The drifter, a mute warrior draped in a red cloak and wielding a sword made of light, is an enigma. He roams a broken landscape searching for something, but it’s not really clear what. Occasionally he hunches over and coughs up blood, which causes the screen to glitch and flicker. There’s a beguiling mystery about this shadowy figure, like the nameless gunslinger in a Western or a wandering samurai, and the same can be said of Hyper Light Drifter as a whole.
It’s a world of strange machines, ethereal forests, ancient temples, and lifeless, overgrown robots. An evocative intro sequence shows you glimpses of a cataclysmic event—a gleaming futuristic city disappearing in a flash of explosive light—and this seems to be the aftermath. A ruined place littered with the remains of advanced, long forgotten technology. It’s not a dead world—there are people and creatures everywhere, some of which are friendly—but it feels like you’re exploring the wake of some incredible disaster.It’s an astonishingly beautiful post-apocalypse, though, brought to life with a vivid colour palette and intricate, pixel art. A haunting, ambient score by Rich ‘Disasterpeace’ Vreeland adds to the melancholy atmosphere, subtly changing to reflect your surroundings. Artistically, it’s a triumph, but the considered, delicate aesthetic is somewhat misleading. There are some moments of quiet exploration, but mostly Hyper Light Drifter is a punishing, fast-paced action game.As a stylish rekindling of old-school action games,Hyper Light Drifter lets its basic combat mechanics, and heavily inferred story do all the talking, subduing you in a hypnotic trance of sound and color. While it excels in all of those beautiful, pixelated spaces, it also obscures too many pieces of its time-traveling story for this world of death and savagery to make sense.Hyper Light Drifter is provocative. In its first impression, it radiates light and warmth and tone through incandescent rays of kaleidoscopic neon graphics, staticy sounds, and upbeat digital tunes that set the stage for a colorful sci-fi world. Its pixel art is brilliant, conveying detail through subtle touches – like a blast of air causing ripples in the water. Despite its pixelated trappings, it grapples with mature themes: extinction, genocide, cultism, religious symbolism, and time travel.Dungeons hide the most satisfying combat in the game, and their layouts change dynamically around you, forcing you to constantly change your tactics. For example, kill one enemy and a wall that was providing cover from a sniper on the other side of the room will suddenly disappear.
These sections present an enjoyable challenge, and there’s a satisfaction in dancing around a room and killing everything without taking a hit. But you also find yourself repeating areas, which is when frustration sets in. If you’re deep in a dungeon and run out of health items, bad luck. You have to leave and scour the overworld for more, or somehow scrape through the next room, which is probably teeming with powerful enemies, with a dribble of HP.This is a game where enduring persistent failure is the only way to get good, and a lot of people won’t have the patience to get through some of its more gruelling battles—particularly the fiendishly difficult boss fights. Regular enemies are tough enough, but when you’re fighting groups of them on top of a boss unleashing waves of increasingly savage attacks, it becomes a real test of endurance.
Ultimately, how you respond to these difficulty spikes will depend on your temperament. If you’re the type of gamer who has the fortitude to try things over and over until you master them, Hyper Light Drifter is for you. If not, you’ll almost certainly give up after a few hours.There’s a lot to love about Hyper Light Drifter. The elegant, expressive animation makes fighting and traversing the world a joy. The visual design and music are stunning. And the exhilaration of clearing a dungeon with only a sliver of health left is a feeling worth chasing. But the unwavering difficulty—especially the bosses—makes it an experience for a very specific type of gamer. If you have the will to overcome its many trials you’ll find a rewarding, uncompromising action game. If not, you might feel like you’re banging your head against an incredibly pretty brick wall.Its storytelling is a wordless experience that requires interpretation. Interacting with an NPC conveys information in storyboard-like sequences. Its repeating, dreamlike cutscenes are cryptic. For me, all this reinforced the idea of drifting through time and space because for a large part of Hyper Light Drifter I was grasping for a handhold as to what the hell was going on.