Hyper Light Drifter review

Game Info
Platform Win, Mac, Linux
Publisher N/A
Developer Heart Machine
Release Date

Hyper Light Drifter demands things from its players that few games are even willing to request. It's an exceedingly difficult game. It tosses roadblock after roadblock at its protagonist with no easy way out. Progress isn't promised in Hyper Light Drifter; it can't be earned by grinding or executing cheap strategies and exploits, only practice, practice, practice.

But the mechanical difficulty, the tense, balletic, close-quarters battles that punctuate your exploration of the game's gorgeous setting, is a relatively small component of what Hyper Light Drifter demands. Its larger, more imposing request is how you have to interpret literally everything else that happens in the game. Learning how to swing a sword and dodge fatal attacks is easy enough —” finding your place in a world that tells you virtually nothing about itself is a far more involving challenge.

Hyper Light Drifter's specifics are entirely up to interpretation

I'm hesitant to break down the backdrop of Hyper Light Drifter, because its plot, setting, characters, history and world-building are so ethereal. Here's a fact to set the scene: Other than a handful of tooltips explaining what buttons do what, there are no written words in Hyper Light Drifter. Seriously, none: Dialogue with the NPCs you meet in the game is presented exclusively in pictographs. The UI, map and menus feature arcane symbols and characters of a fictional language.

Most of the exposition comes from the game's gorgeous opening cutscene, which shows Hyper Light Drifter's caped protagonist surviving some apocalyptic attack on their home world, only to be confronted by towering, dying titans and a shadowy monster that seems to pursue them through the whole game. That hero is shown to be a capable sword-wielder, but seems to be plagued by some horrible malady that causes them to cough up bright pink blood with troubling frequency.

Any specifics beyond that — where you are, who you are, what happened to this world, what's hunting you — are entirely up to interpretation. And, as a plot development strategy, it absolutely works, thanks in large part to the remarkable amount of environmental storytelling developer Heart Machine has put into the game. Every single screen of every area in Hyper Light Drifter has a purpose and a history, from the ancient libraries of the Northern avian scholars to the crystalline weaponry of the Western Forest's bear warriors. Intuiting the lore of this world was rewarding, and got me invested in the game's setting, even though I was certain much of my analysis was probably wildly inaccurate.

That world-building is also accomplished thanks to the fact that Hyper Light Drifter is, in no uncertain terms, a massive artistic achievement. It's rare for screenshots to do a game justice, but any given still image from the game, taken out of context, just looks remarkable. In motion, with all its detailed sprites battling furiously over lovingly crafted battlefields, with Fez composer Disasterpeace's otherworldly, atmospheric score pulsating underneath, Hyper Light Drifter is simply astonishing to see.

In terms of playing the game, Hyper Light Drifter's purposefully inscrutable nature can be, occasionally, a bit exasperating. The biggest hurdle comes at the start — not only are you not told what's going on, you're not told where to go, or why you would go there. From the central hub town, you can explore and conquer any of the four unique territories that stretch out from the cardinal directions. In each one, you have to find a handful of key items, defeat the area's boss and activate a beacon, and outside of a single, confusing pictograph, you aren't told any of that from the game's opening.

But there's not a wrong way to start your journey; you could conceivably play through the areas in whatever order you wish, although some are certainly harder than others. And it also doesn't take too long for the game's loops to become apparent: You'll explore each of the four branches, diving into the undergrounds of each and taking part in increasingly difficult combat encounters while hunting down keys to unlock the route to each area's boss. It's a well-trod enough formula for you to pick up on it, even without explicit dialogue relaying your motivation.

Hyper Light Drifter's protagonist only has a few tricks up their sleeve, able to dispatch enemies with a hard light sword they can swing in short combos and a small armory of guns that they can charge by scoring melee hits. Your hero's most iconic ability is a dash, which can be used to leap small gaps, avoid enemy fire or weave between waves of enemies. You'll use the latter a lot, because you'll only ever have a maximum of five hit points — which can be restored with collectible med kits — meaning each hit you take matters in a major way.

Most fights take place in incredibly tight spaces, where waves of dozens of enemies will come at you fast. Survival requires dashing to a strategically viable position, getting off a few sword hits, dashing away from the counter attack and picking off a fierce melee foe with your guns — rinse and repeat. The margin of error is non-existent; If a fight starts to go sideways, you'll probably take your five damage before you can find a break long enough to pop a med kit off. Everything moves so fast, but button-mashing is a non-starter. If you survive a fight, it's because every dash and every attack was intentional. If you're able, you should record your highlights and watch them back later, because every fight in Hyper Light Drifter makes you look like a fucking samurai.

The challenge presented by nearly every battle gets pushed to extremes with most of Hyper Light Drifter's boss fights. Most of the game's climactic foes take tons of damage to go down, requiring you to keep your perfect sequence of dodging and counter-attacking going for a few solid minutes. Most of them summon extra enemies to get in the way of that sequence. Most will evolve as you fight them, changing and intensifying their attacks as their HP drops. Most of them you'll finish off with your med kits depleted, a photo finish victory earned after countless failed attempts. Most of them are, because of that effort, immensely satisfying — but not all of them.

Hyper Light Drifter's difficulty is intense, yes, but it's also Good Difficulty. There's nothing overtly punitive or unfair, and nothing that's disrespectful of your time. That's an extremely tricky balance to nail, particularly when it comes to boss fights, which is such an easy frustration point to design yourself into. Hyper Light Drifter's bosses teach you everything you need to know to beat them with every attempt. If you're patient, you'll watch their HP hit lower and lower minimums until, after you've mastered their patterns, they give up the ghost. And that's the happiest Hyper Light Drifter will make you; which will make you feel robbed by the handful of bosses and mini-bosses who just don't put up a fight, who you'll best on your first or second attempt, who might not even touch you.

Hyper Light Drifter's most reliable foe is the map you'll use to hunt down the eight keys located in each area. It's a frustrating illustration of isolated rooms and the underground channels that connect them, the latter of which resembles computer circuitry. You can see which rooms contain the keys you need, but you can't see where you are in those rooms, forcing you to triangulate your position off landmarks and boundaries to serve as a basis for your sense of direction. A handful of fast travel points offer you a gracious reset button if you accidentally find yourself a few rooms deep down a path you've already explored, which is fortunate, because that is not an uncommon scenario in Hyper Light Drifter.

The navigation issues are only frustrating because Hyper Light Drifter is a game I wanted to explore every inch of. The map makes it too difficult to track what areas you've yet to turn over. I got lost countless times, thinking I'd found a new wing with a new story-telling recluse, or a cache of currency I could spend on upgrading my skills and weaponry, or a hidden path with another stone tablet whose purpose I'm still unsure of. I wanted to see it all, but the map obstinately refused to help fulfill that desire.

Wrap Up:

Hyper Light Drifter deftly mixes contemplative moments with breakneck action

I am on my second playthrough of Hyper Light Drifter, and I'm still obsessively piecing together what happened in the opening cutscene. I can't think of a world in games that has ever been built this intricately out of pure abstraction, without the crucial foundation of explicit exposition beneath it. It replaces traditional narrative structures with moods, but punctuates those contemplative, quiet moments with constant scenes of breakneck, pitch-perfect action. Getting those two elements to not only coexist but thrive together is a needle that Hyper Light Drifter confidently threads.

Hyper Light Drifter was reviewed using Steam code provided by Heart Machine. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

About Polygon's Reviews
8.5 Win