PC Gamer plays: Hyper Light Drifter, The Medium, Hitman 3, and Valheim

Hyper Light Drifter
(Image credit: Heart Machine)

Every month in PC Gamer magazine our writers gather around a virtual campfire to trade the latest tales of their adventures in gaming. Steven tells of his patience being tested in Hyper Light Drifter, Robin recounts his less-than-ideal time with The Medium, Harry brings a lightheartedness to the stoic Agent 47, and Ali chats about finding home in Valhiem's deadly wilderness. Enjoy!

Enigmatic and unrelenting, Hyper Light Drifter takes patience—Steven Messner

I have played close to 20 hours of Hyper Light Drifter and I still can't tell you what the story is about. Whatever narrative is lurking in this fever-dream action RPG is so obtuse that I'm not even convinced it isn't just a bunch of really striking images strung together by sparkling synth music. The intro cinematic jumps between statues with glowing eyes, a Neon Genesis Evangelion-esque apocalypse, and giant fleshy corpses. It's impenetrable yet undeniably captivating—but, my god, it's taken me a few tries to get into it. 

Though it was released in 2016, it's taken me this long to beat Hyper Light Drifter because I kept bouncing off it. I love nearly everything about it—the ambience, aesthetic, and combat—but a few hours in I'd be going in circles trying to get to the next area with no concrete idea of what I was even looking for. It was maddening. 

Structured similarly to old Zelda games, Hyper Light Drifter has a simple overarching objective: go to the four zones on its map, kill a boss, and collect glowing bits of geometry that unlock a fifth location. In order to get to the boss, though, you need to explore each zone looking for different glowy bits that, when you have enough of them, open a door. The problem is that most of these glowing bits are hard to find, and the in-game map is all but useless.

The first few times I tried playing Hyper Light Drifter, I simply didn't have the patience. I'd spend a few hours bashing my head against a wall and give up. But this most recent attempt, I was committed to actually pushing through. I'm so glad I did. Hyper Light Drifter is not an easy game to fall in love with, but now it's a game I love a lot. 

The issue with its hard-to-find objectives is a temporary one. After an hour spent examining every pixel of the map looking for clues, I realised that secret passages are subtly marked with a tiny symbol. And almost instantly the entire game opened up to me. All I had to do was keep an eye out for that little symbol and I'd be able to easily find most of the hidden items needed to progress. 

Hyper light drifter

(Image credit: Heart Machine)

It's not exactly good level design, sure, but Hyper Light Drifter is still great in spite of it. The world you explore and the subtle clues as to its origins, are captivating. I'm a sucker for games that have an undeniable sense of place, and the creative vision behind Hyper Light Drifter is riveting. 

You sure have to work for it, though. Figuring out the signal for hidden passages was one thing, but practically every element of Hyper Light Drifter is presented without explanation. It took me ten hours to realise I could chain dodges together, gaining speed with each successive dash. These design choices can create a lot of frustration, but they also enhance the alien-ness that makes Hyper Light Drifter such a weird and captivating game. I'm glad I pushed through and completed it after so many years.

The nauseating carelessness of The Medium—Robin Valentine

(Image credit: Bloober Team)

Over its first couple of hours, I was quite charmed by The Medium—I liked its throwback fixed camera angles, its grim post-Soviet atmosphere, and its endearingly worn-out protagonist. I was intrigued to see where its horror mystery would take me. 

It seemed to be spinning a fairly standard but still compelling yarn about a mysterious series of killings at a remote holiday resort, and the conspiracy that may be behind them. But at about the two-hour mark, the story takes a baffling turn that leads it down more and more uncomfortable paths. Warning: big spoilers ahead. 

A flashback scene that puts you in the shoes of a different, rather less endearing protagonist serves to kick off a grim deluge of hot button topics. With no focus, care, or sensitivity, the game invokes domestic abuse, rape, alcoholism, the Holocaust and Nazi experimentation, Soviet authoritarianism, and more, in rapid succession. Whether trying to shock or affirm its own seriousness, it becomes completely incoherent in its rush to throw out as many edgy topics as it can muster—and blunders into such gross narrative beats as a lengthy sequence exploring the life and motivations of a serial child molester. 

The throughline, such as it is, is trauma, as all of these things exist in the plot in order to provide damaging moments for each of our key characters. Trauma makes monsters out of innocents, The Medium asserts—both figuratively and, in its world of the supernatural, literally. These monsters traumatise other innocents, who become monsters themselves. 

There's truth to the idea of toxic cycles of abuse and violence, but the way The Medium approaches that concept is totally alienating to any player who has themselves suffered traumatic experiences. It displays a bit of sympathy for such people, but its overall thesis is that there is no true recovery, no way of processing or moving on. It ultimately hinges its entire finale on the idea that the only solution is suicide. 

Needless to say, that's an unbelievably irresponsible message to drop into a mainstream videogame. Using real-world tragedy as an easy prop is bad enough, but The Medium's prehistoric perspective on mental health has the potential to do real harm. I'm left feeling horrified for all the wrong reasons.

Roleplaying Johnny English rather than Agent 47 in Hitman 3—Harry Shepherd

(Image credit: IO Interactive)

And it was all going so well, too. I didn't expect my first foray into the stealthy, outfit-swapping world of Hitman to be so composed as a beginner assassin, but while I'm surprised at the decent start I made to life as Agent 47, I was devastated to discover quite how badly my mission could go wrong. 

