Game review: Hyper Light Drifter is beautiful, mysterious and engaging. And really hard

Button-mashing just won’t do – the key to success in this ethereal, surprisingly difficult game is perfectly timed combinations of attacks

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 May, 2016, 7:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 May, 2016, 7:00am

Hyper Light Drifter

Heart Machine

4/5 stars

“Ooh, pretty!” As a kid of the ’80s, an eight-bit freak, anime fan and generally a massive dork at heart, that was my initial reaction to Hyper Light Drifter when I first booted it up on my laptop (it’s currently only available for PC, Mac and Linux, but will soon be out on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One). It felt like cult favourite Shadow of the Colossus mixed with absolute classic Legend of Zelda, with a heavy helping of Dark Souls – and for the most part, that’s a pretty accurate mishmash.

Breaking down the concept of HLD is a sort of a spoiler, but not really, because figuring out exactly what’s going on and journeying through its ethereal world is a massive part of the game’s dialogue-free appeal. It’s also entirely up to you in a way, except not. Confused? Don’t worry, that’s to be expected.

Players are thrown head-on into a beautifully crafted Zelda-like realm, one where a simple array of primary colours and chip-tune sounds combine to fully engage players among ominous forests, serene lakes, ruined cityscapes and other eerily familiar landscapes. Your only goal? As in Colossus, you explore its four main regions and destroy a series of bosses, through a beautifully simple combination of three different moves: sword swiping, gun shooting and dashing.

Except, here’s the thing: it’s all really hard to do. Like, really, really hard – and that’s where the Dark Souls influence comes in. I’m not afraid to admit that I’m far from a diehard gamer, and hopefully, that regularly gives all you a glimpse into the gaming world from an everyday player’s perspective. But this one confounded me in ways I wasn’t prepared for.

Button-mashing is an absolute no-no here, and your only path to success lies in perfectly timed, samurai-like combinations of attacks. That means: practice, practice, practice. And then, once you’ve spent hours working out an opponent’s moves, strategising tactics and figuring out killer attacks, you’ll probably end up lost somewhere among its massive map. Annoying, right?

If HLD wasn’t so damn beautiful, so absolutely mysterious and so incredibly engaging, I would’ve tossed the controller against the wall long ago. But it’s one of the most involving releases I’ve come across since at least the last gaming generation. HLD isn’t for everyone, maybe not even for me really, but that’s part of its charm.