Giant corpses litter the overgrown ruins of a post-apocalyptic civilization. If there’s an explanation behind them and the mutated avian magicians hiding out in a mountain’s hollowed and hallowed temples, or some connection between the samurai in the western forest and the shuriken-slinging toads in the eastern swamp, Hyper Light Drifter isn’t saying. Instead, it sticks close to the minimalism of Titan Souls, leaving the combat to speak for the story and trusting this murderer’s row of cool ideas to, well, murder players.
This isn’t a forgiving game, for the plot’s cryptic pictographs suggest no end to the darkness that haunts the few remaining peaceful inhabitants of this world and physically plagues the hero, causing him to cough up blood and hallucinate an acidic black rain. The reward for stepping off the beaten path to collect the extra crystals hidden in each zone is an increasingly graphic glimpse of the protagonist being skewered by grotesque shadow monsters.
Thankfully, these bleak omens never diminish the ample joy of discovery that’s derived from wandering through Hyper Light Drifter’s world. If anything, they help to make each new discovery shine that much brighter. In that sense, the game is a lot like Fez, in that a player doesn’t have to understand the layered secrets held by the mysterious monoliths and keys in order to appreciate the challenge that goes into finding them. If this is a tale of atonement or martyrdom, then suffering is sort of the point.
A sense of suffering pervades the settings, most notably a bleak robotic laboratory hidden beneath the desert, in which embryonic mechanisms and eyeballs floating in red fluid glare balefully at players. It doesn’t, however, extend to the gameplay, which is never anything short of stellar, and not actually as hyper as the title suggests. While there are often a great deal of foes and projectiles on screen at once, and while the Drifter does fight using a sword-first dashing mechanic (in combination with a long-range gun), battles actually require a great deal of patience and Zen-like concentration. The Drifter’s attack animation is deliberately slow, and leaves him vulnerable if he overextends, so each cut needs to be as deliberate as possible. This is especially true against bosses, who can often only be approached safely once they’ve unleashed a particularly ruthless combination.
However, compelling as combat is and as satisfying as it is to hunt for secrets, the overall disconnect from the story is frustrating. A clear predecessor like The Legend of Zelda may not have had much plot, but it at least provided a specific sense of progression in the way that tools would allow players to access new areas. Hyper Light Drifter’s somewhat non-linear approach to its four zones and the main character’s limited skillset too closely approximates the game’s title, creating a sense that the player is just drifting along. This is especially true for some of the vaguer puzzles in the game, like a dark tunnel that players can simply (and uncomfortably) brute-force their way through in the absence of better lighting. Maybe that’s why the combat stands out: It’s the most purposeful thing about Hyper Light Drifter.