Hyper Light Drifter is a game that looked cool on Kickstarter, but I passed on backing it. Then it came out and it still looked cool, but I’d read a lot of comparisons to Zelda and notes on high difficulty, so I passed. Zelda’s not a series I have a lot of love for, and I’m not attracted to games that get a lot of buzz just for being difficult. However, when it got a lot of love during the Giant Bomb game of the year deliberations, I finally took it as a hint that it might be more than Hard Zelda.
The good news is that it is more than Hard Zelda. The action is much more varied and nuanced than classic Zelda. It requires taking a hit-and-run approach more often than not, and the game loves ambushes and overwhelming numbers. It’s a game where I had to be prepared for almost anything because it’d suddenly trap me behind a wall and drop a dozen enemies in the room.
A sorrowful tone permeates the game. The drifter regularly goes into (scripted) coughing fits between fights, leaving behind pools of blood. The landscapes are littered with skeletons and remains and the color palette is muted. It’s style is more Saturday morning cartoon than Warhammer 40K, but still evokes grim imagery. Combined with an amazing Disasterpeace soundtrack, it sets a perfect mood to explore the world, kill monsters, and die slowly.
Where it doesn’t really work is in the story and characters. The only written dialog is in a cypher scrawled on monoliths hidden throughout the world. The rest is conveyed through images; when you talk to anyone that has something to say, you hear sounds but see pictures of what they’re describing. It’s not always clear what the message is. There’s a short cutscene at the start, and a short one at the ending. Between those, if you find enough puzzle pieces in each of the four regions of the world, you’ll get another short cutscene. They’re not particularly revealing. As far as characters go, there’s one other character with any sort of agency. You’ll find them amid a pile of enemy bodies, and they’ll mark where the boss is on your map. Hyper Light Drifter is a lonely game by design, but it suffers from having so many NPCs around that do basically nothing. There’s more in this world, and they’re not saying anything about it.
This is a bummer because it feels like all of this sorrow should have something to say and it just doesn’t. It’s a beautiful, dark game with some fantastic gameplay, but there’s not much to the mystery. It’s only skin deep. But the challenge will get you through it, if you’re hooked by the combat loop, and it’s well worth playing for that reason. I don’t want to play a game that frustrates me, and Hyper Light Drifter nails difficult without getting too close to unfair.