A thunderstorm brews over a swelling sea while rain pelts the Drifter as he rests his ailing body by a fire. He steps away to have a coughing fit, blood drips from his lips and pools up on the ground, but is quickly washed away by the rain. The opening scene to Hyper Light Drifter has no direct explanation, there’s no words, no text, nothing, you’re left to your own imagination the whole way. Who is the Drifter? Why is he resting by this fire in the middle of a thunder storm? Why is he coughing up blood, is he sick? Some games pride themselves in not holding your hand with gameplay, letting you learn everything yourself. HLD lets you learn the story, the lore, everything by yourself, all of the major pieces of the world are there, the characters, the setting, etc. and it’s up to you to line those pieces up.
The introduction to the game is about the only time that you’ll see any text (in english), when the game teaches you which buttons do what. Even then, there’s not much to teach, you can move, slash, dash, shoot, and heal yourself if you have medkits with you. After that, the game just kind of lets you go through the rest of the intro area, you come across ruins of some old, highly advanced (and highly dead) civilization. Rays of light permeate through the cracks in the caverns that you travel through, adding to the calm nature of the game, even when you’ve got to carve a path through groups of enemies. Upon reaching the surface again, the storm has subsided, and you’re greeted with one of the most gorgeous pixel-art shots in videogame history. Beyond that, I won’t go into detail about what happens, because it’s strange, it’s interesting, it makes you think and ponder the situation, and I don’t want to spoil that for anyone.
HLD made me re-think what video games can really be, how they can present themselves, and how it can really, really work. The Dark Souls series has been praised for the fact that they’re all fantastic games that have almost no cutscenes or conventional story elements. You learn things through boss cutscenes, item descriptions, and random NPCs that give you little snippets of exposition. HLD, on the other hand, has those things without any speech or text, and even then, it doesn’t even have those before-the-boss cutscenes. No names are established, nothing is referred to as anything in particular (unless you do some serious out-of-game research), because none of it is particularly important to the game. The story is there, but it’s there for you to explore yourself, and it doesn’t drag you away from the game to ram it down your throat. Hyper Light Drifter follows a similar formula, but with even less, I mean, there’s no dialogue in the whole game, nowhere, not even in shops, everything is just in symbols. Even when you unlock the various secret monoliths in the game that unveil chunks of the story, they’re still not in english, I had to look up the translation on Google to find out what they were all about.
Secrets, now that’s another thing that’s a big part of this game, there are little secret pathways everywhere leading to all kinds of surprises. Sometimes they lead to the in-game currency (some kinda gold squares), health packs, the aforementioned monoliths, and other various goodies. I will say that some of them are a bit hard to find or notice, even for someone with a seasoned eye for hints at in-game secrets, sometimes you just gotta walk into walls and know there’s a hole there. I’m all for making players look for things, but I don’t wanna spend my time in the game rubbing up against every wall in every corridor thinking that there’s gold behind the wall. It also doesn’t help that the in-game map is not really very helpful at all, there’s not clear borders on where areas start and stop, you’re just kind “in that general area” on the map. Since you kind of need to know where you are in order to find certain things to progress the game (not just hidden stuff), it would be a lot more beneficial to have a proper map in a game about exploring.
The difficulty in the game is somewhat up to opinion, because dying carries little punishment with it. Dying, at most, will set you back a minute or two, and you can die as much as you want, with no punishment, which sounds great, but I swear I spend like 25 minutes in some sections because the enemy placement and everything was such bullshit sometimes. Bosses in the game aren’t that hard once you’ve gotten used to them, but that’s the thing, I would say that every boss in the game killed me at least once because they’re much like Zelda bosses. By that I mean that they attack in patterns, sometimes they mix those patterns up, but once you’re got them down, you’re good to go, and just have to follow said patterns. However, the five health pegs that you have doesn’t mean you can get hit five times, because some attacks deal 2-3 pegs worth of damage, so if you’re not quick with the health packs, you could be dead before you even see every attack a boss has to offer. It’s a small gripe, and as someone who’s played a lot of videogames, it doesn’t bother me all that much, but for a beginner, I can see how it might be a bit frustrating.
Hyper Light Drifter is one of those games that I heard about, just a little, in passing articles online, and just kinda picked it up when it came out. I had no idea that it would suck me in so fast and just envelope me in the strange, quiet, and beautiful world that it has to offer. I don’t totally recommend it to people who’re very new to gaming, because you’ll probably get stuck after not long and just get frustrated and not want to ever play it again or finish it. The ending (without spoiling anything) is both satisfying and a bit unsatisfying, for varying reasons that you’ll only understand once you’ve played. I really do recommend this game to absolutely everyone except for the most beginner-level players, or people who just don’t quite get the whole adventure genre. This is an indie game that gave me faith in the whole kickstarter and indie crowd after Mighty No. 9, and No Man’s Sky ripped my soul out and double-teamed it.
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Review Statement: The author of this review paid for a copy of the game for the purposes of this review.