So, yes, Hitman 3 is the first game I've played in the series. I've always found the idea of them a little intimidating, actually. I didn't believe I had the patience, nor the creativity, to pull off a satisfying kill undetected. I'd heard about the best Hitman levels—beautiful, intricate mazes with opportunity waiting around every turn—and felt impressed, but put off. So, I wondered, with Agent 47's trilogy set to finish in bombastic Bond style, did I have the quick thinking necessary to execute my targets while making the most of the exquisite new set of sandboxes? 

In short, no. But, as I said, I got off to a good start. Perhaps racing through the tutorial—hand gently held by the game throughout—lulled me into a false sense of security, but it was as I took my first tentative steps into the flamboyant luxury of a Dubai skyscraper that I started to feel a bit more positive. That probably had something to do with Agent 47's dramatic skydiving entrance and suave outfit change into a smart suit. With orchestral music swelling and the sun's rays shining, I felt ready.

So I started my mission in Dubai slowly, trying to soak in my surroundings by picking up nuggets of intel from NPCs and exploring every corner of this resplendent palace. Then, I saw a strangely dressed man arguing with the guards. Assassin instincts I never knew I had kicked in: I waited until he was alone, knocked him out, and stole his outfit. Strolling past the guards, I pinched one of their colleagues' clothes—what was I ever worrying about? 

Hitman 3

(Image credit: IO Interactive)

I picked up more intel, and felt the consummate professional. But, importantly, I discovered a code which revealed an evacuation key card, and then found another the next floor up. I learned that both need to be activated in a short period to initiate the evacuation protocol. Excitement built. I thought my current target, Carl Ingram, could be vulnerable as he escaped. The trouble is, that doesn't really count as a plan.

So, amid my newly discovered hubris, I initiated the protocol, and everything went to pot. Every guard, obviously, goes on high alert. Even worse, not only was Ingram escaping, but my other target, Marcus Stuyvesant, was too. I did have my security uniform on, but with so many enforcers milling around that could see through my disguise, it wasn't much use. In the highest building in the world, I was well out of my depth. Impotently, I watched both targets parachute away, surrounded by bodyguards that were armed to the teeth. Oh well, it's back to basic training for me, then.

How I found a home in spite of the deadly wilderness of Valheim—Ali Jones

(Image credit: Iron Gate Studios)

Above the noise of voice chat, I hear the tell-tale buzzing sound a moment before I see what it's coming from. Despite that momentary warning, I barely have time to react before I'm skewered through the back by a roided-up mosquito. It's the latest in a series of threats that my party and I are unprepared for; in the last few minutes, I've been picked off by an undead but eagle-eyed archer, gutted by a goblin, and flattened under the hooves a buffalo. After I rise from the bed in our hastily- assembled shack for the umpteenth time, I insist that my fellow adventurers and I head home. 

After a stretch in the wilderness, that ‘home' feels almost palatial in comparison to the lean-to shelters we've been throwing up as a desperate defence against the worst of Valheim's fauna. When we first started building, our little slice of the afterlife was barely more than a renovation of those hastily-assembled shacks, but over time we carved out a larger space for ourselves, nestling in on a quiet hillside near the seashore. We scratched out a farm to grow carrots, and built a cooking station to turn them into soup.

Eventually, the patch of land we'd reclaimed from the wilderness began to resemble a home, and then an entire settlement. Now, bees buzz noisily around a collection of hives, pumping out honey that goes to our fermenter, bubbling away in an outhouse to create mead. Metalwork rings out from the forge, while a kiln and smelter churn out the ingredients needed to run it. A longship sits bobbing gently by the dock that we built over the harbour that we dug painstakingly out of the bedrock beneath us. 

Valheim obsidian

(Image credit: Iron Gate Studios)

The peace of our little hamlet seems antithetical to the rest of Valheim, a world that's harsh, unpleasant and filled with monsters. Driving rain and bitter cold sap my strength as I try to gather even the most basic resources while remaining unmolested by the creatures of the forest, forever on my guard for the distant tremor that denotes an approaching troll and another fight (or more likely flight) through a dark and unforgiving forest. 

But when a storm is raging overhead, returning home and shutting the door against the tempest outside—no matter how exhausted I might be—brings an immediate sense of homely tranquillity in spite of the crashing thunder or howling wind. And when the sun rises from across the lake the next morning, casting a soft light across the lush grass of our meadow, the grunts of foraging boars and barks of nearby deer echoing across the field, it's possible to forget that this world is out to get me, and bask—if only for a very brief moment—in the idyllic sanctuary that I've created for myself.

Steven Messner

With over 7 years of experience with in-depth feature reporting, Steven's mission is to chronicle the fascinating ways that games intersect our lives. Whether it's colossal in-game wars in an MMO, or long-haul truckers who turn to games to protect them from the loneliness of the open road, Steven tries to unearth PC gaming's greatest untold stories. His love of PC gaming started extremely early. Without money to spend, he spent an entire day watching the progress bar on a 25mb download of the Heroes of Might and Magic 2 demo that he then played for at least a hundred hours. It was a good demo.