Hands On With Hyper Light Drifter’s Combat

Stop. Slow down. Hyper Light Drifter‘s cape-wearing main character carries a sword whose swipes and slashes can be performed in rapid succession, but that doesn’t mean you can charge your way through its hunched henchman, skittering spiders or gun-wielding grunts. You’ve got to take your time if you want to go fast, as I’ve learned through playing the game’s Kickstarter preview build.

HLD was successfully Kickstarted last year, where “successfully” is a dreadful understatement. Developer Alex Preston asked for $27,000 and received $645k, meaning the game ballooned from a simple-ish hack-and-slasher inspired by Zelda to a larger, more polished game. As pretty as those initially presented screenshots and GIFs were, the game is twice as lush now. The build I’ve been playing was offered as a thank you to those who backed the project, as a means of gathering feedback before a planned release sometime in 2015.

Here is my feedback: Hyper Light Drifter is great.

Your swinging swordplay is paired with energy weapons. In the demo, those come in the form of a single-shot pistol and a burst-fire rifle whose sprayed pellets expand out to a point, then converge again, zig-zagging across the eerie techno-ruins you’re exploring. Either weapon can be fired in the direction you’re facing with a button press, while holding the left trigger lets you precision-aim your next shot.

Whichever weapon you choose to use in a given situation, that precision is important. Let’s re-visit the sword. If you hammer your attack button, your swing and slash in an escalating combo of attacks. If you connect your sword with an enemy, your target will be knocked back and stunned just a little, but it’s not enough to stop them from getting a swipe in at you. In other words, you can advance through enemies by hammering the button, but you’ll take damage doing it. The screen will fade, and you’ll be forced to frantically stab at scenery in search of smashable techno-vases with healing techno-potions inside.

So slow down. There’s nuance here.

While pressing X on your pad will slash heartily away and you can advance through the game just fine with this alone, pressing X+A at the same time perform a jab attack. This knocks enemies back further and stuns them for half a second. You can also hold down X until to perform a secondary, charged-up slash attack, which deals more damage.

If you get a certain amount of kills with either your sword or guns, you’ll gain a power-up which will make your next three attacks with that weapon immediately charged-up. This let’s you one-shot smaller enemies or the burst-fire turrets that pop up in the corners of rooms.

You’ll want to pair all of these things together with game’s dash move – called drifting, and referred to in the title. Tap A and your character will burst a short distance forward at great speed. Tap A again at just the right moment at the end of your dash, and you’ll dash again while accelerating. You can use this to drift infinitely, darting across levels at great speed.

All of this said, it’s of course common for games to have combat made of combos, timed attacks and precision. The difference here is that I care.

Partly that’s because HLD, in these early levels, is easy to complete. You can bash your way through to the end of the private demo without knowing a damned thing. Partly it’s because even these combos are relatively simple to perform; once I knew the infini-drift existed, I was able to perform it perfectly almost immediately.

Mainly though, it’s because these things feel so good. You can kill enemies without much effort, but doing so with effort looks cooler and is grossly more satisfying. The result is that I’ve gone back and completed the demo again and again, getting progressively better at tackling each of its combat bubbles. Where at first I’d blunder my way through, sucking up health because my life depended on it, my goal now is to clear areas without taking a hit.

All that earlier slowing down was only so I could, eventually, go faster than before. You’ll walk into a new area and immediately get to work: dash then jab, power-cleave while they’re stunned, then dash away again; spot an enemy about to fire, get ready and time a swing to deflect their bullets right back at them; infini-dash to close the distance then slash to finish them off; turn and precision-aim a shot across a void to an enemy standing on a floating platform, and then infini-dash away again as a mob of more enemies move in. Each movement flows from the last, combat striving towards dance.

The game has clearly been designed with these repeated playthroughs in mind. The techno-ruins branch regularly and the different forks each lead to a glowing shard – circuit boards, maybe – found among enormous hearts cast inside imposing jars of fluid. Recover four of these shards and you can ‘finish’ the dungeon and head back outside. This doesn’t mean you’ve seen everything the game has to offer, though – there are twelve more of those glowing shards to collect, each in a hidden location. You’ll spot some on obscured platforms visible only during camera transitions, or on platforms that appear at first to be too far away to reach. Collect them all and you can enter a blocked-off area behind one of the few doors your floating, techno-pixie pal can’t immediately hack open for you.

The final game will presumably feature new types of dungeon to explore, a substantial over-world, more enemies than I’ve seen here and more weapons and combat maneuvers. But if it didn’t, if it was just more levels with the same art style, and no greater number of elements than are already present here, I think I’d be quite happy.

