Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Hyper Light Drifter - Review

Developer: Heart Machine
Publisher: Heart Machine
Platforms: PC (version played), Mac, Linux, Xbox One, PS4 

One of the most intriguing elements of Hyper Light Drifter is not its gameplay, although I'll get to that in a minute, but the way it slips between genres. Fantasy, science fiction, horror, Heart Machine's game plays around with all three throughout its run-time without ever feeling cluttered, or stuffed with too many ideas.

The game opens with a vague and ambiguous cut-scene that leaves you in control of a nameless blue-skinned warrior, before taking off the reins and leaving you to explore. Hyper Light Drifter's world is arguably its most fascinating component, filled with neon-infused forests and snow-capped cliffs. It's both the familiar fantasy images we're used to in gaming and something altogether more alien. The corpses of hulking, blood-stained colossus punctuate the game's otherwise beautiful landscapes, telling a story not through cut-scenes, dialogue or other forms of exposition, but rather through the simple act of exploration.

If you were to classify Hyper Light Drifter it's arguably best described as a Legend of Zelda-style adventure, or Metroidvania title. Both those descriptions don't quite do the game justice however, given that, unlike those titles, Hyper Light Drifter allows you to essentially explore wherever you want whenever you want, with progression not halted by item or skill requirements.

This makes the game surprisingly liberating, and then also weirdly daunting after an hour or so of play. Even Zelda titles will shuttle the player along the “correct” path with its gadget requirements; boomerang needed here, hookshot there. Instead, all you're given in Hyper Light Drifter is a vague quest to travel to the four corners of the globe and defeat four bosses. All these instructions are doled out in charming picture-form as you converse with various characters.

The exploration is tied together with a simple and effective combat system. A sword swipe is mapped to one button, whilst a teleport-cum-dodge is mapped to another. Combat is less about complexity and more about timing. Enemies all have different wind-ups and attack patterns, with clear openings found inbetween their attacks. There's a clear satisfying rhythm to even the simplest of encounters, slash, slash, dodge, dodge, wait a moment, slash again.

Each area comes with its own enemies to fit the theme. The mountainous north is home to various bird monsters, whilst the east has a swarm of shuriken-throwing ninja frogs to contend with. Later encounters slowly build up the complexity, with long-range critters opening fire whilst you contend with their close-combat counterparts. In its best moments, combat feels more like a rhythm puzzle than an action-adventure fight.

Just as the enemies improve as you delve deep into each area, your characters arsenal improves over time. New moves can be learnt and equipment upgraded back at the game's central hub. Your character starts with a simple pistol to complement his sword, but, over the course of the adventure, new guns are found, some simply by playing through the game and others by exploring off the beaten track.

And that's what Hyper Light Drifter veers back to; its exploration. Each area has a bevy of little navigational puzzles; how do you get to that upgrade box? What path do you need to take to acquire that key? Many of the game's more obscure trinkets are purely optional rather than mandatory for progression, which, again, emphasizes the game's greatest strength. It lets the player dictate the scope and pace of the adventure.

Of course, no game like this would be complete without a bevy of boss encounters. It's here where the game takes its cues from Dark Souls, building up its boss fights before they come. Speak to some of the friendly native creatures that dot each zone and you'll get a slideshow hinting at whatever big bad is waiting for you further down the road.

And Hearth Machine handle these fights really well. It's the visual designs that really deserve the most praise, with the fights themselves “merely” being really darn good. Hearth Machine infuse the horror into the fantasy once again, with many of the bosses having a degree of menace and an unsettling tone to underscore the super-fast action of the actual fight.

All of these creepy undertones are a result not only of the visuals but also of the impeccable score and style that the developers go for. Like with Hotline Miami, Hyper Light Drifter infuses each setting with a neon-filled retro-wave soundtrack. Whereas Hotline Miami wanted to feel more like a drug-fuelled disco, before the inevitable post-killing comedown, Hyper Light Drifter instead goes for an eerie, vivid sort of atmosphere, as if its soundtrack is more an element of the environment rather than an aspect of the game layered on top of the action.

If all that wasn't enough, the developers know when to call it quits too. Hyper Light Drifter is a svelte game, full of nick-nacks and do-dads to collect but also aware that it doesn't want to overstay its welcome. After the slower, more thoughtful pace of the first half, the final region cranks up the difficulty and pacing as you face multiple bosses in a short space of time, with more complex attack patterns and tougher enemy mobs, as you battle your way towards the endgame.

In fact, there's very little to complain about in Hyper Light Drifter. It doesn't hold your hand, but neither is it deliberately obscure in order to inflate its difficulty. Its combat is simple on the surface, but has a surprising level of depth for a game with so few actual mechanics. And it's all wrapped up in a sweeping visual style that has you, quite literally, travelling to the four corners of the earth. It taps into that epic adventurous spirit of the Legend of Zelda but with a darker, slightly malevolent atmosphere lurking beneath the surface, turning from a dream, to a nightmare, and back again, on the turn of a dime.


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