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Hyper Light Drifter (PC) artwork

Hyper Light Drifter (PC) review

"Evolution and decay"

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Hyper Light Drifter (PC) image

Elements of a video game -- or any other medium of art, for that matter -- are like ingredients of cuisine. One can create a formula, or recipe, composed of the same ingredients, but by altering the execution, a vastly different creation can be wrought. For instance, Anodyne is extremely emulative of the 2D Zelda games, yet its unique tone, visuals, and overworld structure give it a unique identity. Similarly, Hyper Light Drifter draws inspiration from preceding works, yet its presentation and gameplay are of a style all its own.

The developers at Heart Machine understand that video games as a medium are better suited to storytelling by image than storytelling by text, and this alongside its gameplay establish a strong tone early on. One of the best intro cutscenes to any game says everything without speaking a word; pitted against forces beyond your understanding, you are a wandering warrior killing your way through a dangerous yet gorgeous world as you race to accomplish your mission before a lethal ailment overwhelms you. In lieu of a traditional narrative, Hyper Light Drifter establishes its identity via use of the aural, the visual, the structural, and the interactive.

Hyper Light Drifter (PC) image

A duology creates the impeccable sound design of Hyper Light Drifter: impact and ambiance. From the crunch of charge-slashing a foe into a wall to the heavy clicking of a laser rifle being charged, each attack carries varying levels of punch that help distinguish power dynamics. After a symphony of spilled blood and rent metal, intense waves of synthesizers ebb down to an eerie stillness. Disasterpeace has made masterful soundtracks for such works as Fez and It Follows, but their work here is arguably their best thus far. Rich ambiance conveys the identities of each area, and intense battle variants stand ready to seamlessly transition from their calmer counterparts, making the world of this game as engaging for the ears as it is for the eyes.

The creative pixellated landscapes of Hyper Light Drifter form what is one of the most beautiful worlds the medium has yet given life to. Few games of any production value have as much sheer attention to detail to their environments as seen here, with wind animations and particle effects making the ecosystems feel alive. Of course, one cannot neglect the core art direction at play in Hyper Light Drifter; forests, mountain peaks, and deserts are hardly uncommon settings for video games, yet Hyper Light Drifter's presentation is so elite that even industrial laboratories are a feast for the eyes. The camera also adopts a unique style; it switches between tracking your character and fixating on points of interest, such as a compact arena you're battling in. Many secrets are held offscreen, so you must be on the lookout for any topographical features (often more subtle than the tired cracked wall trope) that suggest more to be seen beyond your point of view. This makes discovery of new areas all the more satisfying, which is aided by a largely nonlinear structure.

Hyper Light Drifter (PC) image

Progression adopts a structure far above the past's design philosophies of giving you a large world that may as well be completely linear since you have to get X item from Y dungeon to progress in Z dungeon. A majority of the map is free to explore from the start, and although some areas are more challenging than others, there is no path to progression that wastes time. A significant factor of this success is the upgrade system; instead of giving you a bargain bin's worth of junk that requires swimming through menus to select that one thing that's useful only that one time, Hyper Light Drifter takes the Anodyne route of presenting a toolkit that's as convenient in its usage as it is practical and diverse. Upgrades such as grenades, larger ammo clips for guns, and ways to deal with enemy projectiles aren't found in obscured treasure chests but in stores requiring not money to farm but credit chips to be found throughout the world as a result of your ability to explore and observe your environs. There's no wrong answer as to what to get first, as every new acquisition can radically deepen your approach to combat.

The weighted, strategic combat seen here is much more intricate and fulfilling than the fluffy "run around danger and mash the attack button" gameplay of Zelda games or the trial-and-error of Souls games, adopting the positive attributes of both while leaving behind their flaws and bolstering their complexity. In Hyper Light Drifter, you zip about the battlefield in an aggressively pugilistic fashion, prioritizing targets and pulling out of danger when the time is right. Without descending into frame-counting nonsense, the combat here demands understanding of the properties of your moveset, such as what moves will leave you vulnerable and what can precede or succeed an attack quickly. However, you aren't crippled and pitted against enemies that pull out-of-nowhere attacks one can't possibly see coming or defend against; the enemies here have subtle tells for their attacks, meaning that observation is a more effective (and fun and mentally engaging) strategy than just bulldozing your way through failed attempts to memorize attack patterns like some sort of animal test subject with Stockholm's syndrome. You don't need to waste hours of your life to just start enjoying the bread and potatoes here, for the core of this game is as intuitive and well-balanced as it is deep and rewarding to master.

Hyper Light Drifter (PC) image

Despite becoming quite formidable over the course of the game, one cannot help but feel dread and urgency creeping in over time, with environments becoming less welcoming, enemies becoming more vicious, and your ailments becoming more apparent. This lends itself to another distinct theme of Hyper Light Drifter: decay. Game director Alex Preston has wrestled with health defects throughout his life, even leading to complications that significantly postponed the game's release, and he wished Hyper Light Drifter to convey his horrific struggles. “I have a deep need to keep funneling my personal nightmares and frustrations into my work,” confides the developer. “It keeps me functioning. I don’t think I can avoid it.” Just as the Drifter himself races against death to accomplish his mission, so has Alex in creating this magnificent work. As I explored the rubble of once-grand civilizations, I was reminded of my mortality and became more empathetic for the physically unwell. Not many games can boast that sort of effect on me.

Hyper Light Drifter (PC) image

It's hard to deny that Hyper Light Drifter is a brilliantly structured and balanced game. From aspects as integral as freeing the player from outdated methods of gating progression, to elements as minute as how important items must be found by exploring instead of brainlessly grinding enemies, everything promotes discovery. However, what truly secures its artistic immortality is the achingly gorgeous world it constructed. No amount of critical analysis can quite drive home the range of emotions felt upon deftly slaying the last terrified enemy in a beautiful natural battleground, standing among the corpses as the music swells again. Many of its ingredients have been used in other works, but the execution, presentation, and attention to detail in Hyper Light Drifter make it one-of-a-kind.

Hyper Light Drifter (PC) image


Follow_Freeman's avatar
Featured community review by Follow_Freeman (June 26, 2018)

When he isn't in a life-or-death situation, Dr. Freeman enjoys playing a variety of video games. From olden shooters to platformers & action titles: Freeman may be a bit stuck with the games of the past, but he doesn't mind. Some things don't age much.

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If you enjoyed this Hyper Light Drifter review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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honestgamer posted June 26, 2018:

This is one of your stronger reviews, though your last paragraph begins with "There is no denying that, objectively speaking..." which is false. Anyone can deny the claim the sentence's remainder makes, because it is subjective. You could chop those words and the sentence would still read strikingly, but without the contentious tone that detracts from its message.

Elsewhere, your links to the other sites/stories are distracting, because they are too extended. There's a reason most sites just choose a couple of words, and it's not professional jealousy. They're going with what looks better on the page. For your first external hyperlink, "wrestled with" would be two natural words to use as your link. For the second external hyperlink, "confides the developer" would work. Try it and see if you notice a visual improvement.

As I noted, this is one of your stronger reviews. There were fewer grammatical errors and rough spots, your writing seemed more sure-footed overall, and your enthusiasm for the game shone brightly in several places. I also liked your observation at the start, about how the same ingredients can make dishes of differing substance. It was a nice way to ease the reader into your overall thoughts on the game and its place within the overall genre.
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Follow_Freeman posted June 27, 2018:

Thank you, using your advice makes the article look much better know! I went ahead and did some rewording in those two paragraphs as well, and I think the article is better for it.

I might as well link to game's Steam page, as it is on sale at this time.

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