27 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    DantronLesotho says:

    I played it at Pax East last year and it felt absolutely fantastic. I can’t wait for this :D

  2. Crafter says:

    I have played the preview build sent to backers last month. It is great !
    There are only a couple of issues : for exemple the dash combined with insta-death in pits and the exploration driven hidden objects.
    The sumptuous art style does not always clearly show what is the ground and what is the void, so my most common cause of death was falling.
    If you die, you have to restart the current area from scratch.
    There are hidden objects scattered throughout the demo level and you are supposed to get all 16 of them to unlock .. something.
    However, since they are hidden in hard to reach / hidden places, I gave up on finding them. You need to experiment in order to get to them, and it means dying a lot in order to check for hidden passages after a gap.
    Having to restart the same areas dozen of times just get old very fast for me.

    The enemies movements/attacks are also too easy to predict and dodge. So a single enemy is never a threat, I mostly lost HPs only against groups.

    These are minor gripes that are not enough to spoil this game. I just hope that they are addressed before the release.

    • jonahcutter says:

      I’ll say this much about the hidden items: There are visual clues to the existence of each. Though interestingly, like some of the enemies, they are not common throughout the entire game. You’ll find some style of clues only once or twice even. The early access demo displays an impressive amount of variety.

      I almost gave up on finding my last two stubborn keys, but saw this very thing written on the forums. I went back in and trusting I could just see them, found them rather quickly. It really doesn’t require you dash into a falling death to discover them. Look for visual anomalies, and you will be rewarded.

      • Crafter says:

        yeah, I saw this clue as well :) .
        For some of these items though, you saw the hint on one screen and can’t access it from there, the only solution is to explore from other screens in order to find it.
        If we put these items aside, my main cause of death is still falling. I don’t think it is great for a game that is so combat oriented, maybe that just losing some health would be more adapted, having to restart the whole area feels way too much punishing to me.

  3. jonahcutter says:

    It does feel great. It is great. So, so satisfying to play. And the atmosphere is excellent.

    I was thinking it is something of a souped-up Journey, with its cloaked and indeterminate form traveling through a post-apoc, techno landscape. But also in the core mechanic of graceful movement. All sped up though, and with outright combat.

    There are also other ranged weapons to find in the demo, besides the two you mention.

  4. Jac says:

    This game looks stunning. Having only drooled at the odd screenshot I actually don’t know very much about it though.

    Zelda was referenced – will it be a game along those lines with puzzle dungeons and an overworld with a few npcs or is it more in the vein of a dungeon crawler / time attack affair? Graham mentioned replaying to get a perfect run so my impression is that it is more the latter. I assume the levels/enemy placements are handcrafted as well rather than being procedurely generated?

    • Bluestormzion says:

      Not to start a thing, but what about the game do you find stunning? I get the appeal of sprite based games, and grew up with all the old 8-bit consoles and even dabbled back in the old Atari stuff for a while. But I just don’t get what people like about this “New Sprite” style where everything seems to have the pixel size of a 16 bit game but the monochromatic masses of early 8bit games. Sure, it has the nigh-infinite palates that current technology can afford, but… I mean… I don’t know. I just can’t seem to like the way this game looks, no matter how cool it sounds when described to me.

      Again, this is a real question. I don’t really get art or aesthetics, or what makes a thing “good looking,” I just know what I like. And the art style behind something like Seiken Densetsu 3 is infinitely more appealing that what I’ve seen from the visuals in this game, even with SD3’s bigger pixel sizes. Someone please explain a bit of art to me, let me at least understand why others like this look.

      • Fiatil says:

        It’s a bit of an easy answer, but have you seen it in motion? I agree with the OP that it looks pretty stunning in motion.

        I can’t sit here and argue with you on Seiken Densetsu 3 though, that game still looks and plays amazing. The “smoothness” of the animations in Hyper Light Drifter make it a prettier game to me in motion, but SD3 is definitely the best looking SNES game and is fantastic.

        • Kaeoschassis says:

          I preferred the more “storybook” style of Legend of Mana, overall – especially those hand-painted backdrops – but the spritework in Seiken Densetsu 3 is just out of this world good.

