Hands-On Preview: Hyper Light Drifter (Switch)

The definitive take on a modern classic is coming to Nintendo’s hybrid console!

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 06/07/2018 12:15 Comment on this     ShareThis

Full disclosure: I’ve been refusing to play Hyper Light Drifter until it launched on a Nintendo platform. Sometimes games are announced that I know will put their best foot forward once they’ve made the transition to the House of Mario. Hyper Light Drifter is one of those games, so I responded with more than a little excitement when I got the call from Abylight Studios to come and try it running on Nintendo Switch.

It was a cold, blustery walk from the Powell Street BART station in downtown San Francisco to the developer’s office suite, where I was greeted warmly by Eva Gaspar and Miguel Corchero of Abylight Studios. They ushered me over to a squishy couch and gave me a Switch with which to begin playing. From the opening to the moment they had to pry the system from my hands, I was hooked.

For the uninitiated, Hyper Light Drifter is an adventure game. Developed by Heart Machine back in 2016, it was crowdfunded to great success, transforming the project from a PC-only affair to a multiplatform effort. Lead developer Alex Preston created Hyper Light Drifter as an homage to software from the 8- and 16-bit eras, likening it to a mixture of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Diablo.

It’s an astute comparison. The action takes place from overhead, where the nominal drifter (I was told the character has no official name, which we’ll get to in a bit) slashes and shoots his way through the game world. While Zelda has a clear influence on Hyper Light Drifter‘s mechanics, the Diablo element comes in the form of loot that can be found throughout the game.

I was taken instantly by how gorgeous Hyper Light Drifter is. The game employs the sort of pixelated aesthetics that so many retro-themed titles embrace these days, but please understand that this is a masterclass of how to do pixel graphics without being mired in simplicity. The colors are like bolts of electricity radiating across the screen. The music is ethereal, deep, and loaded with bass, reminiscent of the movie Blade Runner‘s score; it perfectly complimented the gameplay and underscored the tone.

Drifter’s journey through a post-apocalyptic wasteland is mesmerizing. I was told by Corchero that the game will run at 60fps both docked and undocked, and what I saw confirms this. Everything ran silky smooth without any slowdown I can speak of. The port of Hyper Light Drifter on Switch has been a long time coming, but if the build I played is any indication, it’s because of the design team’s dedication to make this the definitive iteration of the game.

Besides performance optimization, one of the other ways the team is hoping to achieve this is in the form of Switch-exclusive content. Gaspar and Corchero were both adamant that the content will not be hitting any other platform than Switch, meaning even those who played the game on other consoles will find something new with this version. One of the new additions that I got to go hands-on with was a double-ended sword that acted as both a melee weapon and projectile.

It’s a testament to Hyper Light Drifter‘s combat that it’s simultaneously simple and nuanced. Like Zelda, simple taps of the attack button activate the drifter’s sword swings, while the shoulder buttons initiate his projectiles. In an interesting design choice, drifter’s guns and throws are all charged by his melee attacks. There’s no ammo to scrounge for, instead tasking players with alternating between attack types to get more shots and lobs. Battles were frenzied, hectic, and challenging, and I loved every minute of them. I definitely died a bunch, but as I became more acclimated to the particulars of Hyper Light Drifter‘s combat, I found myself wanting more and more to run into enemies to take down and perfect my fighting skills.

As I “oohed” and “ahhed” at Hyper Light Drifter, Gaspar and Corchero were both very excited as they regaled me with what Hyper Light Drifter on Switch represents. Technical limitations caused both the Wii U and PlayStation Vita ports to be cancelled, and even on Switch, which is relatively underpowered compared to competitors PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, it was quite a challenge to get the game running. Still, it was a challenge that the team at Abylight Studios believed was worth undertaking, pushing themselves to grapple with Switch’s limitations and still produce a version of Hyper Light Drifter every bit as impressive as any other version of the title.

Corchero and Gaspar both pointed to Switch’s nature as a dual home/handheld console as a major boon, as well as the exclusive content that they were very mum about. Gaspar was insistent that part of the appeal of this material will be in the surprise it brings, but she was willing to confirm that a new area is definitely one of the things that players can look forward to. I asked if Hyper Light Drifter will be coming physically when it launches, but was told that, for now, it’s an eShop exclusive… but that can change depending on how much of a hit the game ends up becoming. With what I’ve seen, Hyper Light Drifter deserves to be a hit and then some. This is the sort of game that really ups the ante for other development teams.

One example of this is the use of symbols and imagery in lieu of written dialogue. The original intent of this was to mimic the way many older games lacked written dialogue, but as a side benefit it means that Hyper Light Drifter is able to avoid the pratfalls of localization. Virtually anyone can pick-up Hyper Light Drifter and understand what’s happening without having to read a single line. There’s a universality to both the content and the concept of this game that’s unlike many other titles that I’ve played over the years. Nothing and no one is named, although Corchero noted that fans have been translating the symbols/runes in Hyper Light Drifter to surprising success.

Hyper Light Drifter is slated for launch this summer. When it finally does release, I’ll be one of many other eager Nintendo fans ready to give it a play. While Hyper Light Drifter does pull from concepts in other titles like Zelda and Dark Souls, it is also very much its own experience. I’m an advocate of video games as art, and Hyper Light Drifter is a prime example of why I feel the way that I do about the topic.

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