First impressions are difficult to ignore. As the opening scenes played out when beginning my Hyper Light Drifter journey for the first time, my mind was awash with memories of Fez and it’s wonderful aesthetic. Sonically and visually arresting, this was obviously much more than just another ten-a-penny, 16-bit chunky pixel filter to hide lazy artwork. The first cut scene instantly revived another long dormant memory – that of playing Another World and Flashback on the Commodore Amiga many years ago. The bold block colours, the awesome animation, an inability to tear your eyes from the screen. No pre-renders, no motion capture, just fantastic artwork drawing you in to the developers’ world.
Presented as a love letter to the likes of Legend of Zelda, Hyper Light Drifter is a top down action adventure game. I stop short of calling it an RPG, as although those elements are present in terms of leveling up your abilities, there isn’t any true character progression as such. Leveling abilities comes from collecting tokens hidden around the games stages and returning them to one of a handful of vendors, who are responsible for different areas of progression – Upgrading your attack combo for example, or the capacity of your ranged weapon. But forget that for now; let’s start at the beginning.
After a short tutorial zone which teaches you how to move around the world from a birds eye perspective, combo your melee weapon and shoot your ranged weapon, you find yourself in a peaceful and beautifully detailed village. This village is at the centre of the game world and acts as your hub between the games four main zones – each one with a slightly different theme, and each one being in one of the four cardinal directions. The zones can be tackled in any order you choose, but due to the nature of leveling your abilities by finding tokens hidden in the world, there is a preferential order which will allow you full exploration of the games many hidden paths and secrets. You have access to a map at the press of a button, which has two layers: The first is a recognisable, graphical representation of the world as a whole, and the second is an odd wire-frame map showing how each little area, room and screen connects. Kind of like an underground railway network map, with everything shown in straight lines. To be honest, it’s very hard to read and I’d even go so far as to describe it as nonsensical upon first viewing.
This is where Hyper Light Drifter falters. The story is obscure, and the systems of progression are deliberately obtuse. It’s one thing to keep your journey full of surprise and wonder, but to hide the very mechanics of exploration behind walls of obfuscation is a step too far, working against the game if anything. Take ‘Inside’ for example, Play Dead’s brilliant platform adventure game. You have no introduction and no idea of what’s happening or going to happen as you progress. Puzzles are introduced without explanation, allowing you the joyous freedom to discover as you go along. This is all replicated in Hyper Light Drifter, but with one major flaw: It’s absolutely not intuitive. With ‘Inside’, you know your characters actions and abilities from the outset, thanks to superb level design. Here, you’re left scratching your head, wondering why you just found a little square coin in a box, and why the wire-frame map now has a light on it. Dark Souls was obscure, but at least you knew you were always pressing on to that next bonfire. Here you’ll find all manner of separate paths and walkways, but you’ll never be sure if you’ve reached the end or if you just need an upgraded ability to continue. It makes progression a chore of trial and error, and what should be an amazing journey of discovery becomes an exercise in tedium as you try leaping from every ledge, attacking every inanimate object and walking along every wall, doing your best Duke Nukem impression. “Ung. Oof. Where is it?”
It’s a shame. More than that; a tragedy. The combat is excellent and feels fun and satisfying, using a combination of your swords three-hit attack and a manually aimed firearm for ranged attacks. You can dash around the world with the tap of the ‘A’ button, which acts as a dodging manoeuvre and also as a jump over gaps to other areas of the map. The animations are superb, the soundtrack is outstandingly atmospheric and the freedom of choice is admirable. There are moments which take the breath away, such as looking out over an amazing vista as you reach the top of the map, and there are moments of shocking contrast. Taking a lift down into the bowels of the earth to discover a room full of brutalised corpses was particularly memorable.
So it’s here where I cling on to the memories of how this experience started. The fantastic presentation, the detail and care which has gone into creating everything from the scenery to the characters. The solid gameplay. The great soundtrack. The contrasting moments between a fantastical Zelda-like experience and areas of unexpected shock and horror. If the game did a little more to indicate what you should be doing and for what purpose, it would be a definitive experience. Sadly, the flaws are too much to overlook.
I want to love Hyper Light Drifter. It has all the ingredients of an amazing adventure, and clearly a lot of care and passion has gone into creating something the developer wants to be extraordinary. In many ways this has been achieved with aplomb, but in the way that’s most important – keeping the player engaged, driving him to continue towards the tales conclusion – it falls considerably short. I’m not driven to play because I don’t care about what happens to the characters. I don’t care about what happens to the characters because I can’t identify with them, and I can’t identify with them because the entire game is reluctant to even explain why I’m here. Any good mystery needs more than the element of discovery. It needs a hook. A reason to discover, to care, to give a shit about why I should spend my time seeing it through. Here, there is no hook. There’s not even a line. There’s just a fisherman waiting on the bank for me to swim into his net of my own free will, wondering what will happen next. This fish; well. This fish is happy where he is.
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