My favourite thing about Hyper Light Drifter is all the new swear words I invented while playing it.
To be fair, swearing is one of my favourite things in general. Hyper Light Drifter generated those oaths of fury and joyful frustration that are unique to hard games. It’s a top-down action RPG where enemies move quickly, combat is brutally fast and punishing, and death is always just a heartbeat away. If you play, you’re going to die. A lot.
I’ll be honest—I’m not really a fan of games like this. I don’t relish dying over and over, or making my level-headed dedication override my wall-kicking rage. I don’t love games where the slightest slip-up is punished by repeating an area again and again and again until you somehow, against all odds, achieve a brief moment of perfection. Your reward for this try-not-to-spike-your-controller-because-it-cost-you-30-bucks triumph? Getting to face a new, harder enemy, specifically designed to challenge the skills you’ve perfected from hours and hours of failure. Oh boy.
I like Hyper Light Drifter a lot, though.
For starters, it looks lovely. Beautiful pixel art and a moody electronic soundtrack complement the epic scope of the narrative, vague though it may be. Your character has to face off against a horde of Attack on Titan-esque monsters who… did something bad, I guess. There’s no text or dialogue, which can create a lot of confusion, especially in regards to what you’re supposed to be doing and why. The few non-enemy NPCs you encounter give pictorial snippets of story, and I found myself trying to decipher them out loud as I went.
“There are… mouse people?” I mumbled. “And that tall guy… lasered them? And now there are… ninja frogs I guess I have to fight? OK, let’s go fight some ninja frogs.”
The ninja frogs were really fun to fight. So were the purple exploding bears, and the plant things, and the slouchy trolls, and the ghost birds and the shooty guys and the stabby warpy guys… Everywhere you go there are new things to fight. Most of the game is taken up by the immensely difficult but painstakingly balanced combat. New enemies are introduced one at a time, and many areas culminate in arenas where you fight them all at once. The difficulty scales in a way that I came to appreciate as I explored each of the game’s areas; it’s implemented with a lot of care, so things feel fair but also challenging.
Enemy attack patterns might be the only legible thing in the game, and all you have to do is find the precise moment to expertly deploy your perfect parry in order to interrupt their telegraphed attack. Once you understand that, it’s straightforward—you just have to do it. You can’t button mash. You can’t panic. You can’t fumble. You just have to be good.
This can get frustrating quickly, especially if you’re stuck. Save points are sometimes unfortunately far apart, and healthkits are few and far between. You can backtrack to restock, but the enemies respawn. Fighting through a horde you’ve killed several times just for a healthkit can get tiresome, especially if you’re just trying to regroup for a new challenge or, worse, are lost.
Rather than progressing through levels, the map pushes outward in four cardinal directions. Each direction has a unique design— east has the frog ninjas in water-kissed patios and underground labs; north has magic buzzards on snow-capped mountains; west has dense forests full of dogs that spit acid. I haven’t seen south, which is unlocked by beating the other three bosses at the end of each area, access to whom is gained by locating enough purple shards to open the doors that bar their path.
The nonlinear nature of the levels, plus the maddenly non-specific map, led to a lot of frustration as I wandered in vain searching for shards, facing the same enemies again and again while desperately trying to figure out where the map was telling me to go. It’s a beautiful world to be lost in, but being lost isn’t much fun. At some point I even checked out guides and Let’s Plays, certain I must have been doing something wrong. While finding secret shards and hidden paths can be rewarding, the isometric perspective sometimes made it difficult to tell what I could walk through and what I couldn’t. I fell off the edges of the world too many times, often in fights, or got stuck against things earlier areas told me weren’t solid. Sometimes, furious as to why the map told me I was standing on a shard I couldn’t see, I realised there was a secret entrance that looked just like all the things I couldn’t walk through before. The game’s obtuseness, combined with how harshly it punishes failure, took some of the luster out of its beauty.
Exploration also rewards you with currency that can be used to level up your character. You can get a better dash— key to avoiding damage— or a stronger sword attack, a grenade, or the ability to carry more healthkits. These points are hard to find, so deciding what to spend them on is an agonising process. All of your abilities feel essential, and they all make a huge difference to how you play. You can take on any challenge without these upgrades, given the game’s horizontal design, but they definitely help. This can create an odd tension between the conflicted way that exploration is both rewarded and punished. You need to explore to level up, but exploration can cost you both in terms of health and time spent repeating fights.
And then, for all your fighting, confusing navigation, and levelling, there’s those boss fights. When I first faced the boss in the east, after more hours than anyone should spend fighting for that last shard, I was honestly relieved. The intimidating frog boss seemed so easy, its moves so clear and avoidable, that I thought it was some kind of gift. And then I died. Again and again and again, because I made a mistake and only had one healthkit and when I backtracked to get more I ended up using them all against the enemies I had to fight through to get them in the first place because I just wasn’t good enough to avoid taking damage.
But when I finally beat that boss, I let out a mighty roar that made my roommates come running and scared my cat away for an hour. It was the best feeling, the moment Hard Games(™) are designed for, an unspeakably satisfying payoff that made me feel like a fucking elite champ hero. And then I realised I was going to have to do that another three times.
Overcoming difficulty in Hyper Light Drifter rewards you with the chance to overcome more difficulty. There are people who are going to love this—I loved it, at least for a while. But it’s the kind of joy that’s best for a very specific subset of people. Some might not have the time, patience, or manual dexterity to sit through these fights again and again. If you’re struggling, as I did, I would definitely recommend taking a break—I’ll always remember that one fight I couldn’t beat until I gave up and went to bed, only to wake up to beat it on the first try at 7 AM. It’s a game in the classic “this is the only game I have so I’m going to play it incessantly” sense, one that might not jive well with those of us with a massive Steam backlog and only so much hair left to pull out.
Hyper Light Drifter is great. Really great. I have the sinking suspicion I’m terrible at it, but that doesn’t make me love it any less. If it’s right for you, you’re going to love it; if it isn’t, you’re going to hate it. I had dreams about it when I quit for the night, my fingers twitching to get back to that latest boss fight. I was relieved to go to work on Monday, freed from the pressure of having to play it any more. It’s excellent at being what it is, and like many such confident games, what it is is not for everyone. I want to be the kind of person Hyper Light Drifter is right for, but I don’t know if I am. I’ve had a lot of fun playing it for the last week, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. Maybe that means it’s right for me after all.