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31 December 2016 @ 11:16 am
Game Review: Hyper Light Drifter  
I first became aware of Hyper Light Drifter a couple years ago, after the kickstarter had finished but before there was much more info available about it, when I saw this promotional image that seared itself into my brain.

 photo emot-gonk.gif

My first thought was, "That looks amazing." My second though was that the picture reminded me of the god-warriors from Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind mixed with sharks, and anything with that influence and that kind of amazing pixel art was something I had to own, even just to support the creation of more modern pixel art games with some craft behind them. We don't need to use pixel art in games anymore, but by the same token, we're not bound by the limitations of old pixel art either. It's a stylistic choice, and one I wholeheartedly support. Like voice acting, modern graphical standards are raising the cost of games to a point where innovation is discouraged because a failure costs far too much. Or maybe it's just that I'm not a big fan of most AAA-level games nowadays for a variety of reasons.

I mean, some of my attachment to pixel art is from playing old DOS and NES games, and that's part of why I liked Shovel Knight. But only a part of it, because they have to be good games as well or I'd just watch the pretty pictures on someone's Twitch stream. And like Shovel Knight, this is a good game.

Not so dangerous now.

I do have to talk a bit more about the art, though, because it is gorgeous.

In a year where I played games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Secret of Mana, Hyper Light Drifter was still my favorite-looking game, though only just. I mixed in screenshots from other games with my generic pixel art folder for our television's screensaver, but once I beat this game I immediately went and set the screensaver folder to my Hyper Light Drifter screenshot folder.

Each of the four areas in the game has an obvious visual style, from the vibrant swamp to the east with its pools of cerulean water and green vegetation to the rain-drenched wasteland to the south and the cold, mechanical secret labs hidden beneath. One of the advantages of pixel art is that is allows more suggestion and allows the mind to fill in the gaps with the art as a template. That was helpful with the various animal people that the Magician--the main character, as the Steam trading card that bears their picture calls them--meets, and especially helpful with all the horrible things that happen to them. I would have been much less interested to play a game showing the otter people tortured to death by toad people if it had modern-Tomb-Raider levels of graphical fidelity. I can look at the sprites and summon it up in my head, and that is enough.

This will end in tears.

The story is most conveyed through the art as well. After awakening from mysterious dreams(?), the Magician travels until they collapse, then are brought to the City by another Drifter and nursed back to health. They hear of the troubles in the neighboring lands from some refugees in the town, all of which is conveyed by pictures. The only text is the brief tutorial prompts explaining what the buttons do and how to recharge gun ammo. I remember reading an article where the designer commented that he spent a long time trying to convey that through gameplay or pictures as well with the goal of having a completely textless game before finally deciding that a small amount of text at the beginning wouldn't be a problem.

As the Magician continues on their journey, they solve the problems in each of the four quadrants. The mutated toad people who had massacred the otter people of the east. The raven people who destroyed the hawk people's rookery except for a small remnant of eggs saved by one hawk person. The blue-skinned people of the west--similar to the Magician--and their nameless foe, and the crystals that sealed them both in eternal imprisonment. And the alligator people of the southern wastes and what they found beneath the sands of their home. The other Drifter who found them, traveling the same course and warning them of the dangers ahead. In each of the four quadrants, a dead god-warrior of the time before.

And all the while, the Magician keeps coughing up a strange pink substance, and dreaming of a city, a cataclysm, a gateway, and a dog.

What does this button do?

There's more to it with some analysis--others have translated the symbols found on the monoliths throughout the game, which are an actual message rather than just gibberish designed to look good. Spoilers found here.

It's pretty easy to piece together the basics, though. There was a city, performing experiments, and something went wrong. There was an accident that destroyed the city, seared the landscape, and scattered its people to the winds. Their descendants live in the ruins of their ancient civilization with barely any understanding of how the old technology worked. Remnants of the old war, of people who are affected by the pink liquid, which seems to be some leftover of the old experiments, are a constant threat, as well a war machines, ancient defenses, and mutated creatures. Only in the central city is there peace, of a sort, but most of those who try to venture beyond the walls return seriously injured, if they return at all.

It's very Gamma World, with the cataclysm and all the mutated animals. And now that I've finished this, I really want to run a game of Gamma World.


The gameplay is primarily sword-and-gun action. If I had to use an analogy, it's like playing Devil May Cry 3 with the Tricker style at all times. The Magician has their sword and a gun, initially only a pistol but with other guns available during the course of the game, and the ability to quickly dash to avoid attacks, cross gaps, or reach enemies. Finding "gear-bits" throughout the world are the currency used to purchase extra abilities, including a dashing slash, extra ammo for the guns, the ability to hold more health packs (which I only discovered right before the final boss when I no longer needed it  photo emot-irony.gif), a more powerful slash, and probably the three more important upgrades in the game, the ability to reflect shots with sword swings, immunity to bullets while dashing, and an increase in dashing power beyond the initial three in a row.

