Drowned in a wash of neon undertones, Hyper Light Drifter's pixelated world is shrouded in mystery, offering all but ambiguous illustrations to provide context for its aberrant post-apocalyptic setting. Plagued with a crippling illness you stagger through the nameless archaic wasteland clutching your chest tightly and pausing on occasion to spew blood. You take the role of the titular drifter, a valiant warrior, who's in search of ancient technology that has been long concealed by forgotten civilisations. Brief cutscenes and pictorial accounts from acquaintances are all that are present in the way of the story and there is no initial explanation for your pain, which evokes a looming sense of wonder.
Hyper Light Drifter's undeniably beautiful world is filled with an assortment of picturesque locations that span from its diamond-cluttered ethereal forests to its towering snow smothered peaks. The art is instantly absorbing and appears as a culmination of '80s anime and forgotten 16-bit classics. The spattering of vivid colours on display implements an added sense of identity to its diverse landscape and helps reinforce the sense that you're embarking on a grand adventure. We found ourselves continually pausing just to take in the marvels around us and the experience doubled as a sightseeing tour as well as a solid all-round game.
Famed electronic musician/composer Disasterpeace (Fez) lent has talents to the project creating a subtle yet effective synthesised soundtrack. Its trance-inducing score, whilst rarely springing to the forefront, brings forth a further layer of emotion and adds an unexpected sense of tranquility to the war-torn world. During battle sequences the music's rapid intensity seamlessly transitions from its more subdued moments, creating a fluid experience throughout. Quite simply, it does what a great soundtrack should, providing an added emotional punch without distracting too heavily from gameplay.
At its heart Hyper Light Drifter is a 2D action RPG that leans on an influence of esteemed classics The Legend of Zelda and Diablo. Regularly compared to Dark Souls in the difficulty department, combat sees you battling at close quarters against droves of vicious creatures. By default you can zip out of the path of projectiles, slash foes with your blade, or unleash devastating waves of ammunition. Sword swings and dashes demand careful timing and ammunition is scarce throughout, requiring you to be tactical and vigilant during battles. Its claustrophobic atmosphere and often overwhelming amount of onscreen enemies are also factors that contribute to its infuriating level of difficulty, something that harkens back to the golden days of the NES.
As well as being comparable to Dark Souls, the combat system also reminds us of the recent Doom reboot, as it requires you to use a mix of melee and firepower attacks to replenish your supplies. Boss bottles prove to be the biggest test of your skills and patience, as one minor slip up can result in a fatality. Even after meticulously studying their movement patterns and gaining a substantial amount of practice they can still prove to be challenging as you need to maintain a constant level of precision with your attacks.
Hidden off the main path are golden chips that can be used in exchange for new weapons, abilities and upgrades. These stretch far beyond the typical incremental health and weapon upgrades and have a meaningful impact on combat. For instance, you acquire the ability to deflect oncoming projects with your sword and an augmented dash which makes it easier to skirt out of the path of danger. After overthrowing bosses you'll gain access to a variety of guns that can easily be alternated between during combat. It would have enhanced the experience if there was a range of swords to wield with different stats, as there is such a diverse selection of hand weapons.
Unlike the previously released PC version, local multiplayer is available from the onset here, adding a compelling twist to a genre that is traditionally enjoyed as a one-player experience. By sacrificing a shred of your health, a friend can accompany you on your journey, helping to ease the title's frequent bouts of gruelling difficulty. Co-op can be extremely beneficial during boss encounters as your companion can be used as a scapegoat to divert enemy fire or can work to eliminate smaller groups of respawning foes. A Journey-inspired online mode would have been the icing on the cake, but being able to play with others in any capacity is greatly appreciated.
Even after the credits roll there's a substantial slice of post-game content to sink your teeth into. New game+ sees you returning to the post-apocalyptic playground with all of your accumulated goodies and a limited two bars of health. This concluding mode significantly ramps up the difficulty as just one shot can completely immobilise you. There's also the remaining golden chips that you missed on your first run to hunt down if you're going to be able to secure a complete collection of all of the unlockables.
Standing tall as one of the most visually compelling indies in recent memory, Hyper Light Drifter wears its retro influences proudly on its sleeve whilst also implementing its own character and flair. An exuberant sense of atmosphere, a meaningful string of upgrades, and a challenging but rewarding combat system help to secure the title as one of the finest hidden gems that 2016 has to offer.