Hyper Light Drifter is difficult for the wrong reasons

Written by: Carlos Zotomayor

Games | Mar 30, 2017

Heart Machine Hyper Light Drifter

Not everyone likes to go fast.

Like Sonic the Hedgehog, whose video came career fell faster than it rose, doing things fast in real life often leads to a lot of bad things.

Hurried relationships can force you to take care of a vomiting, dependent human being (as well as a baby). Cooking breakfast in a rush leads to burnt toast and spilled milk. Making a video game under unhealthy time pressure usually results in a pretty lackluster title.

And that is what Hyper Light Drifter is - a piece of burnt toast.

While Heart Machine's 2016 indie action RPG for the PC, Xbox One, Play Station 4 looks as good as a neon-colored psychedelic trip, the rest of the game suffers from a severe lack of polish. Following the story of an unnamed Drifter, you scour four different locales in search for a cure to a disease that has you spilling blood like it was your time of the month.

... At least, that's what I think the game is about.

Hyper Light Drifter
is completely wordless, and relies on static images and a handful of cutscenes to tell the stories of the different inhabitants of this little world. Though most video game introductory scenes are usually as confusing as the back of a shampoo bottle, this one does little to explain what you are supposed to do and how to go about doing it. I didn't even know I was looking for a cure until I read the game's description on the store page.

This carries on throughout the five to six hours you will spend completing it. While most of the characters you come across can be found within the game's hub area, there are some wandering souls throughout the wilderness that will point you in the direction of the next troublesome thing you need to kill.

Which brings me to the game's defining yet wonky feature: its gameplay.

Though many people (myself included) like their video games difficult, there is a fine line between making something challenging and making it as frustrating and unplayable as a game of Monopoly. Hyper Light Drifter constantly crosses this line with its horrible frame rate and unresponsive controls.

Requiring no less than the concentration you reserve for hunting down a spider in your bedroom, the combat revolves around shooting things with your gun and using your energy sword to cut enemies like a serial killer who needs to meet his monthly quota. Unlike traditional firearms that rely on fitting bits of metal into their chambers, the ranged weapons found throughout the game are powered by your sword - which means you will need to get up in your opponents' grills more often than not.

The feeling of fighting ten enemies at once and killing a cheap boss who summons help is a fun experience once you get it into your thick head that your character is about as brittle as an afternoon tea biscuit. This makes dodging the name of the game as you constantly avoid a barrage of close range attacks and laser fire in order to get near and whack away at a monster's sensitive spots.

It's a shame then that the game crumbles underneath its own speed.

Because of the game engine used, Hyper Light Drifter suffers considerable frame rate drops when things get harrier than a baboon's backside. As more enemies fill up the screen, timing your dodges and attacks becomes impossible as your button inputs get delayed with the rest of the game. Though the developers have included patches that try to fix this issue (along with adding the option to run the game at 60fps instead of 30), I still run into sluggish moments where my button presses become delayed and unresponsive.

Apart from that, stopping to aim and shoot your gun just ruins the flow of combat. After dashing in and out with the grace and subtlety of a peeping Tom, halting in the middle of battle just to whip out a shotgun with wonky aiming mechanics seems like a tacked-on feature when compared to the precise moves of your futuristic samurai sword.

These problems render the game unplayable at times and make you frustrated for the wrong reasons. Rather than getting angry at a boss for his overpowered area of effect attacks, you end up yelling at the developers for making a title that can't keep up with its own design choices.

These design flaws are most evident in the game's decision to be needlessly cryptic.

For example: you start your journey off with a simple three-hit combo but can eventually purchase abilities in stores located in the hub area with Gearbits that are scattered in obscure places and on some enemies throughout the game's map.

Four Gearbits make up one piece of currency and it becomes a task of figuring out which skills are essential (like the ability to dash more than thrice with properly timed button presses) and which ones are crap (like the one that adds extra ammunition slots to your pew-pew guns).

See what I'm doing here? I'm explaining the mechanics of the game since it does a poor job of letting you know just what the hell certain things are.

Granted, the lack of text isn't a deal breaker, but simply adding a text box to provide a little more depth to the world would help make the game more accessible to others. This image-only approach may appeal to hipsters who love to argue about how video games are an art form, but for those of us without any friends, minimizing the game just to open the wiki is a waste of time.

Franchises with vague explanations like Dark Souls and the earlier Legend of Zelda titles don't provide much in the way of help, but they offer hints about the story and your goals through text messages and item descriptions. They make players want to know more about the world rather than hiding their lore behind hidden rooms - something Hyper Light Drifter does on purpose.

Entire sections are cut off and forgotten by players just because they have no idea how to get past them. You might decipher these puzzles during the final hours of your playthrough, but the in-game map is just as confusing to navigate as a maze made by a blind person. This makes backtracking tedious and discourages you from going back to a place you may never find again.

You know that sense of accomplishment you get after completing a game? I got none of that after playing Hyper Light Drifter.

Rather than feeling triumphant after defeating the game's seven bosses (each of which get easier as you earn more abilities), I felt as confused as ever about the game's story. Was I cured of my bloody mouth disease? What are those dead giants that look like they belong in Attack on Titan? And why do I look like a slightly taller Smurf?

Nothing gets answered when you finish the game, and that's just plain bad.

Though the game comes with a local co-op feature, some mini-games and doors that unlock achievements and costumes, and an entire new game plus mode that shortens your life so that you can only take two hits before eating pixelated dirt, none of this made me want to come back and play it again.

Like the aforementioned piece of burnt toast, Hyper Light Drifter has a couple of good parts. The art style is beautiful, ethereal even, and the gameplay is challenging, but everything else just seems so rushed that it ruined the whole experience for me.
About the author: Carlos Zotomayor

Zoto can see your underpants. Mmm... tasteful.

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