January 16, 2016

Impressions Redux: Hyper Light Drifter

When was the last time you played a game that didn't hold your hand? You're probably going to say Demon's Souls. But even Demon's Souls had tutorials. While I'm sure the final version of Hyper Light Drifter will have some sort of instructions on how to play the game, the Kickstarter alpha version does not.

I started up the game in a small wooded area with a straight path in front of me. The first thing I did was check the controls. Nothing. So then I pressed every buttons. Stick to move, X to attack with sword, and teleport dodge with A. The most curious thing was that pressing the right bumper had my little robot companion pop up a hovering menu with a bunch of greyed out cubes in it. Of course this meant nothing to me, so I went down the only path I could and into the demo's dungeon.

Immediately I found a switch I could stand on that opened up a compartment in the floor with a cube in it. The menu started to fill in. So that was my objective. In the next room, there was a gun on the ground. I picked it up and then tried all the buttons again to figure out that B is shoot and L is aim, but I couldn't move and shoot at the same time. Good to know. Then I found a door with a dead guy behind it and when I approached my robot told me I'd need 16 smaller cubes to get in there. So I kept on.

Each room was a new mystery full of challenges to overcome. How to I solve this puzzle? How do I combat these new enemies? How to I access that secret area? Hyper Light Drifter is not an easy game but it is, thankfully, a forgiving game. If you think in terms of classic games, they were split into "screens" and you'd have to clear the screen to move on. Hyper Light Drifter was kind of like that. There'd be a locked door you'd come through with another one somewhere along the path. In between would be a bunch of enemies, puzzles, and secrets to get through before you entered the next room. Some were bigger than others, but they always had a checkpoint which was a real relief considering how unforgiving this game is.

The meat of the challenge is combat, which is a dangerous game of attacking and dodging. To survive, you'll need to learn the enemy tactics and how to make affective use of the teleport, or "drift" as I call it. Drifting is crucial because the Drifter is one fragile dude. You'll be torn to bits unless you learn to dodge and wait for an opening. I failed at this a lot in the beginning. I was frustrated, but pressed on and got the hang of things. The real challenge comes when the game throws a bunch of enemies and hazards at you at once, but it's not the end of the world when you fail because the checkpoint is never far away. The game has what I call "The Meat Boy Effect". Imagine a room in HLD's dungeon as a Meat Boy stage. You have to get from point A to point B and it's not easy but you try and try and eventually learn the techniques you need to succeed. If you die, it's right back to the start. Remember that thing you did last time that got you killed? Yeah, don't do that. Try something else. It's through this trial and error learn by doing technique that the game teaches you how to play. Before I knew it I was tearing through guys with my sword and shotgun combo. In fact, I even blasted through the dungeon a second time when I had to restart and it took me mere minutes to redo.

In terms of non-technical issues, I had only two. Not being able to move and shoot was a real bummer. I got used to it as just the way things are and learned to survive just fine. I suppose it's a design choice, as health and ammo were fairly limited too. The other thing was that the top down perspective combined with the visuals made it hard for me to tell what was ground and what wasn't sometimes. I fell to my death a lot when I thought I was stepping on solid ground.

However, the art direction is absolutely amazing in this game. It's pixel perfect, if I do say so myself. Yeah, it's "8-bit" as the masses might call it (though technically it's really just pixel art) but this particular aesthetic has never been done before. The game is so full of little detail that it's staggering. I haven't seen a pixel game look this good since Fez. And speaking of Fez, the music is being done by Disasterpeace as well. It's not exactly the same soundscape, though, as Hyper Light Drifter is filled with ambient sounds and pulsing beats. It was appropriate to say the least. To say the most, the music felt like a character itself as it dynamically changed the closer I got to my goal.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to complete the demo because of a game-breaking bug that loaded up a room as a completely black screen. It's disappointing, but in the end that's what these things are for in the first place. I did manage to get three of the four gold cubes and it was very satisfying to get each one. I only ran into one other issue where the colors would invert upon death, but the rest of the game was surprisingly solid for this early stage in development. It was definitely refreshing to play a game that just dropped me in and let me forge my own path and learn how to survive with nothing but my instincts. Sometimes I didn't even know if I was going the right way, but the game is apparently so well thought out that I always ended up on a meaningful path. It's clear there was a lot to be found even in this one dungeon alone. The full game is open world with tons of areas to explore and I can't wait. As a Kickstarter backer (and quite a generous one at that) I'm pleased to see my funds are being put towards an excellent game. It's about the look, the mood, surviving the harsh environments, learning and growing; it's about the magic of video games.

Hyper Light Drifter will be available on PC, Mac, PS4, Vita, Xbox One, and Wii U in 2016.

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