Switch owning fans of a certain subgenre of videogames are having a cracking 2018. What subgenre is this, I hear you ask? Well, it’s only that most divisive subgenre of all – the hardcore action RPG game! So far we’ve seen such classics as Hollow Knight and Salt Sanctuary grace Nintendo’s hybrid console, with the grandaddy of all modern ARPG’s, Dark Souls, due in October. This week, however, it’s the turn of Heart Machine’s 2016 PC hit Hyper Light Drifter to land in Switch gamers hands, resplendent in its shiny new Special Edition… edition.
Hardcore ARPG’s can be described, for want of a better word, as… esoteric. The subgenre have a certain reputation, some might say a stigma, attached to it. Obscure storylines, complex mechanics and crushing difficulty often accompany discussions about modern ARPG’s. Call out Dark Souls for its difficulty and you’ll be told to “git gud”. State that Hollow Knight doesn’t have a proper story and you’ll be told to read between the lines and be more observant. Now, I’m probably guilty of all the above, being as how much I love this particular corner of gaming – this is likely due to some ingrained sadism I have from growing up playing often obtuse games on the ZX Spectrum, but whereas those games were like that largely because of the limitations of the system and the immaturity of the industry, modern games of the same ilk are like it by design. Hyper Light Drifter takes that concept of “obtuse by design” and turns everything up to 11. For the most part, it’s better for it as well.
Starting with a surreal, dreamlike intro sequence, the game casts you as the titular Drifter, alone in a post apocalyptic world, seemingly constantly close to death, accompanied only by a floating AI companion. After a brief introductory tutorial teaching you the basic controls – face buttons to attack and dash, right trigger to fire your gun with right stick to aim, you’re thrust into the game proper, seemingly killed by a shadowy creature only to awaken in a town populated by a menagerie of strange and alien beasts. It’s here that Hyper Light Drifter’s sense of isolation begins to creep in. None of these creatures speak English (or, of course, your chosen language) and communicate in symbols and images. Some of these give you clues as to how to access secrets in the game, some tell a story of their races downfall and some simply offer a hint as to the upcoming confrontation. It’s up to the player to decipher these and interpret them how they choose.
Stunning beauty offset with decay
As with those who populate it, the world of Hyper Light Drifter is just as obtuse and oppressive. That’s not to say it’s outwardly so – the map that the action takes place on is simply stunning. Viewed from a top-down perspective and rendered in beautiful, simplistically detailed pixel art, the land that the Drifter finds themself in is both awe inspiring and deadly. One moment you’ll be traversing a forest only to open up on a distant mountain range upon which rests the decomposing corpse of a giant. The world is full of this imagery, stunning beauty offset with the stench of decay. The Drifter is tasked with exploring four different quadrants of this world, located at the four points of the compass and joined by the central town. In these quadrants, you must find and kill a boss, as well as hunt down hidden “modules”, objects which, when raised from the ground, illuminate a section of a pattern in the center of town. Defeat all the bosses and find enough modules and… well… that would be telling…
To help you on your quest, there are a number of health boxes scattered about the map – something you will frequently need. The Drifter can, initially, carry three of these which, when used, will provide a full top up on your health meter. While this meter can’t be upgraded, the number of top ups you can carry can, as well as a number of other abilities – to do this you need to hunt down “gearbits”, yellow squares which drop from certain enemies or from yellow crates hidden in the world. Collect four gearbits and you’ll craft a gearbit pack which can be redeemed in town for an upgrade. Gearbits are incredibly well hidden, though, so you need to keep your eyes peeled.
Wildly evocative stuff
Throughout your adventure, you’ll be treated to a superb soundtrack by composer Disasterpiece, known for working on games such as Fez and Mini Metro, and the horror film It Follows. This minimalist, synth driven soundtrack is eerily haunting and compliments the imagery perfectly to perpetuate the sense of isolation. It’s wildly evocative stuff.
So what of the Special Edition tag slapped onto this Switch release? Well, it comes with some system exclusive gubbins, namely a couple of new weapons, a new costume to help you seek out secrets and a brand new tower climb mode. As with everything that has come before in Hyper Light Drifter, however, you’ll have to cut through the enigmatic layers to discover and use these.
And that’s probably where the game falls down the most, sadly – for its part, Hyper Light Drifter is a thrilling and beautiful experience; one that’s perfectly completable once you’ve figured out the basic mechanics of the game and certainly one that perpetuates the “Games as Art” discussion. But from a games as fun angle there are a couple of frustrations I encountered. Not really knowing how the upgrades work initially, for example, I initially walked past a LOT of gearbits before realising I should be exploring edges of screens, looking for outcroppings to dash to and struggling for a good while (admittedly taking down two of the bosses in the meantime, but I digress!). There are also doors on the map which only open when you’ve raised a certain number of modules or found specific hidden keys – while these are areas you could happily miss and complete the game, once you’ve found them there is no way to mark them on the map to come back to later which leads to a lot of late game backtracking through areas you remember MIGHT have contained a secret door. It can be more than a little frustrating. On a purely technical level the game strives for 60FPS on Switch, a rate it frequently hits, however there are moments where this drops quite dramatically during intense scenes. It’s noticeable and distracting, going from something so buttery smooth to something that feels slow by comparison and, in those moments, it does the game a disservice.
Despite those negatives, though, Hyper Light Drifter is a stunning and compelling experience which feels perfectly at home on the Switch where it can be played in both short and long sessions thanks to the machines portability and suspend functionality Heart Machine have created a world you want to explore and will want to keep coming back to.