Opening up Hyper Light Drifter, you are greeted with a wall. Admittedly it’s a wall with one of the nicest aesthetics that I’ve seen in a long time, but it’s a big wall nonetheless. Since I was playing Hyper Light Drifter for review I pulled up my socks, grabbed some mountaineering equipment and started to scale the challenge in front of me.
After an hour which could more aptly be described as an eternity, the utterly gorgeous world of Hyper Light Drifter came into view, with the remnants of hulking monsters scattered, towering, over the lands, calling to me and aching to be explored and conquered.
So I started my adventure, eager to uncover the secrets of the world and unravel its lore, jumping down from the wall that once stood in my path and heading off towards one of the four stunning areas that make up the game world. Then my progress was halted as another towering wall rose up from the ground, and I realised I was lost.
Even after pulling out the map I found myself devoid of help on how to traverse the land. Instead I had to rely on sheer luck to find entrances to dungeons and new areas in order to progress. These walls would keep rising up from the ground the more that I progressed through the game, though thankfully the time to conquer them become shorter and shorter as I progressed through, learning what to expect from the design of the world. Even when the last wall had been climbed and the end of the game was within reach I was still haunted by the challenge of the first, which loomed over my experience.
The admittedly beautiful level design is what caused problems to arise when playing Hyper Light Drifter, as in most cases the ability to navigate the world was sacrificed for its beauty and mystery.
That seems a fair price to pay when the camera pulls back over a cliff edge and shows you the majesty of the sprawling landscape yet to be explored. When finding my way around, however, I wished they chose the more traditional sacrifice of visuals rather than level design, as each time I went back over an area I had cleared it felt longer than the last, building to a frustrating eternity of dead ends, without any sight of the right path.
Searching for the correct route felt more like a tricky sidequest than a mandatory part of the game. This was never more apparent than with some of the puzzles, if they can be called that, which required blindly leaping off edges, hoping tiles would materialise under your feet and catch you.
Even the map was no help, giving only a vague indication of where you are rather than a local area map that would be actually be useful in finding out how to progress.
As much as the aesthetic can get in the way at times, it is an utterly gorgeous aesthetic. Hyper Light Drifter is one of the prettiest games I have played in a long time. Even with the pixelated style it is remarkably detailed, the hub in the centre of the world feeling alive and rich.
Each of the four main areas of Hyper Light Drifter are also diversely beautiful, each one perfectly matching their tone to their colour pallets, adding to the varied and world design which made each new area feel unique, every one feeling as special as the last.
Hyper Light Drifter creates stunning moments, when the camera pans back and the music swells showing you the burnt out husk of a colossus or the landscape winding in front of you. It’s these moments that stick in your mind even after you come away from playing, with how spectacular they look.
It’s not just the visuals in these moments which kept me playing through Hyper Light Drifter, as the music throughout was beautifully atmospheric. Each piece felt powerful in its own right as it enhanced each of the areas it was used for, adding to the feeling of diversity between the areas as you travel through them. As much as the soundtrack enhances each of the areas, at times, it can feel grating – the more time you spending searching around them, the more the same ominous chords strike while you search for the next path to take.
The combat is Hack and Slash, but not really committed to either. It revolves around a three attack combo with a short pause afterwards, stopping you from dashing into a new area and spamming attack until everything has stopped moving.
Once again it is in the early game that Hyper Light Drifter is let down, as with none of the sword’s upgrades – which mix up combat with new moves and abilities – it’s left feeling stale and repetitive, forcing you into a tight move structure, straying from which results in certain death.
The boss battles however are where the combat comes alive, keeping you on your toes as the screen is filled with hazards and bullets. You choose between an all-out assault, charging into them and unleashing your most devastating attacks while diligently spamming heal, or choosing a more tactical approach, skilfully avoiding the bullet hell that rains down, sneaking in with a few quick hits while they are dazed before going back to running rings around them.
The combat is further expanded the later you go in the game, through the guns that become available to you. This lets you choose more of your own playstyle as the game progresses. It’s just a shame that the start of the game lacks these abilities and weapon choices, as they only add to the wall that stands before you and the real fun of the game.
The story and the mystery surrounding the world is where Hyper Light Drifter falls short, as while the world oozes detail and mystery it’s ultimately left unexplored, instead choosing to show vague details rather than stopping for a moment to explain anything. Following the mantra of show, don’t tell a little too closely, you’re left without any sense of direction let alone any sense of story.
It’s a real shame, as the story that is there is longing to be explored, each snippet that can be seen looks interesting and oozes mystery. Yet it is never explored, and each moment you get to see into the past – which looks far more interesting at times – is used only as a setup for the next area or boss. This leaves the lore of the rest of the world, and the hulking titans whose remains litter the land, sadly unexplored.