Game review: Hyper Light Drifter makes Dark Souls look easy

It’s one of the best-looking games of the year, and the soundtrack is fantastic, but is this indie mix of Zelda and Diablo just too hard?

We sometimes wonder what would happen if difficult games where the norm amongst big budget triple-A titles. Would indie developers feel compelled to create trivially easy games as an alternative? If mainstream retail games commonly featured pixel-based artwork would it instead be indies that ended up pushing for brown-hued photorealism? It’s an academic point of course, but we’re glad to know that indie developers continue to deliver the sort of games that traditional publishers would never dream of. And that certainly includes Hyper Light Drifter.

Of course there is one major franchise that dares to be difficult, and it’s perhaps unfortunate for Hyper Light Drifter that it’s come out only two weeks ahead of Dark Souls III. But although the two games share something in common in terms of their level of challenge the key influences here are The Legend Of Zelda and Diablo. Combining those two games has long been the goal of developer Alex Preston, and after several delays and a successful Kickstarter campaign he’s finally achieved his wish.

Before we get into the gameplay though we have to comment on the obvious: Hyper Light Drifter is one of the best-looking video games we’ve ever seen. The pixel art is not only absolutely gorgeous, but strikingly original in style and impressively varied in terms of the locations and landscapes. The size of the world is equally remarkable, with the only minor complaint being that the angle of the overhead camera can sometimes make it a little difficult to spot some walls and paths.

What you can’t see from the screenshots though, is that the music is every bit as good. It’s by Richard Vreeland (aka Disasterpeace) who’s best known for his work on REZ and the movie It Follows. There’s an obvious debt to Vangelis here, but it’s a wonderfully rich soundtrack that compliments the visuals perfectly and adds to the forlorn, spectral atmosphere.

Hyper Light Drifter does have one other similarity with Dark Souls, and that’s in the obscureness of its story. Although perhaps Bloodborne is the better comparison, as both games involve an unnatural illness. What exactly is wrong with your avatar is not clear, but his painful coughing fits suggest it’s nothing good. And that the purpose of his wanderings is to find a cure in what seems to be a post-apocalyptic fantasy world.

At one point somebody was technologically advanced enough to create hulking great robots and equally huge temples, but much of the world is now overrun by monsters. Nothing is explicitly explained to you though: not the story, not where you’re meant to go, and not even really the controls. You have to learn quickly though, as the combat is brutal and far more fast-paced than the rest of the game would have you imagine.

Your knight can take very little damage but he does have a wide repartee of attacks, including both swords and guns. His most useful move though is a powerful dash, which is vital for manging large groups of varied enemies. Its use is often limited by the size and design of rooms though, and the many traps and moving walls they try to catch you out with.

As a result, you’re forced to learn every aspect of an enemy’s moveset and tactics. Before long you’re working out long, complex battle plans the moment you’re set upon, taking into account the location, the opponents, and your current resources.

All this is just about manageable for most players, although the miserly way health items are made available, often forcing you to exit a dungeon to restock, feels like an unnecessary impediment. Where the game really goes off the deep end though is with its boss battles. They’re imaginatively designed, both visually and in terms of their weak spots, but even just the first one is difficult enough to have Dark Souls veterans looking for the easy mode option (there isn’t one).

There’s a fine line between challenging and frustrating and when it comes to the boss battles Hyper Light Drifter takes a step too far. It’s the fact that you usually have to deal with lesser enemies at the same time that’s particularly irritating, meaning that when you do finally beat a boss you feel it’s just as much because you got lucky with the minions as it was some breakthrough in skill. That gnaws away at the elation of victory, and means even when you do win it’s never quite as satisfying as it should be.

Of course difficulty is a hard thing to judge, and we’re sure there will be plenty of players that insist the game isn’t too hard at all. We feel confident they’ll be in the minority though, and it’s a shame that a game that is otherwise so beautifully constructed should limit its audience in this way. We’re very tempted to say it’s worth the price of admission for the graphics and soundtrack alone. But really, getting past the first boss shouldn’t be treated like a bonus feature.

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