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Hyper Light Drifter - A Mea Culpa, Further Thoughts

Responding to the hype

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Last week I played Hyper Light Drifter [official site] and wrote my thoughts – thoughts stymied by reaching a boss I couldn’t even get close to killing, and believing my progress was blocked. It seems I was wrong. Sorry about that. Due to a combination of incorrect assumptions I’d made while playing, and some poor communication from the game, I had failed to notice I could have gone off in other directions that weren’t flagged as now open, and gathered more abilities, before making another attempt on that boss, and indeed the others. So I’ve gone back to the game to reappraise based on this.

Thank you to people who got in touch to politely point this out to me. It’s extremely helpful and always very welcome to know when a mistake has been made.

I think it’s really important to be clear about one thing: expectation is heavily relied upon when games are as deliberately obtuse as this. In fact, I’d praised HLD in my original piece for being so obtuse! I enjoyed that it wanted players to use their experience of games to make leaps in this one – not something I’d like to see many games doing as it’s so alienating to the new. Yet, I got caught out by it. Here’s what I thought had happened:

The game doesn’t use much comprehensible language to communicate. Instead it relies on ambiguity and pictographic allusions. I had the strong impression when playing that the game had opened up a path to the North, while the other three directions were still blocked off by guards. I’d remembered seeing those guards blocking the exits. I’ve no idea why I was drawn to the North first, but that was the direction that quickly had symbols on the map, and targets to aim for. When I reached the boss at the end of it, the map only had one symbol left, and it was something I couldn’t do until the boss was defeated.

It’s a real shame I didn’t go back and check the other directions, and that’s certainly on me. I also think it’s an example of a game getting hoisted by its own petard, where not communicating some degree of potential opportunity is a failing, rather than “not holding the player’s hand”. That’s triply the case when you present players with massive difficulty spikes on their path, and a lack of suggestion that it’s not yet time. Many will disagree.

So, what happens when I do go elsewhere? For a good while, I have a lot of fun. The path to the South appears blocked, but East and West offer an experience mostly similar to North, with a different array of enemies. West is perhaps the most interesting direction, packed as it is with secret passages and hidden entrances, but I’d also argue those elements are deeply unfairly disguised. It becomes a process of trying to run into every hedge and edge just in case it’s the unmarked exit you need.

However, once I’m in an area packed with enemies, routes to find, triangles to discover, the game grabs me all over again. The combat is excellent, the enemy types distinct with different tactics necessary for each. Clearing an area is very satisfying, especially when it ends with a locked door opening and more progress awaiting.

And where it falls down is when that locked door doesn’t open, and progress is blocked yet again. There seems to be no effort to communicate why a particular door won’t open, why these blocks are currently in the way, nor what you could do to change that. Deep underground in the West I’ve had a splendid time clearing out a dungeon, found the triangle symbol, and essentially completed it – but there’s an area I can’t reach, with treasure I want, and a door nearby that’s locked and didn’t open when I’d meticulously removed every clackering ice-beast from the area.

I’ve no idea why. There’s no switch on the floor, and I’m left with turning around and going back to do something else. And with the map so poor (it’s astonishingly dreadful) there’s no useful way to remember where I could return later, and certainly no locked doors marked. Again, for a game that is deserving of celebration for this opaqueness, it often crosses the line into needlessly unhelpful.

It’s clear that a lot of people enjoy games that frequently offer them dead ends. I’m not sure why – it frustrates me greatly if that dead end isn’t in some way a clue as to what to do next. (There’s a reason why we write “Wot I Think” at the top of our reviews.) So oddly enough, despite having had a lot more of the game to enjoy, I’m too often left with the same sense of being pushed away by Hyper Light Drifter.
Obviously dreary sorts will say, “You’re just validating your bias,” but put it far less eloquently, and I can’t really prove that I’m not beyond saying so. HLD is a game I want to play a lot more than I can, if that makes sense. It’s just too obscure, just too alienating, just too remote, to pull me deeply enough in. And that’s despite utterly beautiful graphics, and a difficulty level that makes the non-boss areas sublime to play.

Other people like different things.

My opinion is so very mixed. I’ve had a splendid few hours pottering around elsewhere in the game, but always ending in a dead end, boss fight I haven’t the patience for, or nothing to do but turn around and go back. I’ve collected so very many triangles in the West, but I’ve still no idea why. I’ve fought a big range of enemies and enjoyed learning the micro-tactics necessary for each, but I’ve lost track of how many times pressing ‘heal’ has failed to trigger causing me to have to repeat swathes of those fights again and again. I’ve dashed my way out of enemy fire like a hero, and I’ve dashed my way off barely marked edges and fallen to my death like a pissed off games player.

Hyper Light Drifter has a firmly established fanbase born of its Kickstarter, and within their ranks are those who will not hear a negative word about the game. Nothing any games critic writes is ever for them. But there are those who adore games with much higher difficulty than the norm, and while HLD doesn’t get close to the heights of challenge of roguelite dungeon crawlers like the magnificent Enter The Gungeon, it evokes that manner of game at times in a way that will appeal to the Nightmare Moders. Especially the boss fights, which do nothing for me other than frustrate. I shall never enjoy nor endorse wild difficulty spikes.

Hyper Light Drifter is beautiful, slightly poorly laid out, annoying, occasionally glorious, confused, and controlled wonderfully. It’s a mix. The most controversial of things to be.

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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 hero of humanity. Old and special.

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