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Hands On With Hyper Light Drifter's Combat

Again And Again

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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.

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Graham Smith

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