The world of Hyper Light Drifter (HLD) is beautiful yet simple, sprawling yet confusing and challenging yet rewarding. In fact the more you play Heart Machine Studios new title the more it seems for every one thing it nails perfectly, it is balanced out by one thing that is deeply frustrating.
Take the world itself as a prime example. It’s big, sprawling, multi-tiered and completely open for free exploration. But the counter point to this is a map that doesn’t offer any guidance on how to navigate to where you need to go. You can see where you need to get to but often no idea how to get there, which can result in wandering around hoping to find the path that would link you to the right area to proceed. Annoying yes, but compulsively addictive to find those shortcuts that link everything together like a labyrinth.
Split in to 4 large areas that are unified by a central hub, HLD has more than a little classic A Legend of Zelda vibe to it. The world map is layed out like the points of a compass and each can be explored freely with their own theme and style. The goal in each is to collect 4 fragments of a diamond-shaped icon that will power a device back at the heart of the map. Once all 4 fragments from each area are found they are returned to the device to hopefully rid the world of it’s corruption. Sadly all storytelling techniques are purely pictures and the odd sound effect and mostly down to the player trying to make sense of it all. Not ideal by any stretch but serviceable.
These fragments are rewarded to our Drifter following what can be an intense battle with a variety of enemies that will keep even the hardcore gamer on their toes.
“The beauty of the combat is it’s 3 button simplicity with a depth of variety and upgrades on offer.”
Controls are simple, responsive and surprisingly can be quite tactical too. Square to attack with your sword, X to dash and R2 to fire your blaster pistol. The beauty of the combat is it’s 3 button simplicity with a depth of variety and upgrades on offer. On the flip side to this excellent combat and upgrades however is a completely convoluted system of obtaining gold blocks as the currency required to pay for said upgrades. Now in itself this would be perfectly fine, but here you have to collect 4 smaller blocks in order to form 1 big block. With every upgrade from you sword, to your blaster or dash ability requiring 3 of these big gold blocks, well . . . suffice to say it’s an unnecessary slog that relies on random drops from enemy’s and occasionally finding them in the environment and could easily have been so much simpler.
The difficulty of the combat can often spike considerably. But by learning how to approach each enemy type it can be incredibly rewarding when you overcome a swarm by combining attack, deflecting and dodging.
“Hyper Light Drifter goes for a full blown 8-bit era aesthetic but what really shines here aren’t all those pixels, but the colours.”
The art style is beautiful too. With more and more indie developers releasing games in the pixel art style you could understandably be getting quite sick of it by now. For me however, I love pixel art visuals, especially when it is done well. Hyper Light Drifter goes for a full blown 8-bit era aesthetic but what really shines here aren’t all those pixels, but the colours. Each environment really pops, whether it’s the rainbow spectrum gradients from a cliff top sunset, or a moody dungeon of blues, greys and greens.
Audio also takes on the style of the 8-bit era with strong synth-beat tunes that fit the atmosphere well. It’s just a shame more isn’t made to give characters a bit of personality through audio too.
It’s this Yin and Yang feeling that holds Hyper Light Drifter back from being a truly great homage to classic adventure games. Just as this review began, it’s a game that for every thing it gets spot on, there is an opposite and equal element that knocks it down a step. Many gamers will happily overlook these and get lost in it’s smart intense combat and labyrinthine level design. Indeed, I myself am happy and eager to keep jumping back in to this world to uncover it’s secrets. I just wish there were fewer frustrations along the way.