I’m always weary of KickStarter projects these days because it seems that more and more are we seeing crowdfunding campaigns show up for games that get the funding and then either don’t get released or end up being something completely different from what was originally promised. We’ve also seen KickStarter be abused by big budget studios and projects that should not be using crowdfunding as a means of production. Shenmue 3 is a great example of this abuse. So while I was aware of the name Hyper Light Drifter (HLD) for a long time, I never really gave it much attention. I only agreed to review it because the PS4 port had finally released and the game had already been recommended to me on PC by more than one person. I did try the PC version for a few minutes but I didn’t really connect with it so I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy the PS4 version. I happy to say that it is an extremely enjoyable game and that the PS4 port is the way to go if you do end up buying this one.
The debut title by Heart Machine has been in the works since before the crowdfunding campaign in 2013, but it was not released until this year. The PS4 port only just hit the PSN store on July 26th. This game is quite interesting to try and describe. I feel like the best way to describe its general feel is with a fantasy scenario. Imagine if the people who made Dark Souls (2011) and the people who made Akira (1988), after watching Princess Mononoke (1997) and playing a few rounds of Furi (2016), then decided to make a game for the SNES. That’s probably the most accurate summarization of what this game is. It’s a hack-n-slash game that makes use of certain key WRPG elements without the same level of depth done in a combination of 8-bit and 16-bit graphics. And to top it all off, there is literally a version of the game in cartridge form that runs on the SNES.
Visually, I was very impressed with HLD even while dealing with the fact that it’s done in a retro style with pixelated graphics. At first glance you aren’t sure what to expect from HLD. The introductory screenshot that comes standard with most if not all PS4 games is a pixel art image of the main character locked in battle with multiple monsters. But it cuts off in the corner. The title screen is a simple, but vibrantly colored logo that cuts off on the top and bottom part of the screen. These are always warning signs for me when starting a new game, because it leads me to believe there might a number of visual problems. But HLD assures you that it’s a good looking game as soon as you press the start button. The opening cinematic may be the most well done pixel cutscene I’ve ever seen. It’s highly detailed, extremely emotional, informative, beautiful, and downright creepy. Even my girlfriend was freaked out while watching it. And the game that follows is no less visually pleasing. It is old school graphics. But it’s some of the best 16-bit work I’ve ever seen. Probably the best I’ve ever seen from a studio with only 10 people listed in the credits.
HLD has a story, but it doesn’t use text to tell it. The entire plot, including side lore, is told through visuals. You meet a number of NPCs, each with their own story to tell, but they only talk in images and actions, never using text to convey an idea. The combat runs smoothly and is quite detailed. Each movement by you and enemies is shown. There are small additional details such as dust trailing behind you when you move. Enemies have certain movement based tells that help you plan for and respond to their attacks. There is blood, explosions, corpses, which never disappear while in a given area of the world, and even coughing at times. While this may look like an old game, it provides all the details expected in a modern one that can be presented in 16-bit graphics from a top-down view. I really appreciated just how important visuals are to the combat in this game. But the world itself is just as impressive from a visual standpoint. You explore a world of ruins and shanty towns fueled by some ancient technology that the various species in the game use, but don’t appear to understand. You use a sword, yet you also carry a gun. The vibrant color palette brings life to a world that’s dying both physically and metaphorically as this style of art is being phased out by time. Some of the settings you see are just flat out beautiful or uncomfortably scary even for 2D art.
The simple HUD shows you the bare minimum of what you need, including only your HP and Ammo in segmented blocks and how many potions you have. Each enemy also has a segmented life bar hovering underneath them or at the bottom of the screen in the case of bosses. The menus are very simple opaque black rectangles with bright pink outlines and bars and white text. All in all, it is a gorgeous game that truly honors the achievement that was the SNES in its heyday.
The gameplay does its best to walk the line between epic Dark Souls inspired WRPG and easily accessible hack-n-slash puzzle game. It’s very similar to what ICO (2001) would be like if more of an emphasis was put on combat. Your controls are simple, but abundant. They can’t be mapped so you must learn the controller layout because you will use most of it and make errors countless times. Accidently healing when trying to aim the gun was probably my biggest issue with the controls because it happened far too often. At base level, you just move around, dash, and slash. But you can also heal, use special moves, and access a map and inventory menu. Enemies come in many different types, employing a number of different fighting styles, strategies, and levels of aggression. One of the biggest parts of the game is figuring out how to best all these different types of enemies without being able to change your main weapon and having limited projectile ammo that can only be rebuilt by landing hits on enemies and objects. Ammo refill rate is contingent on the object being hit. Grass, for example, returns very little ammo when hit. Larger enemies can provide whole segments. You could technically beat every fight without using the gun, but it’s learning how to use the gun at the most opportune times that makes the gameplay so variable. You don’t have a stamina bar for the sword but you do have a set combo maximum that requires you to make use of your dodge (dash) in order to avoid taking unnecessary damage. Healing can be done at any time, but it has an intentional delay and you can only carry a maximum of five potions at a time after unlocking the upgrades. You start with only being able to carry three. For context, it took me four potions and full health to defeat the first boss in about five tries. One thing I really appreciated was that potions are fairly abundant throughout the map, but not so much that it’s not challenging.
The basic goal of the game is to explore each of four areas and find keys. Once you find enough keys, the boss door opens. Defeating the boss in each of the four lands reactivates the protective shield surrounding the main city. Once you activate the whole shield, the day is saved. But not before some epic events take place. The four worlds kind of have to be completed in a specific order, but they also kind of don’t. The bottom world must be done last in all cases though.
