Hyper Light Drifter – Special Edition – The Switch Island Review
If the world ever goes through a nuclear holocaust and there’s a few of us left staggering around, coughing up blood, pursued by irradiated monsters, I doubt it’ll be as fun or as good looking as Hyper Light Drifter, the action adventure game from Heart Machine.
Just why the Drifter is coughing up blood in a world full of irradiated monsters is a question it’s difficult to answer, but then do we know how Bowser got tortoises to fight for him? If it plays well, don’t pry.
What there is of a story is ambiguous, enigmatic, downright vague. Any interactions with characters aren’t just voiceless, they’re entirely wordless, with all ‘conversations’ taking place via a very small number of picture cards that appear above the NPCs, usually depicting events or monsters. The player is given impressions and moods rather than narratives; Hyper Light Drifter prefers world-building to storytelling. Those looking for a backstory for the Drifter and his world will probably get it with the upcoming TV series. For me, the world itself was enough of a motivating force.
What Hyper Light Drifter has in buckets is personality. Every screen is like a pixel work of art. The isometric viewpoint is severe for a 2D game, with objects in the foreground often covering objects behind, as would usually be seen in a 3D game. And the bold bright colours give a surreal, otherworldly glow. One minor downside of the isometric angle is the very occasional difficulty in distinguishing exactly whether environmental objects are touching the ground or not (for example, in the pic above, the Drifter can move under the sword). One area of rising and falling blocks was particularly tough to comprehend, making me unsure why I had died. But, that was a very minor issue; on the whole, the style is basically artwork and make the world a joy to explore and experience.
How you progress from the central hub area is your choice. You can send the Drifter in any direction that suits – North, South, East or West. Try one route and find it a bit tough for your current set-up, well that’s fine, return to the hub and try a different direction. Each of the four areas has its own style, enemies and a boss at the end. There are save points and warp points too at convenient intervals, as well as an assortment of secrets and collectibles. The map is set-up a bit like Majora’s Mask, actually, if you know that game, with its central area and four main, themed directions in which to head.
The combat is a combination of melee and ranged attacks. The Drifter has a very fast dash, which is useful for bridging gaps or when surrounded by irradiated monsters. The Drifter’s gun has a neat feature; when you run out of bullets you need to do melee attacks to restock the ammo. This adds a tactical element to every fight. I found I saved my bullets for the harder enemies and used the weaker ones as reload fodder. A quick description of the play style could be that it’s like a 2D Zelda crossed with a twin stick shooter. I found it to be completely absorbing, and enjoyed every second of dashing around smacking and shooting monsters.
The game has a bit of a reputation for being really difficult, and there’s a relatively critical IGN review to that effect. Pah, I say to that. If you’ve survived anything else in 16bit like A Link To The Past then you’ll be fine. The fights are tough but always fair; and there are always different ways to approach each fight. And if you take the time to explore you can upgrade the Drifter’s armoury and health, at shops found at the hub area. Nothing about the game feels unfair, and it’s not unrelenting as there are areas of quiet to break up the areas of disquiet. Most of all, because everything is so engaging and gorgeous, you don’t mind giving it another go. And if you’re really stuck, or just want to play with someone, you can play co-op too.
The Switch version is a Special Edition, and runs as smooth as polished steel at 60fps. It also includes a few extra bits like a couple of new weapons, a new costume and a tower climb challenge. I don’t know how much all of that adds, but it’s nice the devs made the effort.
I played Hyper Light Drifter in as few sittings as possible, cuddled up with my Switch, because I was utterly enthralled. My playtime was about 10 hours. It would probably stretch to about 15 for completionists. It has been one of the best games I’ve played this year and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to fans of action adventure games, with the Switch in particular being ideal to play it on.
Hyper Light Drifter is a glorious fusion of style and substance, with an exotically beautiful art style, an idiosyncratic approach to world-building, and some intense but engrossing action. You can bet I’ll be watching Heart Machine like an irradiated hawk from now on.
Game: Hyper Light Drifter – Special Edition
Developer: Heart Machine
Switch Release date: 06/09/2018