“Hyperly Brilliant” – Hyper Light Drifter Review

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It’s crazy to think that some classical video games released more than 20 years ago could get remakes and appraisal up till this day, not to say – be a major inspiration to games released nowadays. Hyper Light Drifter is not an exception, borrowing spirit and character from one of the biggest franchises of all times; game that sparked a spirit of adventure in everyone’s heart – Zelda, first released three decades ago. And knowing that Hyper Light Drifter, video game successfully funded by ‘Kickstarter’s’ campaign, carries a torch that symbolizes a homage to legends such as The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, original Diablo and other beloved 8-bit/16-bit classics, it shouldn’t be easy to deliver when stakes are so high.

It didn’t take a long time for Heart Machine studio’s love child to prove me wrong. Right from the beginning game showed that it had guts – that it isn’t just another pixelated adventure, now that we get as many of them as AAA games. Maybe this is because Hyper Light Drifter doesn’t treat you as a child. It doesn’t hold your hand until you realized you’ve finished 1/3 of the game. Instead, it tells you what you need to know – controls and that there’s evil to be defeated. After that, the game just sets you free and doesn’t get in your way ever again, unless it wants to fill you in with missing puzzle pieces of the story. Everything you want to find out or need to know – you have to figure it out by yourself, like a real adventurer.

Maybe I had this good feeling about the game right from the beginning because your journey starts at the bonfire – something reminiscent to my history with Dark Souls games, well known for their devilish difficulty. And after a couple of non-incidental deaths (not those ones where you still try to get used to controls or accidentally fall of a cliff), not even 30 minutes in the game – I was then convinced that Hyper Light Drifter not only shares the love for bonfires and really atmospheric worlds with Souls games, but it also is as punishing as them. It’s basically the same trial and error premise – you get stuck, you fail dozen or more times and then you finally succeed; then you go on until you are stuck again… Simple as that. It’s a formula that was tested hundred times before, but it works and Alex Preston (lead developer) follows Dark Souls’ footsteps in a highly fashionable way, showing what games used to be back in a day.

And I’m not saying that Hyper Light Drifter is unfair – it’s difficult to say the least, but it’s worth the effort… Okay, sometimes, especially during boss fights, you might get frustrated and start reconsidering your gaming abilities, even your life choices, but after that and one broken controller – you will get rewarded by incredible amounts of satisfaction not every game has to offer… What doesn’t kill us, only makes us stronger, right? Well, you will die loads and loads of times, but you get the point.

If the game’s devilish difficulty might remind you of previously mentioned Dark Souls from time to time, Hyper Light Drifter’s pace is actually more like Miyazaki’s Bloodborne. Your beautifully animated and silent character, who doesn’t have a name and acts like a lone warrior fighting the good fight, has a dash, which is invaluable thing to have when fighting a group of enemies with different abilities and attacks at once. It’s like Max Payne’s “Bullet time”, Prince of Persia’s “Time Manipulation” or Booker DeWitt’s “Possession” ability – something that you just couldn’t live without, let alone survive. It serves you as a crucial move which allows you to quickly leap forward close to your enemies, blow two or three successful hits and then swiftly retreat where their attacks won’t reach you. Also, once properly upgraded, it will also serve you as a faster way to travel through the land rather than just simply run.

By saying that fights here are exactly the same as in sadistic vampire filled Bloodborne – I wasn’t just saying that for no reason. It plays the same way, not to mention that your character has a gun, which only can be recharged when you manage to strike some successful hits at your enemies or other breakable objects in the world. You hit and dash back, hit and dash back, quickly heal (if you’re fast enough), shoot a few bullets when you’re out of reach… Until all of your foes lay on the cold ground defeated by a guy, who looks like Strider that came from pixelated dystopian future.

It should be pretty obvious by now that the pace of these fights are incredibly fast, requiring all of your attention and concentration, because one wrong move and you could be stunned for a second or two, meaning that you’re already dead. And I’m not talking about Hotline Miami’s extremely quick encounters that happen in a blink of an eye. These brawls are more like fast chess – smart and precise, always surprisingly volatile battlegrounds being your chess board, while you have to make split second decisions you will later probably regret, because you didn’t see game’s next move. There’s no difficulty choice for a good reason. It’s is not about you being good or bad at video games – it is about you overcoming challenges thrown at you by learning from your own mistakes and going back to drawing board to analyse what you learned from each attempt up to the point where you finally do it and feel great about yourself.

Other than that, Hyper Light Drifter is a beautifully crafted game, filled with so many things that sometimes is too much to comprehend. There are no quests, no distracting side missions; apart from only goal where you have to travel north, east, west and south to explore four different lands delightfully painted with different color palette, suffused with diverse array of enemies and scenery, only to defeat four incredibly challenging bosses in order to get to main evil that’s responsible for unfortunate events that lead to present state of planet game’s events take place.

However, game’s dystopian world has another purpose rather than be a giant battleground or place where you can upgrade abilities, buy new gear or find hidden passages to dungeons where you can treasure trove some sweet loot (mostly coins and health packs). Like Dark Souls world of Lordran, Hyper Light Drifter’s environments tells more stories than the game itself. Often you will find yourself listening to random stranger’s tale of what happened to him after the world went dark; you will come across giant titan’s disembodied skeleton just to wonder what actually took place before all of this; you will find a shack torn apart with a family inside that suffered the consequences of whatever that occurred during the events of apocalypse. And while two-note peaceful melody will be playing in the background – you will imperceptibly find yourself trying to create your own stories of what could have happened in this tragic, but beautifully created land.

I’ll admit that I didn’t notice how quickly Hyper Light Drifter drifted into my heart. It has so much charm and unadulterated exploration element that Heart Machine studio took best bits from your favourite classical games and successfully delivered what’s been asked by community, celebrating adventure genre, like it hasn’t been done since Fez. It didn’t invent something fresh and new we will nostalgically remember five years from now. Nor it’s something that we haven’t seen before. Hyper Light Drifter is nothing but a love letter to all of the 90s gamers. It’s a modern slightly bitter and mature answer to Zelda. It could have got it wrong, but, luckily, Heart Machine developers showed that they’re passionate about what they’re doing and they have nothing but love and appreciation for the same genre we grown up with.

Hyper Lighter Drifter
Created/Developed: Heart Machine
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, OS, Linux, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One, Wii U, Ouya
Release Date: 31st March 2016 (MS Windows, OS, Linux), Mid 2016 (PS4, PS Vita, Wii U, Xbox One, Ouya)

Written by: Chris Starks

Chris Starks is a professional screenwriter of nearly two decades and Editor-in-Chief for MachinimaSBOC. As a keen comic collector, film and TV fanatic, enthusiastic about theatre and a proud Spartan you can find him at most London-based conventions hovering around various stalls hunting down bargains and having a larf.

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