Thursday, April 21, 2016

Hyper Light Drifter - Thoughts

The Legend of Zelda is the first game that came to mind while playing Hyper Light Drifter. And not the series either—the purposefully obscure NES classic. Both games whisk the player off into a mysterious land that is shockingly cruel beneath its neon exterior, their labyrinthian overworlds concealing dungeons full of traps and animalistic foes. Your wonder is often superseded by your apprehension as you explore each ruined locale, your hand rarely far from your blade. It's the first time in a long while that a game perfectly hits the mark in both presentation and gameplay, marrying the two aspects together to form a jaw-dropping adventure that is a delight to play. Hyper Light Drifter is such a fantastic experience that I nearly played through it five times before pulling myself away to write this entry—I really, really love this game.

Part of the reason why my ardor flares so brightly for this title is because it's clearly made by artists. The world is gorgeous, colors are vibrant, characters are elegant, animations are maddeningly fluid, and every corner of this pixelated playground is handled with delicate care. Since the game is bereft of text, most of the storytelling comes through portraits and environmental set pieces, allowing the player a loose grasp on the surprisingly adult (ie brutal) narrative. That's why it's essential to have artists at the helm for this endeavor, as fleshing out the setting and adding life to its inhabitants comes across more as a labors of love than a mechanical task. Even if you decry pixel art for being nothing more than nostalgic pandering, it's extremely difficult to see Hyper Light Drifter in motion and write it off as nothing special.

Where the game obviously splits from the NES Zelda quite is in the combat. While the latter has kludgy swordplay, Hyper Light Drifter acts more like a top-down Mega Man Zero—which is probably another reason why I'm enamored by it so much. For those that don't know why that's so impressive, what Heart Machine nailed here is arguably the most important aspect for any action game to get right:

The speed.

Attacks are swift and instant, providing incredible feedback as you slice your enemies to ribbons. The sword doesn't do anything more than a standard 3-hit combo, but like Mega Man Zero, the beauty is in the sheer simplicity of the controls. Since there's no elaborate move-sets you're given the chance to immediately connect and react to the combat, keeping it fresh thanks to how fast the encounters play out (the awesome enemy variety also helps). And just when you get a handle on how quickly you can do damage, you'll be able to purchase your first set of upgrades which blow the doors wide open on the gameplay. The chain dash greatly improves mobility, the charge blade dispatches unruly foes with aplomb, the reflective blade neuters snipers, the grenades allow you to swiftly handle minion hordes, etc. On top of all of this you have an arsenal of guns at your fingertips that allow you to play safely from a distance but require melee attacks to recharge, giving encounters a dance-like rhythm as you engage and escape from your opponents.

What I profusely enjoy about this style of gameplay is that it's all about tactical micro-decisions. Each moment-to-moment reaction is peppered with a hint of strategy, offering a copious amount of options to perform in an exceedingly small time frame. From start to finish, Hyper Light Drifter submerges itself in this style of play—a truth that becomes all the more apparent in NG+ (where you die in two hits). No power-up or gun feels useless since each enhancement provides a new dimension to your responses that have their own benefits and risks. And even when the combat isn't keeping you on your toes, it still feels marvelous to traverse the precarious levels and sniff out some well-hidden secrets. Rarely have games been able to go from dire, blood-pumping encounters to quiet, introspective exploration as effortlessly as Hyper Light Drifter does—further evoking the Zelda comparison.

The biggest knock against the game I can come up with is that trying to 100% it is a straight-up chore. While the in-game map is difficult to parse at first, the greatest sin it commits is not revealing any gearbits, keys, or monuments you've collected, meaning you have to keep a mental note of where you've been and what you've grabbed. I had to use an incomplete Steam guide for assistance, and even then it was hard remembering which bits I'd picked up and which I hadn't. On top of that there's a host of other vexing issues too: occasional inputs get eaten, certain combat scenarios are busted when revisiting them from the wrong direction, cutscenes can't be skipped, dashes may miss their intended landmass, the Northern boss is a bit too insane, hard-earned outfits don't convey their respective effects, and the "gearbit becoming whole!" animation should in no way freeze the gameplay (it ruins the pacing!)

These problems range from mildly annoying to arguably detrimental, so it's not hard for me to see why other people may be turned off from playing. I've also seen many claim that Hyper Light Drifter is overly difficult, which is something I think is only true when you get checkpointed with no health left. Personally though, the game shines when it's being harsh, especially when you're pressured to play flawlessly or get sent back to a distant checkpoint. Right about when you pick up the chain dash is when the game hopefully clicks with you, but I in no way will fault someone if they were hoping for it to be a little more relaxing and a lot less demanding. Thankfully, I'm happily sated with the utilization of both of those aspects here.

For me, Hyper Light Drifter is a flawed masterpiece. While at first glance it appears the visuals are the game's strong suit, the gameplay proves to be no slouch either, keeping your tactical responses engaging and interesting. The buttery smooth motions of the Drifter are what made me pick up this title, and the compelling world rife with playful combat is what made me want to stay. I do wish it was better tuned for replays, that the map was more instructive, and that the stupid gearbit animation didn't exist, but all of these issues are easily dwarfed by my awe for this game. It's a euphoric experience that only gets better the more you spend time with it, and it's definitely a title I'm going to soon replay and fall in love with all over again.

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