As an adult who’s pushing 30 now, with a seemingly endless amount of responsibilities, I find myself asking more and more , “Why do I keep playing games?” “Why do I prefer a video game to a book or a movie?” “WHY CAN’T I QUIT YOU!” And the answer to that, really, is that they let me explore, experience, and live in worlds I’d never be able to otherwise. There’s nothing more captivating and exhilarating than picking up that controller and being transported into a new place where anything seems possible. Hyper Light Drifter evokes that feeling instantly. Hyper Light Drifter is the reason I keep playing video games.
From the get-go, Hyper Light Drifter makes no attempt at easing you in. It begins with a mysterious, beautiful, minimally animated cut scene that will put dozens of questions in your head… then, over the course of the game, never definitively answers any of them. What does become clear in these opening moments is that you’re an outsider. There’s no English text, no translations, no signs, and no explanations. The townsfolk speak in a strange tongue. The symbols on the buildings mean nothing at first glance. Even your map and menu seem completely indiscernible. You’re alone in a completely foreign world, and there’s nothing you can do but piece together what your purpose is here and move forward as best you can.
I begin my adventure lost, bewildered, and that state of confusion allows me to become completely absorbed in the alien nature of the world. Uncovering its mysteries and reflecting on its secrets drives me just as much as the high-speed, focus-driven combat that punctuates the exploration. Following the beckoning of a dog, I head east from the game’s central hub town, but I could just as easily have gone north, or west. I’ll eventually explore ruins in each of the four cardinal directions, with each, like a Zelda game, requiring me to find specific items and defeat a boss. It sounds easy enough, but Hyper Light Drifter’s horde of aggressive enemies and dastardly traps makes for a more perilous journey than I’m expecting. It isn’t fiendishly difficult, but it is unforgiving to players who fail to pick up on the flow of combat: when to attack, when to slip away; when to slice, when to shoot. The combat is all about precision, and once you finally find that rhythm, you’ll be cutting down ten, twenty, thirty enemies at a time, and barely breaking a sweat.
Not that Hyper Light Drifter allows you to deal carnage unchecked. Ammo for your chosen gun runs out quickly, and you’ll need to revert to sword attacks to recharge it. This forces you to jump into the thick of things at what can feel like the worst moments, dashing in, slashing, then dashing back and taking off a few more shots and repeating. The kinetic nature of the combat means you’ll definitely be taking a few knocks, and you have precious little health to spare: just five hit points from beginning to end of the game. Striking the balance between clearing a screen and getting wiped out can take time to master, but it’s necessary. It’s slick, challenging, and empowering.
Beyond combat, weapons are also used to unlock secret paths and hidden platforms throughout the world, either with a well placed shot to activate a switch, or a deft sword swipe to cut away foliage covering a hidden pathway. Sometimes these secrets are right in front of you, but with no obvious way to reach them; at other times, they’re incredibly obscure. But it’s absolutely worth your time to explore, as every area holds some kind of payoff. If you hope to expand your skill set or upgrade your ammo and health kit capacity, you’ll want to explore every nook and cranny of this world. Thankfully, it never feels tedious or overwhelming: even without the material rewards, Hyper Light Drifter’s is such a gorgeous, enigmatic universe to live in that I jumped at the chance to see everything that I could. Even in New Game+, I’m still discovering new things.
Hyper Light Drifter succeeds by striking a perfect balance between quiet exploration and intense combat. Though each invokes a difference response from me, the cohesion between graphics and sound help blend all the pieces together into a unified experience. Pixels are drawn together in such loving detail that I’ve been hard pressed to find anything else on its level, either today or in the 16-bit era from which it takes its most obvious inspiration. Each area is unique, ranging from the bright blues and greens in the water-filled ruins of the East to the dark red forests of the West. Each environment tells a story of its own: the placement of a fallen giant, or a crumbled ruin, never giving specific answers but allowing players to draw their own conclusions. No matter where I was, I almost always stopped to appreciate the beauty and contemplate how a particular set piece ties into the rest of the world.
If you’ve played Fez, you should be familiar with the sounds of Hyper Light Drifter. Just as he did on Fez, composer Disasterpeace creates a masterful synth-driven soundscape that compliments both the tense excitement of combat and the moody, sullen, mysterious nature of the world. What’s even more impressive than the quality of the tracks themselves is how seamless they weave in and out of each other. At times, when you transition into combat, the music almost seems to evolve into a more aggressive tune before quieting back down once the fight is over. I’ve been a fan of Disasterpeace for years, and the sound found in Hyper Light Drifter just cements him as one of the best composers out there, games or otherwise.
There’s way more to discuss about Hyper Light Drifter, from the exhilarating boss fights that take the lessons of regular combat and demand nothing less than perfection, to my own interpretation of the story. Instead, I’ll just say that Hyper Light Drifter is one of the best games I’ve played in a long time. Every piece of it is so polished, so interesting that I simply can’t pull myself away once I start playing. Even its mysteries are presented in a way that enraptured and fascinated me, where games like Dark Souls or Bloodborne had me feeling like I was missing something. I never felt like I missed something in Hyper Light Drifter. I never wanted to miss anything. And even now, weeks later, I still want to get lost in it.