tact, I’d recommend passing on this modern attempt at yet another throwback.
|Developer: Heart Machine • Publisher: Heart Machine • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 07.26.16|
There’s some strong core gameplay to Hyper Light Drifter, but not much else. Unfortunately, no amount of nostalgia is going to make up for that.
|The Good||Combat is punishing, but also satisfying enough that it’ll never deter you from continuing.|
|The Bad||A world that feels empty, with a hero that feels like he has no purpose.|
|The Ugly||We get teased giant monsters in the opening cutscene and we fight no giant monsters. Disappointing.|
|Hyper Light Drifter is available on Xbox One, PS4, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Heart Machine for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.|