In Space, No One Can Hear You Hack and Slash
By Edwin Velez
Reviewed on Xbox One
Released on July 25th, 2016 for Xbox One, Also Available on PS4 & PC
Developer: Heart Machine Publisher: Heart Machine
Hyper. Light. Drifter. With a name as cool as that, it’s no wonder it ended up bleeding cool. Hyper Light Drifter is another success story to come by way of Kickstarter, one that thanks to developer Heart Machine saw the light of day and was worth the wait. If you have ever wanted a modern take on The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, look no further. HLD is essentially a badass, neon sci-fi rendition of the beloved Zelda series that adds some RPG mechanics and one hell of an aesthetic. You are the Drifter, and your adventures will take you to four distant regions, in search of unlocking something deep below the surface of the planet. As you make your way across the lands, you will see an amazing variety of friends and foe alike. Hyper Light Drifter is one of the richest, purest gaming experiences I have felt in some time now, one that calls back to an age of simplicity and attention to detail of story and substance.
Classic adventure titles are all about discovery. The ideology of “not knowing” can go a long way. Games like Hyper Light Drifter, ones that give you a snippet of story and then proceed to drop you into the title, are hard to master. But if they can make a player go from “not knowing” to “wanting to know” with ease, then you know you have something special on your hands. After a brief encounter with a powerful being and a glimpse at a horrible fate, players are thrown into the game. Before you know it you will be hacking, slashing, and shooting your way across a vast map that is filled to the brim with life, secrets, and encounters. Combat is a strong-suit of HLD. Using a combination of your energy sword and arsenal of guns, enemies will fall to their knees one after another once you master the two. Combine them with your ability to “drift” (a rapid dash), there will be no stopping you on your quest to fulfill your visions. Well, there may be some stopping you once you step up to the bosses. In classic adventure fashion, HLD features some awesome bosses, all unique in routine and look. All hope is not lost though. You can upgrade many of your attributes, from ammo for your guns, new slashes for your sword, longer drift combos, upping your max health, and even adding grenades to your arsenal.
Retro is on the comeback. The return of 8-16bit style graphics is in full effect, most notably so in hits like Hotline Miami and Shovel Knight to name a few. This notion is no different in Hyper Light Drifter. The title contains some of the best looking and most vibrant bit styles I have seen in recent years. Lush landscapes, detailed deaths, and whimsical wildlife will grace your screen in every picture-perfect scene you walk into. I can't tell you how many screen-cap worthy opportunities came my way during my more than eight hours playing through the story. If there are two things that have a big influence on a games lasting impression on me, it is attention to detail and musical direction. It’s exactly why Red Dead Redemption remains my favorite title from 2000-2010, and Hyper Light Drifter is no stranger to either subject. It has both in excess without a doubt. An easy reference to support this is how the Drifter reacts to damage. Once your health gets low, he will occasionally bleed out a little bit, with blood trailing behind your steps. From a 2D perspective, the attention to detail only gets more impressive. Beams in the ceilings, subtle movements from flora, and drifts of snow all represent why HLD is awe inspiring and pleases the eyes.
The way Hyper Light Drifter gets its story across however is more attune to audio, or in certain aspects, a lack there of. HLD has no spoken or written narrative, choosing to focus more on the influence of sound and surroundings to impact your interpretation of what is going on. This is yet another call back to how gaming once was, back when voice over work was scarcely found and the secrets of a title made it all the more desirable. It is a wonder when you find a title like this that embraces imagination in a way that allows you to naturally progress your thoughts on the situations around you, not force-feeding you but still leaving bread crumbs here and there. Now here is the aspect I can truly not speak more highly of. The OST. The score. The music. Whatever you choose to call it, it is incredibly phenomenal. Packed with 80's sci-fi and gaming noises, it’s a nostalgic work of art. It seems that in every region that HLD takes you, there are several new tracks waiting for you. It is good to the point that I am 100% convinced that I am going to buy the over $70 collectible record set over on Iam8bit (once I convince my wallet to be on the same page as me). The tracks are beautiful, serene, inspiring, and intense all at the right moments. The direction of the audio is amazing, not only on a score level but on a detail level, yet another testament to how finely tune the game is. When I put headphones on while playing, it took the sensory to another high. In caves I got to experience drips and echoes I do not think I would have noticed otherwise, while in the forest I heard birds and bugs chirping away. It is all about experience and ambiance, and Hyper Light Drifter will give you plenty of both.
The Drifter has a style all his own that is easy to see, but even the peaceful townsfolk all look incredibly unique. Be it race or dress style, each person you come across typically feels different than any you have encountered before. Same goes for the enemies and bosses. Some are quick, others sluggish, but all of this is easily defined in their body language. Little pings from your robotic helper emulate a character all its own. It’s fascinating to see how a game with no physical or verbal narrative pull off this kind of story telling through pictures and audio cues. While outside the central hub, you will still run into the occasional friendly character. They usually tell you their personal stories through sets of images, which in turn reveal a node on your map. These nodes are used to unlock doors in their respective regions, some of which lead to the boss while others lead to deeper rooted secrets and loot.
In what was an unexpected surprise to me, all of these amazing things I have just described can be additionally done in co-op. Just sync up a second controller, switch on co-op mode, and a second drifter can be summoned to your location. The second player tags along with your same progress, so any upgrades you have they in turn also have. It is a blast to take out enemies and bosses while coordinating with a friend locally, bringing back that feeling of true couch co-op that is seldom seen these days. It makes the adventure that more inviting to be able to tackle it as a duo. A cool feature that can be seen during co-op is that when a second person is summoned, it takes a health square from the main player, and you can see it take effect on the main drifter as he staggers and clutches his chest. Not only is this a fantastic bit of detail, but it is a strategic investment as well. Whenever the second player dies, you have to not only gauge your health but time it right so that you do not end up getting hit while he is being summoned. Timing with this is most certainly key when it comes to boss fights.
I could not be more thankful that Hyper Light Drifter made its way to Xbox One this year. Had it not, I may not have stumbled upon it and such a moving experience. It is a rare gem, one that truly feels like the heart of what gaming should feel like. It’s mysterious, adventurous, and imaginative. Hyper Light Drifter is one beautiful call back to a golden age of gaming, modernized with a sleek look and tight controls. It has cool written all over it, and it’d be a damn shame to look past this one. Hyper Light Drifter does not disappoint in the slightest.
Final Score: 9.5/10
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