This makes gameplay pretty frantic at times, with shots coming from multiple directions while enemies are closing in and you have to keep track of multiple sources of danger at once. While there are long-range guns available, sniping for any prolonged period is impossible because no gun has more than a handful of shots and the only way to regain ammo is to stab things. Mostly enemies, because while stabbing scenery and breakable objects does restore ammo, it does so at a much lower rate than stabbing enemies does. I noticed this the most when fighting the tougher enemies, when I'd run out of shotgun ammo and have to quickly dash in and get a couple hits in before running away to avoid a counterattack, then dashing in again to fire the shotgun at point-blank range. When it worked, which was most of the time  photo stab.gif, it felt really good. When it didn't work, it was mostly because I mistimed things.

There were only a few times when it felt like I was killed by circumstances beyond my control, and they were mostly due to being stunlocked. And that can easily be laid at the feet of me mistiming my dashes or moving into circumstances beyond my control.

That crow man failed him for the last time.

I was really convinced to get the game when I read the review on Rock Paper Shotgun where John Walker hated the game. That's why I don't want objective reviews, I want reviewers to lay their cards on the table up front. I can read a game John Walker hates and know that I'll probably like it, and stay away from the games he likes. That's just as valuable to me as a reviewer who has similar tastes to mine.

His hatred is based on going the "wrong" way first, and it's a casualty of the text-free nature of the game. The intended order is East, North, West, South--South is actually locked off until the other three are finished--but there's very little indication of that in the game itself. The only sign is a dog that runs to the east when the Magician approaches the central square of the town, but I expect that would be easy to miss among all the rest of the art. I probably would have missed it myself if I hadn't known it was there, at least the first time.

But I didn't have much trouble. There wasn't any boss fight that I had to try more than a handful of times, and every boss fight has a save point immediately before hand so it's easy to get back and try again without losing health or needing to expend ammo. There was one time that I had to leave the area, go out and get more health packs, and come back, but that's partially due to ignorance on my part. The Magician starts the game with the ability to hold three health packs and I figured that was it, but no. There's a store off to the east that sells more. Oops. If I had done a bit more exploring the way the game expects the player to, I would have found that and probably not had any trouble with that fight.

At least they found a peaceful place to die.

Finding secrets is a huge part of Hyper Light Drifter's gameplay, and without scouring the map, a playthrough of the game would probably take several hours less than my own playthrough took. Fortunately, nothing outside the direct route is necessary to beating the game, and there's a consistent method of indicating where a secret is. It's visible on that screenshot on that island in the middle bottom, the small dot-within-a-square. The vast majority of the time, a secret is discovered by dashing onto empty space from that symbol--the screen didn't scroll west to reveal that area until I dashed off the platform--or activating that symbol to reveal hidden platforms.

However, finding the secrets is compounded by my major complaint with Hyper Light Drifter--the map is almost totally useless. After maybe an hour, I went and found an annotated map (spoilers, obviously) that has the locations of all the items in the rooms where they are found, but with no specifics about where in the room they are. The in-game map doesn't have that--it has the section (or room, if underground) the Magician is in, the location of four modules that the other Drifter tells the Magician about, the teleporter, and the final boss room. That's it. New modules will appear on the map when you find them--each quadrant has eight, with four necessary to proceed--but the monoliths with the story, the keys that open secret doors, the extra weapons, the gearbits...none of that shows up on the map. Good luck.

I mean, Super Metroid at least put "there is a secret here" indicators on its map and showed when those secrets were uncovered, and still had areas outside the maps Samus found so there were other things to discover. This is a solved problem and I'm baffled that Hyper Light Drifter decided to introduce unnecessary obfuscation. It's the definition of fake difficulty.  photo emot-psyduck.gif

If the game gave the player a way to annotate the maps themselves, the way that Axiom Verge did, it wouldn't be nearly as much of a problem, but it doesn't. It just throws up an inadequate map and expects the player to like it.

A moment of rest.

That is a major complaint, and I don't want to downplay it. A terrible map in a game about finding secrets is a huge flaw. But that was pretty much my only complaint about the game, in the entire time I played it. Dashing around and cutting groups of enemies to ribbons feels great, the art is beautiful--hence the higher-than-normal proportion of screenshots in the post--the music by Disasterpeace is wonderfully atmospheric, and it is in all ways a great game. Probably my favorite game of 2016--though that's not really a contest, because looking back over my records, this is the only game released in 2016 that I played this year other than Stardew Valley, and I haven't finished that yet so I can't properly rate it.

But I can rate Hyper Light Drifter. It's a must-play.
Current Mood: enthralled
Current Music: Perturbator - War Against Machines