Although I was familiar with the name Hyper Light Drifter because of the buzz its PC launch had generated, I knew very little about the game when I fired it up on my PlayStation 4. What I found was an engrossing throwback to old-school action RPGs wrapped in endearing graphics, making for one of my favorite games of 2016.
At a base level, you have three assets: a sword, a gun and a dash. Attacking with your blade feels precise and satisfying, and it can be upgraded to add new moves, including a powerful charged strike when you hold the button down. Dashing is responsive as well and is an invaluable tool in combat — purchasing the second dash opens up nearly infinite dash chains if you can master the somewhat tricky timing.
Ranged attacks don’t function nearly as well, however. Drawing your gun requires you to stand still and aiming is done via the left analog stick. The whole process feels completely unnatural, and the reticule is easy to lose track of against the colorful backgrounds. It’s unclear why the right analog stick isn’t used, but it made it so that I relied almost entirely on the shotgun, which I never had to aim.
Beyond that, the only remaining functions are using health packs and, once purchased, tossing grenades. The former is critical to survival since you start with a small life bar and it never increases, though you can add more capacity to carry up to five. The latter isn’t as helpful as you’d think, doing modest damage and operating on a rather lengthy cooldown timer.
It took about a minute to arrive at the visual comparison between Hyper Light Drifter and Capybara’s iOS/PC title Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. Although they don’t play the same, the attention to detail in world construction within the respective old-school graphics is similar. It’s a joy to explore all four compass points surrounding the town that serves as the world’s central hub, looking for hidden secrets and just soaking in its charm.
Music is handled by Disasterpeace (AKA Richard Vreeland), whose credits include Fez, Runner2 and the creepy film It Follows. It’s an enjoyable composition and is part of a strong overall sound design.
There’s not much of a story in Hyper Light Drifter, which throws a handful of brief cut scenes at you without ever providing much (any?) context and calls it a day. There’s no dialogue, spoken or written, and the few characters you can interact with respond with a series of still images.
You’ll be able to glean some things during your travels — there was once great technology, much of the world was destroyed — but the lack of tangible details is the game’s biggest weakness.
Fortunately, story elements aren’t needed to drive the action as, despite a lack of instruction, you should quickly figure out what you’re trying to accomplish. Each of the four areas (north, south, east, west) houses a boss guarding a pillar that you need to activate. To reach the boss you must collect small Triforce-esque pieces to open the necessary doors.
Interacting with certain characters in each zone will mark the location of the boss as well as the sub-pieces you need to collect, though it’s pretty vague and doesn’t show how to reach a given spot. The action in these areas is well metered out and builds as you progress, tossing tougher opponents in greater numbers at you. Boss fights are pattern driven, challenging you to learn their attacks and moves before finally taking them down.
It’s all immensely satisfying, and once you clear all four zones you’ll gain access to the final battle. It should take around six or seven hours to finish Hyper Light Drifter, though anyone seeking to spend more time searching for hidden keys, outfits and currency — upgrades are fairly expensive based on how scarce the currency is — can tack on quite a bit more. There’s also a tougher New Game+ Mode that unlocks after you finish your initial run.
Co-op is also available, though the old-school sensibilities that the game is built on make it feel like an odd inclusion. Still, if you want to use the cliché of Hyper Light Drifter being a “love letter” to the SNES action-RPG era, consider cooperative play to be a fun little post-script.
Hyper Light Drifter is an awesome game with the strengths of its world building, combat and progression easily outpacing its barebones story.