AAA titles tend to be fairly easy outside of a select few who go against the grain. This sells units since they remain relatively accessible for all age groups and skill levels. Take Mario for example; with Super Mario Maker as the exception, every recent title has some sort of helping tool to aid you if you can’t complete the level. I understand the business reason for these design choices but when it comes to games, I’m a masochist.
Masochist gamers are not uncommon but to get our fix, we typically have to look to old school or indie games. Games like Super Meat Boy push our frustration, The Witness pushes our minds, and Hyper Light Drifter pushes our imaginations.
Hyper Light Drifter is an indie title that has found a high level of publicity with its unique look as well as inspiration from The Legend of Zelda. It launched March 31st 2016 on steam and was met with a surprising outcry against its difficulty.
When you start it up, you’re presented with a decent sized cut scene that reveals nothing more than the protagonist and a rather occult based world full of shadows and things that go bump in the night. As you gain control of your character, the game presents you with little prompts to get you going.
As you progress, you encounter a story that is vague and mysterious involving a magic dog(?), yourself, and a shadowy beast that continues to torment you. The narrative is told through pictures and the environment itself. For instance, after meeting a random guy who showed me a slide show of himself escaping captivity, I ran across the corpses of his brethren stacked up against the wall later in the level. Events like that taught me the story begs you to try to piece it together instead of spoon feeding it to you. This did not prove to always be the best choice.
As I progressed through the narrative, my intrigue in the story gave way to the exciting gameplay. It wasn’t for lack of interest but rather the thought lingering in my head that no matter how much I thought about it, I would never divine its true nature. That is to say, a lot of the things you do in Hyper Light Drifter appear to have little to no effect. There are often side areas you discover which have a stone monolith inside and as you interact with it, a tall… bunny appears. The giant bunny then taps on his tablet pc, lights up the monolith and nothing happens. Nothing changes in the immediate vicinity, nothing occurs in the over world, and now no reason to find more of them as far as I knew.
The vagueness put in the game serves as a double edged sword giving me both reason to explore as well as a better reason to just ignore the story elements and side areas. It’s sad because I bet there’s something deeper that more hardcore players will discover but for me, bosses and challenge became the reason I continued on.
Before completing the game and writing this review, I heard from a number of sources that this game was so hard and unfair that it was no longer fun. As douchey as it sounds, I never found myself frustrated but encouraged and determined by the difficulty.
Bosses and enemies in the game only beat you down when you don’t learn their patterns and neglect to proceed with caution. Patience often begets victory as each boss has a very set pattern that changes as their health lowers in a similar way to old school RPGs. The normal enemies also pose a relatively high threat and you often find yourself outnumbered, but I never felt like there was a mechanic in the game that was unbalanced or completely against me. What many are complaining about is having to think about encounters and memorize attack patterns instead of swinging wildly. That’s not unfair or unplayable, it’s great game design.
Hyper Light Drifter has that in spades. Each swing of your laser sword feels weighty and direct, your dodge feels quick and animated, and the relief gained from recovering your health is so soothing! The combat becomes more of a dance and timing game as you count your three hit combo to avoid getting punished or make sure your dodge ends on the right side of a dangerous adversary.
Further, many games cough up power ups without much effort and make the game too easy very early on. However, due to smart design, you are forced to EARN your abilities in this game through hardships. Then once you finally scrape together enough gold to get one, you’re met with a more troubling dilemma. Do you buy the cool ass charge up sword move or the dash that deflects projectiles? How about adding more bullets to your favorite gun or another slot so you can heal yourself in battle more often?
Instead of lining your pockets with gold, this game gives it to you sparingly so each power up feels meaningful and you get a huge sense of gratification. I personally decided to create a master swordsman. In lieu of all the defensive and health upgrades, I took all the sword techniques and became a force to be reckoned with.
Hyper Light Drifter is also able to ease the usual woes of games in the same genre. For example, there’s a pop up when you try to leave the game telling you how long it has been since your last checkpoint so you don’t lose hours of progress from a rage quit. That’s brilliant! Touches like that litter the game and really help you immerse yourself in the world with no worries of the “gamey” bits bothering you.
There’s so very much more I can say about Hyper Light Drifter but when it comes down to it, it’s a game that succeeds in every single area. From an intriguing narrative to compelling combat, it sucks you in to its techno-magic world and doesn’t let go. Its detailed bosses, magnificent art style and even better soundtrack (check it out!) all work together to deliver an experience that you won’t soon forget.
From one masochist to those elite few I know are out there, this is the one for you. For everyone else, steel yourselves and try out one of the best designed games in years.
My final verdict for Hyper Light Drifter is a resounding series of confusing and creepy Evangelion claps out of 10.
Pros: Great Game Design, sharp consistent combat, mysterious backstory, great art style, awesome music, gratifying progression system
Cons: Checkpoints are sometimes way far back taking minutes to get back through, story can be too vague, side areas feel meaningless with no context for what they do or why you should do them
Andron (or Ace as he likes to call himself) is the so called "Head Honcho" of Bombchu.com. He has a deep passion for video games primarily RPGs, Fighting or Adventure. When not gaming, he's furiously typing on his keyboard or coming up with new schemes.