Hitbox Review: Hyper Light Drifter

Hyper Light Drifter is a single-player video that was released on March 31, 2016 for PC, Mac and Linux. It has since been released on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. It was developed by Heart Machine and composed by Richard Vreeland, also known as Disasterpeace. 

The introductory cutscene provides background information for the player character, The Drifter, and the game’s world. Before an apocalyptic event, there was a floating crown-shaped object above a large city. In the four corners of the world are large pillars that once activated, caused a massive explosion in the city. In the aftermath, the player witnesses The Drifter teleport into a river of blood surrounded by dozens of corpses. In the background are several giants walking around the ruins of the city. While suffering from a mysterious illness, The Drifter is guided by a black jackal resembling Anubis, Egyptian god of the dead. The Drifter attempts to fight off creeping darkness tentacles in order to reach a glowing diamond-shaped object. After fading to black, The Drifter wakes up at a cliffside campfire during a storm. 

Hyper Light Drifter starts with The Drifter sitting at a cliffside campfire. Screenshot by John Novotny.

In Hyper Light Drifter, the player controls The Drifter, who uses advanced technology to fight various enemies. However, The Drifter suffers from a mysterious illness, which causes him to occasionally cough up blood. Whenever this happens, the blood transforms into a terrifying black goo monster. The player’s mission in the game is to activate the four large pillars at the corners of the map while exploring the world, fighting enemies and upgrading The Drifter’s abilities. The player can learn more by interacting with certain characters. The characters’ speech is represented by pictures visually rather than verbally.

The combat of Hyper Light Drifter is tactical and deliberate. Although the player can slash with their sword in rapid succession, they are punished for doing so by a short cooldown period after the third attack. During this time, they are not able to attack with the sword again for about one second. This leaves the player open to attack by enemies, which often attack in groups. The player may also utilize a short dash to evade enemy attacks. These two abilities form the fundamentals of combat. Learning when to dash in for a couple of slashes, then dash out to avoid an attack is the key to success. After a while, it becomes rhythmic. 

Defeating the first boss requires the player to know when and how to dash out of the way of attacks. Screenshot by John Novotny.

The Drifter also begins the game with a semi-automatic pistol, which fires projectiles. To recharge ammo, the player can destroy objects in the environment, such as pots and containers, or attack enemies with their sword. The player obtains multiple guns throughout the game which each perform differently. The shotgun for example, fires multiple short-range projectiles. 

At certain points when the environment is dark, the aiming reticule blends into the background and it becomes difficult to tell where it is on the screen. Although The Drifter is represented by a silhouette, the player character can become lost behind environmental details such as trees. Secrets are often located through hidden routes, so the character becoming lost on the screen is a somewhat frequent occurrence.

Players also have access to health packs to restore health. Health packs can be found hidden in the world. The maximum health packs a player can hold at once starts at three and can be upgraded to hold more. Upgrade shards can be found in secret areas and obtained from defeating bosses. After collecting four shards, they will combine into an upgrade point, which can be exchanged for upgrades in the central town. 

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I played six hours of the estimated completion time of seven and a half hours, according to howlongtobeat. During this time, I beat three of what I assume to be four bosses. My opinions should represent the bulk of what players can expect from Hyper Light Drifter. 

The player can purchase new abilities at the sword shop. Screenshot by John Novotny.

I chose to play on normal difficulty. After about an hour, I came to an encounter with so many enemies I couldn’t get an attack in before I was hit by another attack. After multiple attempts, I became so frustrated that I decided to restart the game on easy. The only noticeable difference was that I had an extra point of health. However, this experience did teach me that prioritizing certain enemies is important. An enemy that is shooting at the player from far away is more important than a bird that is dive-bombing. 

After some time, I began to notice this same pattern repeat. An hour or so in, I became frustrated at some new enemy and would have to take a break. The enemies in the immediate area respawn when the player dies. This led me to feel like I was bashing my head against a wall until I succeeded in some areas. 

While all of Hyper Light Drifter’s component aspects come together to form a well-made game, it fails to have any one aspect stand out. The part that stands out the most, however, is the worldbuilding. Because only a few of the characters offer information about the world through pictures, the player is encouraged to examine the environment for clues as to how the world was before the explosion. This was the sole reason that I felt even faintly compelled to keep playing. 

A tree house in a forest being overtaken by mysterious crystals. Screenshot by John Novotny.

That being said, I would still recommend Hyper Light Drifter, albeit with a handful of caveats. Are you the type of player who enjoys exploring a mysterious world and learning about its history? Are you patient enough to learn the ins and outs of the combat? Are you willing to replay the same area after you die? For me, the answer to all of these questions is no. It’s simply not the type of game that I enjoy. However, Hyper Light Drifter is still competent enough to recommend to those who can accept the caveats listed above.