When presented yet another 16-bit inspired indie game, all the other countless love-strewn masterpieces come to mind. Shovel Knight presented a classic platformer play-style mixed with tongue-in-cheek humor and very tight gameplay. Games such as Terraria and Stardew Valley use this pixel-based style to their advantage, implementing it into gameplay with crafting, building, and terrain generation. On top of these, there are countless other indie games that take on this art style due to it’s ease of development in it’s simplicity, making it very popular with independent developers.
However, Hyper Light Drifter takes these norms and flips them on their head. Using this art-style, Heart Machine do with these simple graphics what many games cannot fathom to do; create an interesting and engaging universe and story through only visuals. There are no actual words in Hyper Light Drifter. This game tells its engrossing story through means such as the environmental visuals, enemies, and NPCs who tell their stories through pictures-windows into their past. For super lore nerds, there’s also language you can decode yourself, with secret translatable tomes spread throughout the world.
To get you briefed, the basic story is that you play as a drifter, titled “The Magician”, and you seem to be one of the last of your kind, almost like an alien. A blue-skinned vigilante-like swordsman with an elusive goal. The only way to find out more about the world you’re in and what your true objective is, is to explore. You’ll immediately want to do this, as Hyper Light Drifter provides an engaging story through it’s visuals and incredible atmosphere and music.
As you can probably tell by the colors and art direction, the game is just incredible to look at. The top-down scrolling camera perspective will give depth and perception to the history of the areas you explore throughout the game. I was so interested that I had to look up some interpretations of what happened, but just through playing the game and being observant, you can infer the story and where you fit into it. I can’t guarantee you won’t be obsessed with this little world Heart Machine has created after finishing the game. There are lots of unique NPC interactions that give the game this character and depth. There’s one rather challenging mini-game where you play soccer with a smaller ninja-like character. All of the shopkeepers, though you can’t hear what they say, all have their own personalities formed from their surroundings, appearance, and character animations. Characters you encounter in the world tell their story to you through pictures, rendered in this same beautiful art-style.
The exploring and observing are the most obvious draws to the game, but what makes you stay? What makes this game fun? Undoubtedly, it’s the combat. It’s simple, yet effective. Many enemies have one to three main attacks they’ll do usually depending on how far you are from them, and you have four main tools to combat these various enemies. The sword, dash, guns, and grenades. Much of the game’s gameplay comes from observing a situation and deciding and executing the best method of taking out all of the enemies. The combat is incredibly polished and satisfying, with pixelized blood and other effects explode with color from each meaty sword swing.
Which brings me to the boss battles. They’re engaging, challenging, and cohesive with the areas they’re in. I won’t spoil the appearance of any of the bosses, but they’re all epic, and past the first three, due to the open-ended aspect of which paths you can choose, they do get progressively more interesting and challenging. I found myself attempting some bosses over 15 times, but the game knows this frustration and doesn’t make you wait, fight, or travel again after you die, allowing you to take on bosses as their own unique challenge, dissimilar to games like Dark Souls, where your boss attempts are punished by loading back to a previous checkpoint.
The only negative aspect I can think of, and it may be a barrier for many people, is the difficulty. It can be frustrating, just like any other challenging game. There is no “easy mode” in Hyper Light Drifter. There’s normal, then New Game + when you beat the game the first time. New Game + is incredibly challenging because you only get two health as opposed to the regular five, requiring you to play each encounter near perfectly. This is the perfect challenge for those who were able to finish the game and wish to master it.
My only other complaint is that I wish it was longer. I wish I could fight more cool bosses, more interesting enemies, and explore even more of this incredible world. But, for $20 on Steam, it’s a great value for a super engrossing experience.
Hyper Light Drifter is also available on Xbox One, PS4, and Ouya.