It is my experience that the best indie games often wear their inspirations on their shoulder, yet also throw enough unique ingredients into the mix to produce a separate course entirely. In this vein of thought, if Hollow Knight and Undertale descend from the line of Metroid and Earthbound, respectively, then Hyper Light Drifter is the clear offspring of The Legend of Zelda. Following a vague intro sequence of an explosion, shadowy enemies, and our protagonist apparently being overcome by death, the player awakens next to a bonfire.
It becomes quickly apparent that the world is in a dark place, with only a small cluster of civilization remaining and the rest of the wilds overrun by monsters and genocidal factions. Birds have been corrupted to attack their kin, frogs have slain the peaceful swamp dwellers, etc. After being rescued by a mysterious red warrior, the Drifter is tasked with venturing to the four regions outside of town to activate the beacon at the end of each gauntlet. Unlocking these monoliths eventually brings the player to the end of the game. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
One of the first things I noticed is that this game has ZERO dialogue: not one exclamation, peep, or casual musing by our silent protagonist, nor any other character for that matter. My interpretation of the story is entirely subjective, but the Drifter seems to be plagued with visions of an impending apocalypse upon an already-ravaged land. The only way to stop this chain of events is by activating the previously-mentioned beacons and defeating the evil creature that has sentenced the land to death. This shadowy figure manifests himself through a dark premonition each time you reach one of the four beacons, slaying you gruesomely every time and bringing on a fit of bloody, spasming coughs in the Drifter’s reality. Are these visions a warning of what will happen should you fail? A hint of your destiny upon completing your quest? Developer Heart Machine wants you to decide for yourself. The Drifter’s illness presents itself frequently through short cutscenes as you make your way throughout the world. Likewise, a mysterious black dog with a white, halo-like diamond around its head serves as a guide throughout the four regions, as well as during crucial cutscenes. While I appreciate games with vague story-telling, it would also be nice to have some sort of hint or written clue as to what these visions and premonitions signify.
But while the story is mystifying at best, the gameplay leaves nothing to be desired. The Drifter has an entire slew of weapons at their disposal as they make their way through this streamlined Zelda-like, action-packed adventure. From dashes, sword attacks, healing, purchasable combo upgrades, grenades, and enough gun types to make even Contra blush, I was overjoyed at how smoothly the game handles. Alternating between sword and gunfighting was a breeze since Hyper Light Drifter uses different buttons for each, and your ammo recharges as you land melee attacks so you are never at a total loss for ranged combat. Just kill some enemies…or boxes. I did say this game was like Zelda. The upgrading system also allows for personal taste. Want to focus on dash abilities? Buy those first. Want more sword powers, or increased gun ammo instead? Go for that! The world is your oyster.
Hyper Light Drifter features loads of secrets, often in the form of currency for upgrades, sometimes with bonus health recovery items, and occasionally with keys, or text-filled monoliths whose purpose I was never able to deduce. Each area features eight purple artifacts to locate, only four of which are required to progress through the main game while the others are for unlocking even more secret areas and collectibles, such as alternate outfits and weapons that provide different bonuses to the player.
The music of Hyper Light Drifter perfectly suits its enigmatic atmosphere. Synths are here in full force, lending a calm and tranquil veil to the beautiful, pixelated scenery of the land, or pounding forth with intensity as the Drifter squares off against powerful boss foes. This score is one I would personally group along the lines of Hollow Knight: it was nice while I played through, but it will require future listens online to fully appreciate and get into each track. Given that Hollow Knight has one of my favorite soundtracks in all of gaming, that’s certainly not a weak point! Going back to the pixels, I was extremely impressed at how much detail was conveyed on screen. Each region is beautiful and uniquely styled in its environment, yet there were gruesome monuments to the genocide that had occurred at the hands of the game’s enemies in each area, from a bloodstained altar in an egg hatchery to a pile of bloody corpses. And while I initially blazed my way through each area with little attention to fallen enemies, I later realized that fallen enemies lay quiet while those hit with a combo had been decapitated. The game isn’t crafted to show these things in ridiculously-gory detail, but it certainly gets its point across strongly.
I began 2018 by playing Axiom Verge, and it’s almost poetic that fellow indie game Hyper Light Drifter was my first venture of 2019. The journey is a worthy one, and I highly recommend it to anyone seeking an old-school hack and slash adventure. My singular gripe would be the lack of a defined story, but it didn’t negatively impact my experience beyond the simple preference of having a greater understanding of this mysterious world. I’m looking forward to jumping back in at some point to go delving for some of the game’s better kept secrets! Perhaps by that point you’ll have joined me in celebrating this awesome title!
Final Score: 4.5/5
Review Score Translator
5/5- Magnificent! A quality game that goes above and beyond to deliver a near-perfect experience
4/5- Great! A game that is a joy to play despite a few minor hiccups along the way
3/5- Fun! A good game that has some issues, but is still worth playing despite the frustrations
2/5- Meh! A game with at least a handful of redeeming qualities, despite the majority of it being a mess
1/5- Yikes! A game that shouldn’t have been allowed past the final stage of developer approval