Real talk. I like my vidja games ‘gamey’. Not the ‘strong flavor’ kind associated with eating tainted meat. I’m talking the quarter pumping, joystick grinding kind. The kind that pushes one’s reflexes to their limits and hands towards carpal tunnel. Story, character development, graphics (heck, even grammar) can all take a backseat as long as the gameplay’s good and high score chasing’s fun.
Yet every now and then an indie comes along that challenges the status quo, proving you don’t have to sacrifice one element for the benefit of another. Earlier this year Celeste proved storytelling in platformers doesn’t have to resort to the damsel in distress trope. Games like Dead Cells and Crypt of the Necrodancer proved two disparate genres can be combined into one addictively symphonic whole.
I’m happy to say developer Heart Machine carries on this torch of innovation with their retro-inspired action RPG, Hyper Light Drifter. A pioneer in visual storytelling, Drifter combines the artistic merit of experiential games like Journey with the exploratory gameplay of SNES era classics, creating one of the most enjoyable adventures the Nintendo Switch has to offer.
FANTASTICAL FEVER DREAMS
Players clasp on the cloak of a lone drifter afflicted by a terrible sickness, burdened with visions of a malevolent force threatening to lay wake to the world. You’ll spend most your time exploring ruins ravished by time and reactivating ancient technologies in hopes of confronting the darkness and discovering a cure — assuming one even exists.
To say much more would be a disservice to anyone interested in playing, not to mention tread heavily upon spoiler territory. That’s because Hyper Light’s journey is better experienced than told thanks to its insistence on visual and interpretive storytelling. Everything from cryptic cutscenes and deadly premonitions to garbled tales spun by NPCs is told entirely through imagery. In fact, there isn’t a single word of dialogue, most of its narrative secrets buried deep beneath the backdrops — sweeping vistas teeming with wildlife, fallen Titans, and crumbling ruins of civilizations past.
Complementing its emphasis on visual storytelling is one of the most wonderfully atmospheric soundtracks to ever grace the airwaves. Composed by mastermind Richard “Disasterpeace” Vreeland of Fez fame, the subdued score is nothing short of breathtaking, evoking a melancholic, yet surprisingly relaxing tone throughout. (The piano version of Panacea is particularly praiseworthy.) These tracks build up organically, too, as you approach enemies, climaxing in a high paced panic that’s always sure to keep the adrenaline pumping. Needless to say, it’s hard not to get infatuated by each tragic track long after your first playthrough. Did I mention it also sets the perfect mood for mellowing out and writing reviews?
COUGHS ‘N COMBAT
Pretty pixels and stunning soundtrack aside, Hyper Light Drifter proves just as impressive in the gameplay department, borrowing lightly from some of the most iconic games of the 16-bit era — namely A Link to the Past and Super Metroid. True to its name, Drifter gives you the freedom to wander in any cardinal direction you choose right from the get-go. Whether you begin your adventure strolling through lush forests, navigating flooded canals, or climbing snow-covered mountains is entirely up to you as you attempt to unravel the mysteries surrounding the dystopian nightmares plaguing these lands.
Of course, it’s not all about smelling roses when hiking through Hyper’s hinterlands. There are plenty of dangers lurking in the dark during those long walks in the woods, from crystal creatures and mutant ninja frogs to explosive plants and spell-slinging vultures. Fortunately, you come packing more than just a punch to maim and murder ‘em all. Beyond a trusty sword that would make Hatori Hanzo blush is an arsenal of guns to uncover — from standard pistols and shotguns to more devastating long-range rifles. Just make sure not to button mash too much, as sword slashes need to cooldown between combos and ammunition is limited — restocked upon defeating enemies and environmental hazards.
Funny enough, despite the destructive force available at your fingertips, it’s possible to beat the entire game using nothing more than your innate abilities given at the onset of your adventure. That’s because, unlike most Metroidvanias, progression isn’t tied to power-ups gained or trinkets uncovered. In this way, much like the more recent Zelda games (A Link Between Worlds, Breath of the Wild), Hyper Light Drifter lets players pave their own paths, assuring no two players experience the game in quite the same way.
A WORLD WORTH WANDERING
Completionists need not worry, as there’s plenty to explore when it comes to hidden collectibles scattered about the game world. More often than not, trekking off the beaten path uncovers gear bits used in town to upgrade abilities, like deflecting projectiles with swords, increasing health, or giving guns higher damage. There are also over a dozen keys and monoliths worth discovering, needed to unlock special pathways and dive deeper into Drifter’s lore. Needless to say, there’s a fair amount of backtracking should you wish your wayward warrior become cream of the drifting crop. Thankfully, it rarely feels irritating or tedious given diligent exploration is rarely blocked outside one’s own innate abilities. If you see it, you can snag it.
That said, there’s one upgrade you’ll want to purchase sooner rather than later: the multi dash. Not only will it help you in solving a handful of optional puzzles, but it proves vital for surviving Hyper’s many brutal battles. Avoiding damage is the only real means of defense our caped crusader has at their disposal, which makes boss battles in particular all the more exciting. Due to the fast and fluid nature of combat, the more distance put between you and your enemies the better. Mastering the controls is a delicate dance that admittedly takes some practice, though once gotten down proves immensely satisfying.
The Special Edition on Switch comes packing all previously released content, as well as a few new console exclusives. Most compelling is both a new Tower Climb challenge area and boss for testing the most wayward of wanderers. Reaching its peak unlocks new weapons — the Blade Caster and Crystal Shot — as well as a special cloak that makes finding hidden secrets even easier. They’re fun to mess with and well worth gathering, too, if not only to witness the calamity rained down from the game’s newly added optional boss.
BREAKING THE SOUND BARRIER
Inspired by 16-bit classics of yesteryear, Hyper Light Drifter puts a refreshing spin on the open world exploration genre. Its evocative use of visual storytelling, haunting soundtrack, and fluid combat system will leave you cutting and coughing through its beautifully pixelated playground long after the credits roll.
So what are you waiting for? Make like the speed of sound and hyper light drift your way to the Nintendo eShop this instant!
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System: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: September 6, 2018
Categories: Action, Adventure, Role-Playing
Developer: Heart Machine