Hyper Light Drifter - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team play through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.
I challenge anyone to glance at a screenshot of Hyper Light Drifter and not have their curiosity piqued. The intricate pixel art and moody, synthwave colour palette are what made the Zelda-inspired adventure stand out during the build to its 2016 release. But since then, it's felt as if few people refer back to Heart Machine’s ambitious debut, at least not the way they do of other indie success stories that year like Firewatch, Stardew Valley and The Witness. Now out on the Switch, and in the nether-realm of the coronavirus lockdown, I felt it time to give Hyper Light Drifter a look.
Five Minutes In
The introductory cutscene, much like those aforementioned screenshots, is a thing of pure grace; a piece of animation so standout it could be projected onto a cinema screen and result in only a couple of patrons shuffling uncomfortably in their seats.
It’s during this cutscene we learn the importance of diamonds. Diamonds are everything to Hyper Light Drifter. The central hub has a big diamond on the floor, the symbiotic reoccurring end-boss has a diamond on its shadowy head, the core collectables are pink diamonds trapped in containers in the floor...
Why diamonds are important isn’t really explained during this cutscene, nor does it necessarily need to be. But it does speak to the presentation of Hyper Light Drifter’s narrative as a whole. It’s a show don’t tell game in the strongest sense, with no dialogue and a reliance on evocative, violent imagery to craft purpose and spur you onwards.
Ten Minutes In
After this cutscene our nomadic avatar wakes in a town, akin to Pokémon, with shops that you can’t buy anything from (yet) and a world map that leans too far into style – lots of diamonds again – over substance. At ten minutes in, and for the rest of this playthrough, I found it unbearably frustrating trying to place myself on the world map at times. No matter which direction I went in I found the ensuing screen wasn’t where I’d imagined it would be based on the map, particularly when verticality is involved, and coupling this with a game designed around collectibles made for some tedious moments.
Still, I left the town and headed eastward, arriving in a watery region with pristine white architecture where samurai frogs had been torturing and beheading a populace of rabbits.
A small carnivorous plant popped out of the ground and I had my first taste of combat; it's relatively simple in terms of mechanics, though punishing. You have an immensely satisfying dash to move around during combat and a sword to cleave enemies up close. There are then various long-range weapons unlocked as you play, like a railgun and a Switch-exclusive throwable sword.
Combat is about balancing the options available to you and staying out of the way; it’s a calculated style that rewards precision over recklessness. Hyper Light Drifter gives you only five bars of health, slightly more following upgrades, which ensures you’ll never feel entirely safe during any encounter.
One Hour In
I came across a short in-game cutscene where a caped swordsman not unlike our protagonist fought off a troupe of shuriken-tossing enemies. On talking to them, several icons appeared on my map – at the time I had no idea what these signified, though the red skull presumably indicated the ultimate destination. The other symbols were those ever-important diamonds.
My next hour or so was spent meandering around this region, occasionally entering the same area twice due to the confusing map layout. But eventually I got the hang of the area and had enough of an understanding of that perplexing map to navigate to the skull.
The game’s difficulty is felt for real during bosses, though less so with the giant frog I dealt with quite tidily in the eastern area. I died a couple of times thanks to some errant exploding potions courtesy of the gluttonous amphibian, then made quick work of the beast and returned to the town.
Three Hours In
I’ve since progressed north, where a similar encounter with the swordsman, this time fending off a group of bird mages, occurred. More pink diamonds dotted up on the map and I set off towards them. The northern boss, a cultist bird shaman with a far-reaching assortment of magic attacks, set a far better standard for the unique and demanding boss fights you’ll have to struggle through whilst playing. The controls are however so tight and responsive, and the health kit number just unforgiving enough, that you’ll rarely curse the game for death – it’s your fault, and you need to get better.
