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Impressions: Hyper Light Drifter

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Right, so I messed up below. I could have gone in other directions and played more of the game. I’ve done that now, and my mea culpa and further thoughts are here.

I’m so furious. I’ve ranted about boss fights SO many times, and argh, it’s happened again. A game I was absolutely adoring is now a game I can’t play at all, because of a wildly difficult boss fight. Hyper Light Drifter [official site] is absolutely wonderful. Ridiculously lovely pixel graphics that are constantly breathtaking, a clever world that evokes classic 8- and 16-bit classics, elements of Zelda, but with a hefty focus on Nuclear Throne-like combat. And it’s tough. The fighting is surprisingly tricky, waves of enemies in small locations, early on when your arsenal is limited and your skills unhoned. Exploration is key, discovery is splendid, and it’s all a really rather superb time. I’ve been playing since yesterday, having such a brilliant time – then the first boss fight happened, and now it seems I’ll never get to play most of the game.

This might not be the case for you. You might be much better at games like Throne and Teleglitch, or the sort that revels in twitch controls and bullet-hellish waves of extra enemy attacks while trying to chip away at a big enemy who is able to attack you from any distance at any time. I’m the sort who enjoys the rest of the game, the bits where the challenging enemies take three or four hits to take down, not thirty or forty while I’m still being attacked by the other challenging enemies at the same time. I don’t understand why it’s a part of gaming, why it’s always been a part of gaming, and I don’t understand who its obligatory nature is for.

Hyper Light Drifter tells a wordless story about a cloaked figure who wanders through an abandoned civilisation, surrounded by the ruins of ancient technology, searching for a cure for a crippling terminal disease. It’s a game born of a phenomenally successful Kickstarter campaign and the small team have created a huge world, packed with secrets, where you must find various runic triangle pieces to open doors, gather the very rare currency to purchase upgrades (weapons, skills, bombs, health), and fight your way through chambers of furious foes.

It is immediately great, so impressively crafted, and doesn’t hold your hand at all. Even the basic controls are yours to discover (the game states that it needs to be played on a controller, which is certainly preferable, although there are keyboard/mouse controls in there), and what you must do is discerned from blinking icons on the map and an understanding of the genre. I was gripped, impressed by how tough the fights were compared to the classic games HLD apes (Graham talks in some detail about the combat here), and thoroughly enjoying the process of digging deeper into its world.

It’s viewed from a straight-on floating camera, which occasionally makes distinguishing pathways from walls a little confusing, but allows the pixel design to really flourish. Your caped character begins with a sword, quickly gains a gun, and has the ability to make rapid dashes forward. Those dashes allow the most interesting movement in the game, allowing him to dart over gaps from path to path, or dodge out of the way of enemy attacks. It’s an ability that can be improved by collecting yellow money-like objects, which are sparingly hidden around the world – but it’ll be at the cost of upgrading something else that feels equally important, like extra health in a dangerous land, or more ammo slots for the very limited guns. The enormous map shows off a huge world, to be explored in chunks as you gain new abilities and are able to open new doors. Doors I was having such a good time opening.

And now I’m not. But you might be. Inevitably whenever anyone in my position admits to not being able to do something in a game, a vocal few will burst forth to unpleasantly declare how EASY it is, and how dreadful I must be at everything. And I will respond as I always do:

“That’s brilliant for you. But you’re not everyone. You’re the person ‘Hard’ difficulty levels are built for, while the vast majority play on ‘Normal’. Your desire that games be so punishingly difficulty that only people of your skill can enjoy them is ultimately deeply selfish. Further, it makes no sense that such encounters aren’t optional. Those who adore them get them, those who hate them can carry on playing the game they were loving rather than have to stop and never play the game again.”

So I’m rather stuck. I’ve watched myself die so many sodding times now. And it’s not just the death – it’s how agonisingly slowly I get back up just outside the boss room, the completely unnecessary lack of controls while the boss waves a staff around, and then the next failure, before I’m even halfway through his health (at which point the attacks step up, naturally).

And I know, I know very well, that others will breeze through it and be snarky and entirely without empathy for others who aren’t them. But there goes my time with Hyper Light Drifter, a completely gorgeous game I was utterly loving. It apparently doesn’t want me to play it any more.

Fuccccccck yoooooouuuuuuu

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and general hero of humanity.

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