Game’s Visuals Marred by Clumsy Controls

Avi Vogel, Columnist

Walking up a set of stairs embedded into a mountain, the environment changes. Pink skies and green-blue grass shift to light blue air and snow-covered ground. Before I enter the new area, I move myself around the edges of the mountaintop, seeing what secrets I can find. As I saunter toward the lip of the cliff, the camera pans forward and reveals the massive decaying head of a titan, its lifeless hand clinging to the ledge. I sit still, forgetting the controller in my hand, the music and visuals dragging me into the world. Then, I walk through the door, start the next fight and die because an attack that looks like it shouldn’t connect does. I start the dungeon over.

That, in a nutshell, has been my entire experience with Hyper Light Drifter, a game released on March 31 for PC, Mac and Linux. Developed by Heart Machine, a small indie studio that received successful funding from a Kickstarter campaign, the game is billed as an action adventure RPG in the tradition of NES and Super NES classics. But that doesn’t actually do the game justice. It mixes the exploration aspects of Legend of Zelda with the world-building and grand locations of Secret of Mana or the Final Fantasy games, but if you want to describe this game, you have to talk about it on its own terms.

Hyper Light Drifter is full of incredible visuals. Massive, lonely areas to explore, a temple strewn with corpses of its worshipers, laboratories with test tubes full of parts of dead titans — these are just some of the locations presented to you. Although they sound gruesome, this game uses a beautiful pixelated art style reminiscent of a union between ’80s anime and modern pixel art video games. This ensures that the visuals are absolutely stunning even on lower quality computers. Although you’ll spend a long time dashing through the environment, you won’t be bored. Each room is a surprise and each dungeon is a delight to explore.

Although this facet of the game is glorious, Hyper Light Drifter is, at its core, an action game. Combat is a major aspect of its gameplay, and it’s incredibly simple: one button to swing your sword, one to shoot your equipped gun, another to dash and two more for healing and grenades. That’s it. There’s no real combo system, and you don’t get more powerful in this game. Rather, each upgrade earned gives you another tool to use in combat. Fights are difficult; the game throws a plethora of enemies at you, each one possessing a unique rhythm and attack type that must be learned. If you don’t adapt, then you will die. A lot. And even if you do, you will still die. A lot.

Due to the game’s difficulty, encounters will push you to think of unique ways to overcome them and it takes numerous attempts to fully navigate the bosses’ attack types and patterns. Do you dash through projectiles, taking out ranged units before making mincemeat of the melee troops? Or do you pick off the intimidating enemies with your gun, dashing in only to slash and restock bullets? These and more are all viable strategies, using different tools that you both buy and learn. This, in theory, would lead to satisfying combat that makes each completed room feel like a triumph. However, that’s not the case.

Considering that Hyper Light Drifter is a difficult, fast-paced action game, one would expect the controls to be tight and enemies’ animations to adequately show what should and shouldn’t hit. Therein lies the problem. Sometimes, a dash didn’t take me to where I steered. Other times, an enemy would hit outside his animation. Overall, most actions are finicky. Interaction feels just a bit off. If this game had slow-paced combat in the vein of Legend of Zelda, that would be fine. But considering the degree of control that is needed to successfully navigate through encounters, these small slights become significant grievances.

Everything around the gameplay is beautiful: the environmental storytelling, the incredible visuals, the sense of wonder at witnessing a new location. Even the soundtrack immerses you further into the game with wonderful ambient noise and atmospheric music that makes you feel alone in a grand world. If you can push yourself to persevere through the control issues, Hyper Light Drifter has wonderful secrets to share and offers a beautiful world to explore. And though I’ve already completed it once, I can’t wait to dive back in and see what else it has to offer.