After Thoughts – Hyper Light Drifter

Hyper Light Drifter is by any measure a very good game. It renders a frequently pretty pastel post-apocalyptic world, animates it well, and follows through with a soundtrack that I never wanted to turn down or mute. And muting the music is something I normally do in a game before I’ve even checked the graphical options or set my controls. The story, for all its repetitive symbolism, isn’t overbearing or intrusive. As you know, I like a game that lets me play. And I enjoyed playing it. I was hankering for something simple and focused on action, and the friend who recommended Hyper Light Drifter did the right thing.

No game is perfect, and I don’t expect them to be. But I also can’t help myself thinking about what I play and cataloguing my thoughts. These are them.

I spent autumns doing landscaping. Which is a fancy way of saying I spent weeks shoving dirty piles of leaves and twigs into thick paper bags, trying in vain to outpace the falling temperatures and oncoming snow. As you might expect, most people who hire professional landscapers to take care of their yards tend to have pretty big ones to start with, or at least more than their share of leaves. When you’re dragging upwards of thirty heavy, overstuffed bags of wet lawn debris from the back yard to the curb at any given property, you want to develop some sort of system.

To the constant confusion of my boss, my method involved starting furthest back, with the heaviest bag, then working my way toward the street. He didn’t understand why I wouldn’t just grab the nearest bag first, as it was closest. He kept not understanding that despite all the times I explained that it makes no sense to save the most difficult bags–the ones that weigh nearly as much as all the regrets in my life, and are as far away as my life’s goals–for when I’ll be most tired. Maybe he didn’t get the metaphor, I don’t know.

It was a good system, I thought, going from the most difficult to the least. It’s just lifting and carrying, so why make it any tougher than it needs to be?

What works for physical labour doesn’t necessarily follow on to the balance curve of a video game, though. And while Hyper Light Drifter is often an excellent game, it does suffer from a balance curve that reminds me of the sort of thing I used to look for on snowy winter afternoons while I carried my sled. That is, it starts at a peak and then rushes downhill, a disappointingly common trap of non-linear game design.

After a brief, enigmatic introduction sequence and tutorial, Hyper Light Drifter puts the player in a central hub and issues only a single, vague instruction. Collect triangles to reconstruct four squares and activate a mechanism in the centre of town. From there, the player is free to go north, west, or east. In each direction is a separate and unique area, a collection of over-world and dungeons in which the triangles–and a few other collectibles–are hidden, as well as an end-of-level boss. And that’s about it.

And that’s the game’s biggest problem–that non-linear choice. While that first area was new and interesting, and that first boss was a satisfying, if brief, challenge, the next two felt like sequential steps down.

Returning to town after completing the first area and collecting the necessary triangles, the player can spend the yellow squares he or she has also collected on upgrades. A stronger chain-dash ability, a few new sword attacks, a grenade sub-weapon, extra health packs, and more ammo for the various guns picked up on the way. None of these upgrades is at all necessary for further progress–this isn’t like your classic Zelda or metroidvania in which areas are gated by equipment or abilities. In fact, some of the new combat abilities are clunky enough to make using them a hindrance outside of specific situations. You can get by through the entire game with nothing but basic attacks, dashes, and laser blasts.

Even without those upgrades, the player tackling the second and third ares was not the same inexperienced scrub who took on the first. I improved my skills as a player, I got better, but the game didn’t scale to compensate. There’s a token sense of easy, medium, and hard for the routes and the challenges they offer if picked first, but by the time I was partway through the third area the gilding had rubbed off and I just wanted to get to the final section of the game. Half the game shouldn’t feel like filler between where I am and the good bits.

And, to its credit, it was mostly worth the wait. With north, west, and east finished, the player gains access to the southern region. This area, as it’s tailored to the expectation that the player has already been through most of the game, doles out more engaging challenges in the form of a collection of new and interesting boss fights. (One of which, I’m sorry to say, came along with a nearly game-ruining crash bug.) As I collected the last of the needed triangles, I was looking forward to the whatever challenges the game would throw at me when I activated the device in the middle of town.

