Hyper Light Drifter has a brilliantly appropriate name, which is unusual from what is, at first glance, like an abstract collection of words. It’s appropriate because it’s unusual, more than a little opaque in its meaning and, most importantly, because it boils down to the concept of movement.
Ravenous wolves lunging toward your fragile body? Samurai dogs assuming the battle stance? Crystal golem throwing shards of freezing death toward you?
Killing is secondary, but your greatest tool is always movement here – the speed of your enemies’ attacks and your own fragility ensure that. Sure, you’ve got guns and bombs and more than a few tricks, but it’s all secondary to the gloriously responsive, endlessly necessarily movement, and it’s here where Hyper Light Drifter truly shines.
It’s also where I suspect the Hyper Light Fantastic is going to push more than a few people out. Your fragility, coupled with the absolute necessity of split second reflexes means this definitely isn’t a game for everyone. I’ll not deny that I almost threw in the towel a few times myself, driven to frustration by the grim form of an seemingly immovable obstacle. They’re the bosses, and each one can be a lesson in mind-numbing frustration if you allow it. The trick is to not. Sure, it seems invincible with roughly a hundred hit points to your five and sure, its attacks can sweep through the arena with the same inevitability of the black death but hey, people survived the black death. Probably not by stepping forward, utilizing a half-second gap in a sweeping magical barrage to empty their pistol into a screeching birdgod, but people survived. That it’s possible is sometimes all you’ve got, but living in a world this beautiful is worth the occasional midnight howl of anguish. It’s not like you live in the 1900s after all, you don’t really need your neighbours to like you.
It’s a similar game to the mad, frenetic murderspree some people play Dark Souls as, and while it shares a lot of the same DNA, that series has traditionally been about patience, timing and care. Hyper Light Drifter is a lot more about impatience, throwing yourself into and out of danger like an indecisive lemming and irritating your foes, bringing them down over a thousand stolen opportunities. There’s no hacking, no sensations of invincibility, but there is survival and progress. Admittedly, you’ve got to climb a mountain of your own corpses to get there, but what videogame doesn’t demand the same?
The killing is entirely secondary to the movement, as you’ll quickly discover should you think that using your sword like a cleaver is a good idea. Not to say that attacking your enemies isn’t important, but standing still for long is a death sentence when you’re in the business of drifting light so each attack is a big fat window for everyone who means you harm, and they’ve the exact kind of overzealous murder lust that would get you killed.
This simplicity doesn’t end there. Both the story and artistic design have been spread down to the necessary components, removing language almost entirely and leaving a world that tells its story with evocative imagery and, thanks to its post-apocalyptic sensibility, almost entirely in the past tense. Aside from your desperate quest to stop vomiting blood whenever you sense it’s thematically appropriate, the world around you is very much dead; a single small hub that’s the only bastion of life in a wasteland scarred forever by some ancient war with the giants whose corpses scar the landscape.
Beyond that, I’m not sure what I can tell you. Cutscenes are short and, I assume, largely allegorical: either the visions of rotting gods, murderous inkforms and endless spires are meant to represent some kind of underlying truth, or this is just a batshit world where anything can happen and nothing means anything.
That’s always a risk with things like this. It’s all too easy to throw a bunch of random shit together and act superior when people don’t get it, but the saviour of Drifter is the feeling of immense consistency that underpins the experience. While things don’t always make sense, there’s the very real impression that there is sense for them to make, and should you just go a little further you’ll be able to feel very smart indeed. In terms of plot, I can’t tell you I absolutely understand it, but I do believe there is something to be understood, and I had a bloody good time exploring the world in an effort to put the pieces together.
Score: 8/9 Hammers
Hyper Light Drifter | Developer: Heart Machine | Released: March 31st , 2016 | Official Website