What is it? A beautiful, challenging action RPG.
Expect to pay £15/$20
Developer Heart Machine
Reviewed on GeForce GTX 970, Intel i7-5820K, 16GB RAM
Link Official site (opens in new tab)
The drifter, a mute warrior draped in a red cloak and wielding a sword made of light, is an enigma. He roams a broken landscape searching for something, but it’s not really clear what. Occasionally he hunches over and coughs up blood, which causes the screen to glitch and flicker. There’s a beguiling mystery about this shadowy figure, like the nameless gunslinger in a Western or a wandering samurai, and the same can be said of Hyper Light Drifter as a whole.
It’s a world of strange machines, ethereal forests, ancient temples, and lifeless, overgrown robots. An evocative intro sequence shows you glimpses of a cataclysmic event—a gleaming futuristic city disappearing in a flash of explosive light—and this seems to be the aftermath. A ruined place littered with the remains of advanced, long forgotten technology. It’s not a dead world—there are people and creatures everywhere, some of which are friendly—but it feels like you're exploring the wake of some incredible disaster.
It’s an astonishingly beautiful post-apocalypse, though, brought to life with a vivid colour palette and intricate, pixel art. A haunting, ambient score by Rich ‘Disasterpeace’ Vreeland adds to the melancholy atmosphere, subtly changing to reflect your surroundings. Artistically, it’s a triumph, but the considered, delicate aesthetic is somewhat misleading. There are some moments of quiet exploration, but mostly Hyper Light Drifter is a punishing, fast-paced action game.
It never really tells you anything—about the drifter, the setting, or even what you’re supposed to be doing. This minimalist approach gives it an air of intriguing mystery, but it can also make it feel aimless. You spend the early stages of the game lost and bewildered, trying to make sense of it all. There are other characters, but they speak in gibberish or obscure comic book panels. Arcane symbols decorate the crumbling temples, but you have no way of deciphering them.
But then objectives slowly begin to form in your mind, like the diamond-shaped objects you collect—usually by fighting through dungeons—that fill in parts of a glyph in the village at the heart of the map. The world is interconnected and there’s no attempt to lead you in the right direction. You’ll stumble into areas that seem impossibly difficult, making a mental note to return later when your skills are sharper. This freeform, non-linear structure is occasionally confusing, but gives you a satisfying amount of agency.
Really, though, Hyper Light Drifter is all about the combat. Its varied bestiary of enemies are relentlessly aggressive, but they all have attack patterns that can be learned and exploited. It’s when you’re facing several different types at once, usually in confined, trap-filled spaces, that things get difficult. You can dash, fire a gun, and attack with your sword, but can’t endure much damage. Pinpoint timing and carefully observing your opponents' movements are key to surviving a battle. It’s almost like a puzzle game, knowing precisely which enemies to attack first, where to move, and when to use your limited health consumables.
Dungeons hide the most satisfying combat in the game, and their layouts change dynamically around you, forcing you to constantly change your tactics. For example, kill one enemy and a wall that was providing cover from a sniper on the other side of the room will suddenly disappear. These sections present an enjoyable challenge, and there’s a satisfaction in dancing around a room and killing everything without taking a hit. But you also find yourself repeating areas, which is when frustration sets in. If you’re deep in a dungeon and run out of health items, bad luck. You have to leave and scour the overworld for more, or somehow scrape through the next room, which is probably teeming with powerful enemies, with a dribble of HP.
This is a game where enduring persistent failure is the only way to get good, and a lot of people won’t have the patience to get through some of its more gruelling battles—particularly the fiendishly difficult boss fights. Regular enemies are tough enough, but when you’re fighting groups of them on top of a boss unleashing waves of increasingly savage attacks, it becomes a real test of endurance. Ultimately, how you respond to these difficulty spikes will depend on your temperament. If you’re the type of gamer who has the fortitude to try things over and over until you master them, Hyper Light Drifter is for you. If not, you’ll almost certainly give up after a few hours.
There’s a lot to love about Hyper Light Drifter. The elegant, expressive animation makes fighting and traversing the world a joy. The visual design and music are stunning. And the exhilaration of clearing a dungeon with only a sliver of health left is a feeling worth chasing. But the unwavering difficulty—especially the bosses—makes it an experience for a very specific type of gamer. If you have the will to overcome its many trials you’ll find a rewarding, uncompromising action game. If not, you might feel like you’re banging your head against an incredibly pretty brick wall.