[Review] Hyper Light Drifter Special Edition - Nintendo Switch
Way back in the long ago of March of this year, it was revealed in a Nindies Showcase that Undertale was coming to the Nintendo Switch. Shortly thereafter, it was revealed that the Nintendo Switch would be supporting the game maker engine. The first game I thought of when learning this information was Hyper Light Drifter. I knew that the game would be perfect for the Switch's hybrid nature, since it's nice to recline on the couch and hack n' slash your way through the world, but 2d games just seem so much better suited to the handheld experience. Not only that, but Hyper Light Drifter is among the best known and well-received game maker games, so it seemed only natural that Heart Machine would want to bring Hyper Light Drifter to Nintendo's runaway hit console as soon as they possibly could. Fast forward to September, and us Nintendo Switch owners get not only Hyper Light Drifter, but a few exclusive bits of gear and a new mode!
To get the exclusives out of the way first- there is a special suit included that helps you locate hidden medkits and other useful items, and then there is a deadly throwing sword known as the Blade Caster and a gun that freezes enemies called the Crystal Shot. You unlock the latter by playing through the Tower Climb challenge. You unlock the Tower Climb challenge later on, so let's not dwell on that...but it feels like it should have been accessible as a separate feature from the main menu.
Hyper Light Drifter is a myterious action-adventure game that takes place in a strange, post cataclysm landscape full of overgrown bugs, crystal monsters, and other nefarious mutants. You play as an enigmatic wanderer that is afflicted with a horrible cough that produces blood and possibly induces vivid hallucinations. The opening cinematic makes it clear that something horrible has happened to the world, and that this has given rise to great horrors, but your first encounters with some of these beasts in the opening may or may not have been real. Anyways, we wake up next to a fire and go through the now-standard method of teaching us the controls through an interactive tutorial. On the Nintendo Switch, the controls are B to dash, A to swap weapons, Y for Sword, X to bring up the heads up display, or hold X to interact with things (doors, switches, picking up items). L heals, R is special, ZR shoots, holding ZL enables you to aim your shot. + brings up the pause menu, - brings up the map, and pressing L or R here will bring you to your inventory.
Learning to utilize your dash will be the most vital skill you develop not only for dodging enemy attacks, but also traversing the landscape. While Hyper Light Drifter is very combat-heavy, it makes you navigate the war torn landscape of erupting crystal traps and floating landscapes by dodging over deadly traps and pits that are just wide enough that you won't fall if you line it up just right. Learning when to use your gun and when to use your sword will also be important, and keep in mind that you have a limited number of shots with your gun. you gain these back by hacking away at enemies or destructible landscape. Sometimes that landscape hides enemies, sometimes enemies, but most often it has nothing in it and merely blocks your path. Thankfully, it regrows, and you can usually count on it to be there when you want it to be, and it will always be there when you don't want it to be, as well.
Beyond combat, you'll be navigating your way through a labyrinthine system of breakable crystals, roadblocks, energy doors with and without locks, elevators, enemies, bosses, pits, and puzzle switches. Occasionally you'll run into an NPC that'll show you a series of pictures that kind of communicates what you need to be on the lookout for, and when you activate different colored switches, they will glow on the map where they unlocked something. It's all rather cryptic and confusing, and often the map is not very helpful. Generally, you'll just be doing a lot of backtracking and trying to find the possibly hidden spot that you missed the first time around. Once you've done that, you can then proceed to make your way through the rest of the map that you're familiar with until you find a new location- usually indicated by finding an NPC that gives you some info, or by just wandering into a new horde of enemies.
Health is kind of hard to come by in Hyper Light Drifter, and that becomes a problem sometimes when you start to get low on health and avoid fighting new enemies, especially those locked behind doors, so that you can conserve health. Why is this problematic? Those enemies are often the key to opening up a barrier in the game later on, and if you don't kill it now, you will just have to do so later. Unfortunately, it's not always obvious which enemy this is going to be, so you are basically forced into fighting every single enemy that you encounter. You will also often see a medkit, and fighting your way to it will result in you using that medkit up immediately, but you can carry up to three at a time.
I may sound like I'm tearing the game down a little bit, especially in the difficulty department, but honestly, I'm not. Hyper Light Drifter manages to be fair in it's difficulty throughout. If you fail, which you will, often, it is because you didn't dodge at the right moment, or you chose to run right into the middle of a horde of enemies instead of trying to lead them away to eliminate in small doses, or you dashed away from one enemy into an unknown area that may have more hostile enemies or projectiles being immediately fired at you. In other words- Hyper Light Drifter is about patiently scouting your environment before you jump into battle. It's about learning where your enemies are coming from, what they are capable of, and how to best avoid them. You will probably die a lot, but that's ok, because once you go back you will have better knowledge of who, where, when, and how. Classic game design, and it's brilliantly executed.
The combat is pretty decent, as it never really feels too repetitive, and the "puzzles" aren't too bad, so Hyper Light Drifter has a lot going for it. The designers did a great job utilizing the atmosphere and the broken landscape as a means of impeding the player and fostering a sense of accomplishment from finding the hidden areas, although sometimes it seemed as though the necessary switches were too well hidden. I'm not really a big fan of the art style. I do tend to like pixel art and I love dystopian worlds torn apart by war and famine...but I didn't particularly care for the color choices. Just a personal quibble, won't count against it...I just think it's kind of an ugly game from that perspective. I actually switched the Switch over to grayscale to play for a while, and preferred it that way.
Hyper Light Drifter is a fairly challenging action game with some minor puzzles and a lot of combat. It was easy to get lost, but the accessible part of the map was never too big that it took more than a few minutes to find your way and correct the mistake you made earlier on. I had fun with the game, but I don't see the RPG elements, and I don't understand the Zelda comparisons, either. However, you will probably still have fun with this great little indie gem.