Hyper Light Drifter is in many ways the Zelda game that I’ve been wanting Nintendo to make for years—and I could say that’s because of the rich, exacting combat, or the distinct environments rightly packed with secrets, and that would be true. If you’re after those elements, so core to the appeal of the very first Zelda and so rarely captured in the series thereafter, then Hyper Light Drifter has you covered.
But honestly, then thing that thrills me the most is that Hyper Light Drifter does its work wordlessly. When NPCs offer some flavor on their own pasts or the locales you’re exploring, they do so in images, comic panels in place of dialogue. There’s no instructional text beyond some initial button prompts, no verbal item or ability descriptions, no exposition about who you are or what you’re doing in the ravaged and vividly colored world you’re exploring.
When I spoke the Alex Preston, the game’s leading creative voice, we bonded over the bile we both bear toward Skyward Sword—a sentiment that he has since reiterated elsewhere—and he expressed his commitment to crafting just the opposite sort of adventure. Oh man, has he ever.
The eerily ravishing sensory overload of the opening cutscene lays out the basics. You’re some manner of warrior wandering in the aftermath of a great cataclysm, the landscape littered with dead titans and fallen to chaos among feuding factions. You explore the four regions that jut out north, south, east, and west of a conspicuously peaceful (but not altogether welcoming) little town, and you’re dogged all the while by a persistent, monstrous illness.
Without expositioning about any of the underlying lore, Hyper Light Drifter conveys a sense that you’re respected and feared, potent but never elevated or accepted, necessary but unwelcome—sort of like a witcher, but singleminded, stoic, and resolutely silent.
You’re accompanied by a sort of robot fairy, but it’s not a chaperone, just a diegetic way of telling you that you can frob a nearby switch, say. Your companion is not a grating buzzkill, but merely a helpful assistant and a presence that both mitigates and amplifies the game’s sense of loneliness.
Any hints about what to do next come from fanatical attentiveness to what’s around you. That looks like a secret path. That door has four triangles on it, and I’ve found three. That kind of thing. Now and then I had no idea what the game wanted from me, but I never felt stuck for long, because every single tendril of every single area yields another path worth exploring, another few rooms full of nimble, worthy monster combatants, and a little more of the game’s monocurrency, used for precious upgrades. It’s uncompromising, occasionally confusing, definitely not for everyone, and in my estimation, just wonderful.
You’ve got a sword, and you can learn the spin attack and selective deflection from Link to the Past, as well as a lunge-and-trust to augment your also-upgradable dash. By scoring hits on enemies (and/or going all Kylo Ren on destructible scenery), you recharge your guns(s), and there are grenades, as well as an expandable belt of health potions to restore your unexpandable health bar. There’s a hectic, graceful push and pull between melee and ranged fighting, and your healing items have just enough of a delay to make them the calculated risk of an Estus Flask, as opposed to the time-suspending panic button of a Zelda potion.
That’s the whole of your arsenal. The rest is finding inventive ways to use it and new places to push through with your hard-won skill.
The penalty for death in Hyper Light Drifter is at once undeniably fair and astonishingly brutal. Dying means you go back to the entrance of the room where you died, or else the cleared-out end bit of the room before it. But here’s the kicker: If you entered the room where you died with one pip of health and no heals, then you revive with one pip of health and no heals.
You can try exactly that scenario as many times as you like, or you can make an informed decision to go find some more supplies. (Even with full health, it should be noted, you’re never very far from being felled should you get careless or be taken unawares).
Of course, if you’re me, then you’ll always, always keep banging your head against the challenge that killed you, Super Meat Boy style, until at last you prevail—an experience built to sharpen play, and also to mechanically reinforces what little we know about the Drifter, namely that he’s an omnicompotent borderline-precogniscient Zatoichi who is, nonetheless, achingly fragile.
The death mechanic makes longer rooms (and big open areas that you count as single rooms) a little disheartening. Fighting a dozen mechanical spiders for the second or third time en route to a pesky instant-death crusher trap? Not my idea of a great time. Worse, it feels like eons pass during the five to ten seconds that it takes for the dead Drifter to fall, the screen to fade to black, and the Drifter to reappear and get back up and walk to where the action is.
But for the most part, the game’s approach to failure pays dividends, minimizing repeat performances of previously cleared rooms and all but removing the temptation to resource-grind.
It’s a stunning game to see, and equally stunning to hear. I reckon that Disasterpiece has outdone his work on the superlative Fez soundtrack, painting in bigger blocks of ambiance and bolder situational crescendos.
And Hyperlight Drifter shares more with Fez than its ambling minimalist electronica swells and its low-pixel, high detail visuals. It also shares a design sensibility in which OK, there’s the game, and there’s completing it, but then there’s a whole lot more to see and do around and beneath and behind that.
Just as beating Fez once through was in some ways the bare beginning of puzzling out its ciphers and black monoliths, Hyper Light Drifter requires you to collect only a fraction of its plentiful McGuffins in order to face down the final boss and unlock New Game + mode. But you won’t get a single achievement for beating the game’s bosses, including that last one, and that fact seems designed to nudge you toward digging deeper. Now collect all the McGuffins. Use the chain dash move a freakin’ unfeasible number of times without breaking the combo. Die a lot. Try out some tricky techniques while fighting. Find and tame a giant snail.
It’s just one of the innumerable ways in which Hyper Light Drifter wants to draw you in. Even its most frustrating roadblocks and its most flagrant moments of opacity are designed to draw you in—to make you walk away from the game still wandering the map in your head, chewing over what your next move should be and what the whole shebang means.
In that sense, it’s pretty precisely the Zelda 1 descendant that it promised to be, and that I hoped it would be, and that I just can’t shut up about wanting to see more of. If you’re similarly afflicted—and I know that some of you are, because we’ve commiserated—then you owe it to yourself to give this one a serious look.