There are many different types of enemies, coming in various sizes with different amounts of HP. Some can be killed in one hit, while some take several. Your gun is actually very effective at dealing damage when it connects, but this is not always that easy. The gun has both auto-aim and manual aim modes but because of how fast many of the enemies move and the limited ammo, you will rely much more heavily on your sword. There are no levels or stats in HLD. Development is done through purchasing upgrades with currency found throughout the world. Upgrades consist of new or enhanced moves, different guns, different side weapons like bombs, and increases to your potion carrying capacity. Money is found in little pieces scattered throughout the world. Sometimes it’s in boxes and other times enemies drop them. Every four pieces nets a coin. Upgrades cost two to three coins each. The game contains puzzles but they are more focused on movement and figuring out how to get places than actually doing things. You don’t push blocks around or anything. The experience is mostly about combat. When you die, you are respawned at the nearest checkpoint in the same conditions as when you first got there. Even your HP stays the same. Backtracking is a part of this game, but you do have some warp points throughout the map and the map is extremely detailed, showing just about everything in the world including steps and individual buildings. What I like best about the gameplay is that the combat is challenging, but extremely well balanced. I died several times, even in the first world, but not once did I feel like the gameplay was unfair or too hard. There are no difficulty levels. It’s just one mode made very well and then a New Game Plus mode. You will have to fight enemies individually and in large groups throughout the game. Like with Dark Souls, the game is about learning how best to defeat a specific challenge and then using that knowledge to succeed and move forward, using those skills and new ones to continue on. Overall, the gameplay is excellent and provides a perfect experience coupled with the visuals used.
The gameplay allows for local co-op, but it’s done in the classic style where the second player has no actual bearing on the plot or decision making and the screen is shared. They’re simply there as a crutch and can be added or removed from the game at will. The second player can’t go anywhere outside the camera without player 1. When they try to they are teleported back to player 1’s current location. By pressing the triangle button, player 2 can teleport back to player 1’s location as well. All other controls are the same.
The sound in HLD is not there to impress you. I won’t say that it’s soft-balled in, but it’s definitely only there because it’s expected to be. The music is ambient and very low compared to the sound effects even at max volume. You can set the music and effects levels separately, but the music always takes a backseat to effects in the mixer. The background soundtrack is powerful and emotional, but far too subtle. It’s only during cutscenes that you really appreciate it. The creepy undertones help make the game’s atmosphere even more creepy, but the low levels don’t do the music justice. The effects are a little bit better, but they are tiered making only certain ones really affect the experience. There are sounds for walking and for interacting with NPCs. But these sounds are so low that you only notice them when you take the time to listen for them even though walking is pretty constant. The stronger level sound effects are for things like landing attacks, killing enemies, and hitting walls which has a specific sound but it’s not material specific. Hitting a metal wall and a tree net the same sound. It’s not that the quality of the sound in this game is lacking. It simply wasn’t mixed well enough, making visuals the most important experiential medium by leaps and bounds. For instance, the enemy tells are done with visual ques, making little to no use of sound as a means to clue off players with how to respond and prepare during a fight. The sound is not bad, but it should have been better considering the high quality of the visuals.
Writing is interesting in this game. Again there is no plot given through text. There are some quick tutorial messages in certain parts of the game, but the adventure, problems, and other characters are all developed visually. The story, at least from the way I interpreted it, is that the world, or at least this one city, was protected from darkness, as in a great evil not the absence of light, by a giant light shield that was powered by four magic pillars. Something has caused these four pillars to shut off and now they must be reactivated by defeating four evil guardians that are keeping the pillars off. You are merely one of many warriors working to reactivate this light shield. One of the repercussions of this shield being off is that the darkness is toxic, often causing your character to cough during his journey. Many NCPs won’t tell you anything. They will interact, but nothing will actually happen. The NPCs that do talk to you only show you pictures of things that happened to them and will sometimes point out things on your map. Usually they only point out the batteries needed to open the boss door and the boss door location. There are lots of collectibles in the game, most of which have gameplay value such as money and keys for special doors. But there are also lore stones. They have some made up ancient looking text on them, but you can’t actually read them which sucks because it would have added to the experience of the world similar to finding books in Skyrim (2011). I actually do appreciate this show don’t tell style of plot development, but there are definitely things about the world that a modern styled game would have developed in some way, such as why there are giant corpses scattered throughout the world or how did such a diverse city of creatures come to be. I guess I’d say what the game lacks in writing it makes up for in visuals, but the missing plot development will disappoint a certain type of player.
The replay value is defined mostly by collecting and trophy hunting. There are 20 trophies, including a platinum, that ask for a number of different accomplishments including collecting certain items, completing certain combat challenges, and beating NG+ mode. Personally I think one playthrough is enough, but I definitely encourage you to do that one playthrough. The whole thing will probably take you around 8 – 10 hours to complete the first time. I’d say the $20 price tag is slightly high considering the length and graphics, but if you can find it for $15 that’s a good buy.
Hyper Light Drifter is a great experience. On some level it has given me a newfound confidence in crowdfunded games. The gameplay is very well done, the graphics are excellent even though intentionally dated, and the other aspects, though not as well done, don’t detract from the game’s overall experience at a significant level. Definitely go for the console port and you shouldn’t have any regrets about buying this game.
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