Unfortunately, all I found there was a solitary encounter with an anemic single-stage final boss.

 

There are a few other, optional obstacles to tackle. Though you only need four triangles from each area in order to unlock the final boss, there are eight in total. Collecting them all unlocks a door to an extra encounter and some loot, but, sadly, there is no secret boss. With the way to the last level open, all there is to do is retrace earlier areas to grab hidden caches of gear and yellow squares. And that could have been fun, too. I beat Super Metroid at high completion percentages without guides when I was younger, so I’m not adverse to an upgrade hunt.

But there, again, the game lets itself down. I have no issue with the obscure way it wants to tell its tale, through only grunts and wordless still images. Showing me a picture of some flashing triangles is enough of a hint to get me started–more than enough, really, since there’s nothing else to do at the beginning but head out and stumble into them. Putting a big skull on the map to show me where the boss is waiting is also a nice gesture. It’s the map itself that becomes the problem, especially while searching for those extras. It’s not so much that it’s vague, but that it often serves no useful purpose at all, or is even bordering on fallacious in how it represents topography and the player’s relation to it. It’s telling that online guides don’t reference the map in any way when giving directions, but have to rely on big, obvious landmarks, screenshots, and counting screen transitions. Because of how the map is essentially useless, scouring through each area trying to remember where that door is that couldn’t be opened the first time through takes much more time and effort than it should, or is worth.

The worst offence in tedious time wasting, however, is the dashing mini-game. Here, the player must chain together a total of 800 dashes in a row within the confines of a single screen in order to unlock an equipment set. That might already seem like a lot, but considering the rhythm required, and that touching any walls will knock the character over and end the sequence, it borders on cruel, especially for console players. I hit 660 with my pad, which is nearly 5 real-world minutes of twisting in circles to avoid the sides and middle of the screen, and gave up because my hands were beginning to cramp. After that, I set the game to mouse controls, put the cursor in an open space, and mashed the space bar while I watched an episode of Blackadder. Later, I wondered if maybe I’d just been doing it the hard way without knowing (wouldn’t be the first time), and found that other players went to the trouble of creating macro programs to do it for them while they cooked dinner. I’m never one to back away from a challenge, but if that’s what your game has come to, you’re doing something wrong.

The dash itself, while great in theory, doesn’t live up to its potential in practice. It serves its purpose in combat, and for getting across small gaps in lieu of a jump, but lacks grace and nuance otherwise. Consider the way the character is knocked flat if he hits a wall after the third chained dash. Maybe it punishes reckless use in combat, but when this is the quickest means of travelling in a game that requires backtracking, the sound and effect of smashing into every little bit of scenery quickly wears thin. Not to mention that it’s goofy in a way that clashes with the generally serious tone of the rest of the game. Worse still, for an adventure and action game based around exploration and discovery, the dash by itself is never really stretched to a worthwhile conclusion.

There is variance in the combat, with both the sword and its attacks, the dash, the grenades, and a half dozen different guns, all used against a diverse army of enemies. At its apex, the combat has the player in constant motion and allows the use of all those tools at once. It’s a holistic approach that feels like it covers all available bases.

 

On the other side, non-combat challenges boil down to successfully chain-dashing through traps on a few relatively short routes. That, and analyzing each screen for telltale squiggles that indicate a hidden route to an off-screen pickup. I never felt like the game was pushing me there, but more that the limited mobility options are a contributing factor to the lack of variety in exploration. Because of that, while discovery was frequently rewarded, it didn’t often feel rewarding.

This probably reads more negative than it’s meant to. As I said earlier, Hyper Light Drifter is, in most respects, an excellent game. The art is effective. The combat is fast, smooth, and well animated, a few niggling hit-boxes notwithstanding, and it sounds nice.

I don’t regret my purchase. I enjoyed my time with Hyper Light Drifter. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a good action-adventure game. Any negative feelings I’m left with are not of dislike, but of slight disappointment about wasted potential. If they ever make a sequel, I’m on board.

 

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