Ever since the Kickstarter launched for Hyper Light Drifter 3-years ago I fell in love with the idea of it. A moody, neon-lit post-apocalypse clearly influenced by 1970s science fiction is completely up my alley. And those visual and tonal elements which stood out all those years ago hold up in the recent final release of Hyper Light Drifter. Heart Machine’s debut title gets a lot of mileage with its atmosphere, with every single scene in that game oozing with style. Problems begin to arise when despite its solid gameplay foundation, Hyper Light Drifter lacks a meaningful sense of progression or storytelling depth that would’ve been needed to take this game to the next level.
Hyper Light Drifter places you in the role of a Drifter, a wandering nomad who is on a quest to cure a potentially fatal disease that he has recently shown symptoms of contracting. Haunted by ominous dreams and stalked by a dark alien force, you explore the land, reactivating forbidden technologies and unraveling ancient histories. Despite this intriguing set-up, Hyper Light Drifter is intentionally vague about its post-apocalyptic world as it relies heavily on environmental storytelling to develop its world. But unlike games like Dark Souls which have an easy plotline to follow with a dense history to excavate if you want it, Hyper Light Drifter’s world is incredibly mysterious but upon further digging feels empty. With nothing concrete to grasp unto, it was extremely hard for me to feel invested in Hyper Light Drifter’s world, characters and my quest in general.
This is especially a shame because of just how beautiful Hyper Light Drifter’s art design is. The neon post-apocalyptic concept which caught my eye on Kickstarter all of those years ago is fully realized here. It’s a haunting world full of people trying to rebuild some semblance of civilization, savage parties of barbarians, a shadow group of murderous zealots, an ancient army slowly reawakening from their magical slumber, and many more dangerous threats. These characters and boss enemies are brought to life primarily due to Hyper Light Drifter’s evocative animation design and inspired art style. Hyper Light Drifter is definitely a sight to behold, and seeing the next beautiful environment was what primarily kept me moving forward even when the story didn’t.
You navigate this gorgeous world through a isometric perspective and you combat enemies using a Zelda-like hack-n-slash battle system. The combat is fairly basic with primarily a dash, a sword melee strike and gun ranged attack. The real difficulty comes from the agile and aggressive enemies that will often overwhelm you, dealing massive damage - unless you mix together your different moves together correctly. Bosses on the other hand, are kind of a rote affair in my experience as unlike the mixed swarms of standard enemies, they move in predictable patterns that never really change or evolve throughout a fight.
Visually these fights are gorgeous affairs as you dance around, chaining together different attacks between energetic dashes. But the problem that reveals itself throughout the entire game is while all of these special effects look great from you and enemy alike, they quickly bleed together in hard to decipher pools of graphic design. So while Hyper Light Drifter is already a pretty challenging game, fighting the art of the game feels wholly unnecessarily.
These problems extend into Hyper Light Drifter’s sequences further in the game. While the levels themselves are stunning visually, the complex art design can often hide holes in the ground that your character can fall through and lose health, or the hitbox of an enemy won’t feel proportional to the character model, or you might even get stuck on geometry that doesn’t feel like you should be stuck on. To be clear, there’s a major aspect of discovering secrets and collectibles in Hyper Light Drifter, so there will be times when you’re brushing up against walls to find hidden treasures. But this is different than dying in a fight or platforming sequence because of a hole in the ground I can't see or because I get stuck on some weird geometry. This causes Hyper Light Drifter's difficulty to shift more towards “Unfair” than "Challenging".
Most of the aforementioned secrets and collectibles you discover are usually currency to buy upgrades at the hub world or keys to unlock even more mysterious locked doors which can contain more valuable loot like alternate guns or interchangeable costumes with slight gameplay modifiers attached to them. While the guns are a welcome change and there’s a good mix of variety there, purchasing new abilities and discovering costumes both feel undeveloped and entirely unnecessary. I went through most of the gameplay without using any of the obtainable abilities and most of the costume's modifications are incredibly lackluster and vague in what exactly they're really changing.
The upgrades are often just carrying more ammo for your guns or increased grenade capacity, and the movement and combat upgrades feel too situational and don’t add anything meaningful to the core moment-to-moment combat experience. Sure getting the upgrades for chaining more dashes together or reflecting enemy projectiles back are neat, but I generally found no reliable use for them. This results in Hyper Light Drifter having a lack of progression, which the incredibly simple combat system definitely could’ve used to keep things interesting. Instead, the abilities you possess and tools at your disposal remain relatively the same from beginning to end of Hyper Light Drifter.
Combined with its neon art style, its ambiguous storytelling and the moody synth soundtrack composed by Disasterpeace, Hyper Light Drifter obtains this ghostly dreamlike experience which video games fairly rarely tackle. But like my own dreams -- while entertaining and trippy in the moment -- Hyper Light Drifter never stuck with me. I had no desire to dig deeper into its empty story or hollow characters, discover any missed collectibles because of their lack of impact upon the gameplay, or advance to any more challenging difficulties dues to its effective yet simple combat system and total lack of meaningful progression. While I was in the moment of playing Hyper Light Drifter I was total engaged with its waltz-like combat flow and heavy ominous atmosphere, but once I finish writing this review I can guarantee you that I won’t think much about Hyper Light Drifter going forward.
THREE OUT OF FIVE
(A balanced game that has a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, meaning that it alternates between being good and bad in mostly equal measure.)