Review: Hyper Light Drifter (PS4)

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Title: Hyper Light Drifter
Format: PlayStation Network Download (1.13 GB)
Release Date: July 26, 2016
Publisher: Heart Machine LLC
Developer: Heart Machine
Original MSRP: $19.99
ESRB Rating: T
Hyper Light Drifter is also available on PlayStation Vita (TBD), Xbox One, PC, Mac, and Linux.
The PlayStation 4 download version was used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Hyper Light Drifter comes from a bygone era. An era when games didn’t, or couldn’t, hold the player’s hand through every step of the process. When the story in a game was as much in the imagination of the gamer as it was in the game itself. When pixels ruled the screen.

Gameplay:
One of the first things I noticed was how little text there is in the game. Very, very rarely, a prompt will pop up at the bottom of the screen with a hint or a simple explanation of something. Outside of that, there is none. No lengthy tutorials. Even the shops don’t have text.

The story is also told entirely visually. The few cutscenes are just animated with no words and ‘talking’ to an NPC will not pop up a text box but rather a picture box showing what story bit the NPC is telling the protagonist.

The game paints the broad strokes of the story: Long ago some giant creatures destroyed much of the world but were stopped. Now monsters are once again gaining in power and it’s up to our protagonist to stop them. The specifics are vague though, and open to interpretation or left to the player’s imagination.

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Ultimately, though, the goal is pretty obvious. The Drifter must use their sword and gun to hunt down errant monsters, leading up to several stronger boss monsters. Eventually they can open up the path to the head honcho and hopefully restore peace.

Though the goal is obvious, the path is not. Hyper Light Drifter feels like it was inspired a lot by the original Legend of Zelda in that there really isn’t a clear path laid out to the player. Instead, the game is more about exploring and finding things by one’s self. And there is a lot to find.

… a lot of secrets hidden in it …
It makes a few modern concessions. For one, there is a map of the world in the game. It’s a little vague and of course missing secrets but it’s there. Also, talking to some NPC will drop a few icons on the map to give the player a general idea of where to find just the critical items they need to progress the story.

But by and large it leaves the player to their own devices. This could be frustrating, if the game was poorly designed but overall I never had too many issues progressing. Every once in awhile I found myself stuck but usually it was a case of me not noticing an open path or forgetting about a fork I had passed previously.

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The exploration is good too, because as alluded to earlier, the game has a lot of secrets hidden in it. I may have finished and beat the last boss, but by in game metrics, I found less than half of the hidden tablets and I passed a lot of doors which required many more keys than I ever obtained. There is still a lot I could do in the game if I wanted. And, time permitting, I probably would.

In some ways I also got a Shadow of the Colossus vibe from the game, in that the game revels in sparsity. Not in the sense that Hyper Light Drifter is only boss battles like SotC, it features a fair amount of fighting. The similarity is that it also knows when to simply let the player take in the sights. And because of the overall low-key experiences that it can then punctuate them with shorter high energy encounters.

… the length and the difficulty seemed just right …
The fighting is smooth and solid. As mentioned before, the Drifter has their sword and gun for close and long range attacks. The interesting thing about the latter though is that the gun only regains bullets by hitting things with the sword. So although the gun is powerful and able to hit at a long range, the player must still get in close to recharge it after a few shots.

The other oddity with the gun is that there is no strafing built into the game. It either shoots in the direction the player is moving or they can hold down a shoulder button to stop in place and aim. I have a feeling that both of aspects of the gun were intentional, and the game works fine as is. Just, as a result of both of these things, I tended to take most encounters solely through the sword, only using the gun to pick off some enemies at the beginning and end of the fight.

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The Drifter does have some other abilities. Their dash is a big one as it essentially blinks them forward, making it useful both in combat to dodge enemies but also to cross chasms while exploring. Pickups found in game let the player buy more upgrades and extra abilities, such as more ‘ammo slots’ or a grenade attack.

Once I got used to the combat and the exploration, I really enjoyed it. Both the length and the difficulty seemed just right. It took me just shy of eight hours to beat it with some, but not a lot, of looking for optional stuff. And there were some difficult encounters but they were never insurmountable and the game checkpoints at every room so the iteration time on a difficult encounter is relatively short.

… great visual direction …
Visuals:
The visuals are what most evoke the feeling that Hyper Light Drifter is emulating an older game. That said, although it uses pixel graphics, the overall feel keeps the game firmly grounded in the present day. The color palette used makes this especially clear as it is a much wider range of color than was available on some of the older systems.

Even with the overabundance of pixel graphics in ‘retro’ games, this one really takes the cake. The visuals are truly beautiful. Walking around through the carcass of one of the giant monsters or seeing the town in the distance from a mountain overlook are astounding moments thanks to the great visual direction. Cutscenes especially look cool without sacrificing the game’s aesthetic style.

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Audio:
Much of my feeling that Hyper Light Drifter is a “low-key” game comes from the soundtrack. The music that accompanies exploring is soft and reserved with swells for moments when the player enters a fight. Boss battles are the only time the music really gets going. In general, this approach to the audio is very fitting, especially in a game devoid of any spoken words.

Online/Multiplayer:
This game is singleplayer only with no online component.

… an easy recommendation for a lot of gamers …
Conclusion:
Hyper Light Drifter plays like a love letter to some of the classic action/adventure games, but with enough modern niceties to feel fresh and fun. The juxtaposition between the chill feeling of exploring and the tough-but-not-overly-tough combat works well. There is a lot of depth to both of those sides of the game and the flow between them serves to push the game forward.

I think this is an easy recommendation for a lot of gamers. The sole exception would be those who like to rely on quest markers and such to guide them. Overall though, it gets so many things just right to be a fantastic little indie game, worthy of a couple afternoons of exploring.

Score:
9.0

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

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