      • ironman Tetsuo says:

        I love the reduction. It’s the imposed restrictions and careful placement of every individual pixel in well crafted piece that knocks me back with admiration for the artist. If you can give me the feels using a few hundred coloured squares you get a thumbs up from me.

        or maybe it’s because I’m slowly approaching 40 and it reminds me of my misspent youth without the “this is actually pretty shit after all this tine” you commonly get playing “real” retro titles.

        or, why enjoy a mosaic when you could enjoy a photo? Because I like mosaics!

        :-)

      • Jac says:

        Best answer I can give is that it looks like how I remember the snes and nes games of my youth looked at the time I guess.

        Other than that cannot explain further but for whatever reason my brain finds it visually appealing. Possibly linked to growing up trained on looking at games in this style. Different strokes I guess.

      • Thirith says:

        It’s the element of abstraction that, if used well, is very effective, although there’s clearly also an element of nostalgia. I love the art of Sword & Sworcery, for instance, and this looks gorgeous to me too, whereas the kind of pixel art you get in To The Moon doesn’t do much for me (perhaps because I never played the console classics of the 8-bit and 16-bit era).

        In any case, though, I do think that well-used abstraction has an appeal of its own, and pixel art of this kind does make use of that appeal.

    • Premium User Badge

      Graham Smith says:

      Not time attack. I’m replaying it to find secrets and because I find it satisfying to re-do the fights, but there’s no actual reward to the latter.

      There is an overworld with NPCs, though it doesn’t feature in the preview build. I’m not sure how puzzle-y the dungeons will get, but it does feel like you’re exploring, and they are odd.

      • Jac says:

        Replaying levels due to sheer enjoyment of the mechanics rather than being prompted by high scores/tiered ratings/unlocks etc. is about as good a thing as can be said. Thanks, will be watching out for this one either way.

        EDIT: Posted this and my brain is now ticking over trying to think of the last game I played over and over for personal reward rather than it being linked to so,e sort of in game reward or progression. Partly because every game I think of has something built in to prompt/encourage repeated playing. I’m actually questioning whether i actually have some mild game addiction linked to mechanics like this as I’m really enjoying Destiny at the moment but now I think about it, I would probably not be playing if it wasn’t for the lure of a different fancy new piece off loot, or levelling up my fancy new piece of loot, despite finding the core game fun. Uh oh!

        • thekelvingreen says:

          Most of my favourite games are ones where I’ve explored every hidden nook and unlocked every item but I still go back because the game itself is so fun to play. Turrican is the one that springs to mind; there are no secrets left for me there but I will still play it again and again.

  5. epmode says:

    I don’t understand how you didn’t even mention the framerate. It’s the first thing that jumped out at me once I launched the combat prototype. 30 FPS (or lower) doesn’t mesh well with the screen scrolling, not to mention player and enemy movement. It’s pretty jerky.

    Otherwise, it’s pretty great. I just hope they’re planning on increasing the framerate to at least 60 FPS for the final game.

  6. padger says:

    Totally stoked for this. It’s the game I am most pleased to have backed.

  7. internisus says:

    If anybody wants to see it in motion, I’ve got a “review” of the Preview Build here. Lots of good fights, so you can get a real sense of how versatile combat feels.

    Hope you don’t mind the linking; not as though it’s monetized or anything.

    I’m actually mixing a soundtrack album that should be up today. I loved Disasterpeace’s music, and the overlapping structure of the individual pieces was irresistible to me; I just had to get them in a multi-track editor and play around with how they can blend together.

    Obviously, I am really looking forward to this game.

  8. Laurentius says:

    “Here is my feedback: Hyper Light Drifter is great. ”

    Except that RPS feedback for every indie and/or Firaxis game preview in a last couple of years.

    • padger says:

      Maybe they like Firaxis games/indie games?

      PS: cheer up, big nose.

    • Deccan says:

      Ding ding! Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner for the title of Needlessly Cynical Bugger!

      Sir/Madam, please come forward to collect your prize.*

      *prize may not exist

      • padger says:

        (And I think he didn’t read all the articles where they said those indie games were actually a bit naff.)

  9. Alien says:

    One question: Will there be a story and text (dialog, descriptions etc.)?

    The game feels great and the atmosphere is exceptional, but I think it needs text to be really immersive.

    • pepperfez says:

      Please don’t take this as snark: Are you being sarcastic? Because I like few things more than a well done text-less story and in fact cringe at the amount of text (written or spoken) in modern games.

      • Alien says:

        I am not being sarcastic: Because of the low fidelity graphics, text would allow to create a deeper, more immersive game-world. A good example for this is “Lone Surivor”….

  10. Dr I am a Doctor says:

    This is literally Radio The Universe