It can occasionally feel a futile endeavour. You are, after all, stuck in a decayed world wrought with genocide and violence, peppered with the flayed carcasses of titanic human forms, with little pushing you forward beyond the fact that the shadowy beast that keeps killing you is maybe a bad thing in need of a sword to the head. This world, though fitting into that well-trodden post-apocalyptic trope so beloved of video games, is so visually striking and detailed that you’ll forgive the moments when you’re scrambling to find the right door in which to grab your next gun upgrade.
As I traversed through the northern area in search of additional diamonds, the camera angled to a titan desperately clinging to another peak in the distance. I had to dash around the crumbling hand of another of these inexplicable beings, expended remnants that appear mechanised by the same eerie pink vigor that fuels the floor diamond. Hyper Light Drifter understands the impact of both intrigue and suspense as well as it does the power of withholding outright explanation.
Six Hours In
Once I did improve with the game mechanics, I found myself chain-dashing circles around a group of gargoyles, spinning a grenade into the path of a turret as I deflected a guard’s bullet and charge-slashed an incoming bear samurai clean in two. There’s admittedly somewhat of a disconnect between the gratuitous violence you can commit and the game’s damning of violent acts via the few NPCs you can communicate with. This seems to be justified by the fact that you are redeeming the victims of atrocities and working towards conquering the evil diamond monster, which sort of works if you don’t think too hard, though more could’ve been done with the game’s direction in that respect.
The western region was perhaps the least memorable of my playthrough, having already mastered many of the combat flourishes on reaching it. The bears are some of the more interesting enemies to face, and the boss is a more challenging one, but the techno-forest environment didn’t feel quite as well realised as the two preceding areas.
I’d now gotten fully accustomed to the map, finally, and had even retraced some steps back to the earlier two regions to clean up some of the diamonds. Backtracking isn’t quite as dull as in some games thanks to the respawning enemies, but even as one of those pitiful completionists I found myself questioning the need to seek out these additional collectibles. At least with the majority of the diamonds you’ll be treated to new locations and combat encounters if you seek them out, but scouring the map for hidden areas to reach additional yellow upgrade chips and stone tablets felt considerably less rewarding.
Ten Hours In
I’d managed to collect all the diamonds and upgrade my abilities as far as I felt necessary. The southern region, the game’s last, was now open, leading to a desert landscape bordered by mountains with dense caves and a robotic underbelly
I was delighted to find that mini-bosses were introduced in the final southern area; you feel at this stage of the game that everything is being thrown at you by the diamond-headed shadow, building tension towards that climatic fight.
When that battle finally arrived it only took me about three or four tries to defeat the boss, which was somewhat underwhelming given its recurring presence in cutscenes. I actually enjoyed my time more with the Switch-exclusive tower and secret boss, which alongside the aforementioned sword makes it the superior version of the game to invest in.
Is Hyper Light Drifter deserving of greater praise, or at least continued conversation in the indie game sphere? I would argue yes. The combat and narrative are unique and deep enough to make it worthwhile, but it’s the uncompromising approach to them where Hyper Light Drifter shines. That does however come with a price.
There’s a balance to be struck with any game in terms of what you should try to communicate to a player to help them get the most out of the experience. Having no tutorials or training option in a fighting game, for instance, would be an unnecessary hindrance for a player who wants to memorise their favourite characters moveset. Hyper Light Drifter is uncompromising to the point where some of the mute characters and story context can be completely missed if you don’t travel to the right screen.
On looking up the story afterwards I realised I’d missed a screen with an elderly bird creature who’d rescued orphaned baby birds from the shaman’s pillaging, which would have helped contextualise the situation in the region when I came to fight the boss itself. But despite having missed this the narrative was interesting enough to make me want to research more even after completion, so make of that what you will.
There is a lot to be said for forcing a player into an unknown environment and letting them figure things out for themselves. It’s an approach that can’t really be replicated in any other medium, and despite some moments of frustration, Hyper Light Drifter, by sheer will of creativity and self-belief in its presentation, forces you onward.
It is absolutely worth a try on aesthetics alone, and if you’re dedicated to figuring the game out for yourself you’ll find it an enriching experience that’s tough to beat.
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