Hyper Light Breaker brought back all my memories of Dark Souls' greatest boss, and it instantly became one of my favourite demos at Summer Game Fest

Going toe-to-toe with the Exus boss.
(Image credit: Arc Games)

There's a kind of zen state that only certain games can get me into, and when I say "certain games" I pretty much just mean FromSoft games. It's the state of bashing your head against a brick wall but kind of enjoying it: Repeatedly hurling yourself on the rocks of that one boss over and over and over, dying every single time but, miraculously, never really getting frustrated.

The reason I don't get frustrated is that I learn something every time. My knowledge of a boss' mechanics, its timings, and my plain old muscle memory improves in increments until I'm suddenly able—just about—to overcome the enemy. I might be bashing my head against a wall, but that masonry is being chipped away little by little.

After spending an hour with Hyper Light Breaker at this year's Summer Game Fest, I think it might be one of the few non-FromSoft games to put me in the same state. Even better: The fight I spent my entire time on reminded me of none other than Artorias from Dark Souls 1's only DLC. For my money, that's still the best fight in the studio's catalogue (with the important caveat that I've not gotten around to Elden Ring).

(Image credit: Arc Games)

Dodge, parry, pirouette 

My comrade Ted Litchfield has already done a sterling job writing up all the ways that Hyper Light Breaker differs from its predecessor in his GDC preview, so I won't repeat them here, but I should point out that—unlike the demo Ted played—the build I got time with at SGF had its procgen stuff turned on. 

Halfway through, a helpful dev reached over and reset the map for me, carrying over a few of my meta-currencies and mixing up the locations of dungeons, enemies, and the boss I was repeatedly testing myself against. It works, folks, although I can't speak to it too much because I mostly beelined to my several dates with a large, angry man.

Remember the first fight you had with Isshin? Or Father Gascoigne? Or Friede? Remember how you got absolutely demolished and thought to yourself, "Well, they've finally done it. They've made the boss I'm just not gonna beat. Miyazaki has  gone too far!"

(Image credit: Arc Games)

I had the same experience with my fight in HLB. It just didn't seem doable. Flanked by both aerial and ground-based enemies, ridiculously quick, and constantly unveiling new and exciting ways he could hurt me, I was reduced to a thin paste before I could even get my bearings, taking damage from things I couldn't even identify. And that's with some of the game's finest weapons and upgrades courtesy of the demo's SGF-punter-friendly mode.

My heart sank. I loved Hyper Light Drifter, but my first doomed attempt to take on the demo's recommended boss left me wondering if Heart Machine hadn't quite managed the shift to 3D. I was overwhelmed and just couldn't really see how anyone would be able to beat this guy.

But I also had another 56 minutes of my demo time left, so I tried again, and again, and again, only taking the occasional break to go practise my parries against the less devastating enemies that populate the roguelike's overworld.

(Image credit: Arc Games)

Lessons learned 

Each attempt revealed something new: I wasn't just taking damage from the air, it was that annoying aerial enemy taking potshots while the big guy distracted me. Icing them with a well-placed ranged attack became the first thing I did whenever I entered the arena.

Then, new revelations: Learning the precise right time to parry his dash attack, pretty much obviating one of his moves that kept devastating me in my first fight; Realising attacking him up-close with my beloved twin blades just put me square in the middle of the damaging goo that accumulates around him; Figuring out the precise window to use my dash to escape his ground-pound and the aerial turret he can summon on a whim.

(Image credit: Arc Games)

My fights went from 30-second smackdowns to a minute long, two minutes. Each time I died, I walked away with new knowledge—like learning the steps to a dance—that put me right back in my university halls in 2013, repeatedly trudging back to Artorias' boss arena in Dark Souls and making it just a little further each time.

Each time I died, I walked away with new knowledge—like learning the steps to a dance

Eventually, it all clicked together: I realised that the respawning NPCs dropped ammo when they went down, opening up the possibility of taking the boss on primarily with ranged weapons. He could close the distance with his dash, but I'd cracked the parry window, and his aerial turret couldn't do much damage when I knew just how to dash out of its way. 

(Image credit: Arc Games)

With mere minutes left of my allotted demo time (no, really, it was all very dramatic), I walked into the fight with my beloved dual blades and a rapid-fire, high-ammo pistol and finally overcame the boss, though I did have to churn through all five of my healing items to do it.

It felt great, like passing an exam I'd spent months cramming for, and like a victory I'd earned purely through my developing mastery of Hyper Light Breaker's mechanics. It's just one boss in a lengthy roguelike (so lengthy it pitches "limitless replayability"), but it left me incredibly eager to see more when HLB hits early access. I started the demo off wondering if Heart Machine had lost it, and left thinking it was firing on all cylinders. If it can keep up that kind of tempo across the whole game, you can sign me up right now. 

Joshua Wolens
News Writer

One of Josh's first memories is of playing Quake 2 on the family computer when he was much too young to be doing that, and he's been irreparably game-brained ever since. His writing has been featured in Vice, Fanbyte, and the Financial Times. He'll play pretty much anything, and has written far too much on everything from visual novels to Assassin's Creed. His most profound loves are for CRPGs, immersive sims, and any game whose ambition outstrips its budget. He thinks you're all far too mean about Deus Ex: Invisible War.