When I was a kid I used to play a lot of games that could be classed as “old-school arcade hard”. What I mean by that is that they were unbelievably punishing, and if they were released today, there would arguably be a lot of complaints about their difficulty.

These were games that often lead to either broken controllers, or caused large, “unexplainable” dents in bedroom walls. But somehow I kept going back to them. From the unforgiving stun-locks of Golden Axe, the ‘death pizzas’ of TMNT, to the entirety of Megaman and Battletoads, these old arcade-style games were pretty hard. Hyper Light Drifter let me relive those days of my youth. As I suffered one death after another,  I heard the familiar plastic crunch of the controller  almost breaking under my rage-fueled grip. And I couldn’t have been happier.


Developed by Heart Machine, Hyper Light Drifter is a fantasy action game that takes the concept of “show, don’t tell” to the extreme. There’s no dialogue at all, so players are left to piece together what happened to the game’s world and its protagonist through in-game cutscenes, slideshows from NPC’s, and from generally observing the  environments  you wander through.

For example, there’s one area in which there are thousands of soldiers from two opposing armies encased in crystals, and the remains of gigantic beings are scattered around the landscape. As I made my way through this area, I worked out that there was a war, and one faction had used a powerful weapon to take down the giants. That backfired, and encased everyone on both sides in gigantic crystals. Well, at least that’s what I think happened.

It’s a subtle, almost Dark Souls-esque approach to world building that I really appreciated, as you don’t necessarily need to figure out what went down to enjoy the game, but it’s there if you feel the need to dive deeper into it.

The overall story of the game takes this approach as well, as you won’t really figure out what’s going on until right at the end. Without going into spoiler territory, it ends up having quite a mysterious finale.

The general plot follows a character known as the Drifter, who wakes up in a house after being gravely wounded. From there you have to explore four distinct areas, pull out power cores found in dungeons to unlock new areas, and defeat the bosses. Doing so erects four giant pillars in the central hub town. The player must then defeat the dark, mysterious being that seems to be behind everything.

The areas you explore are all well designed, and there’s some genuinely jaw-dropping vistas  to stumble across. There were several times where I just stood and admired the scenery for a few minutes grabbing a quick screen cap for my desktop background before moving on.


It reminded me of the times my brother and I would go to the arcade and play side-scrolling action games . We’d both go nuts over some of the more detailed backgrounds, like that lift sequence in Final Fight where you can watch the cityscape in the background as you wail on a bunch of street thugs.

Combat is fairly simple in Hyper Light Drifter.It’s a one-button-combo system — you can only attack with ‘X’. But you are given the ability to dash in short bursts, so if you’re quick enough, you can avoid most attacks. You also have a gun that’s good for taking out ranged enemies, and a small bomb that’s handy for sorting out groups.

As you progress through the game you can unlock extra abilities like charged attacks and the ability to chain dashes together, although they’re  fueled by a stamina bar that depletes pretty quickly. Plus, you can’t really soak up a ton of damage, so you will die, and quite often.

Because of these systems, a lot of the battles in Hyper Light Drifter almost boil down to the style of a fighting game. You need to manage your meters, deal damage as you dash in, and then dash back out before you take too many hits yourself.


The combat is where the game’s ‘old-school arcade’ feel really starts to hit home, as you’re often outnumbered and have to pay constant attention to a screen filled with projectiles and enemies that charge at you. This will often lead to some pretty frustrating deaths. In fact, there were a few times where I found myself yelling out loud “what the hell just hit me?!” after dying yet again.

Some of the later boss battles really kicked my ass as well as they have almost no cool-down time between attacks, and they’ll run a train over you if you’re not quick on the dash button. This isn’t even a negative feature of the game; it’s actually a pretty refreshing approach to boss fights. In Hyper Light Drifter you have to sit tight, be patient, and pay attention to the  boss’s attack pattern to find that one moment they’re vulnerable, instead of looking for the big obvious glowing weakness that some modern action games use.

Although I did get incredibly annoyed at times, especially with that last boss battle, I enjoyed every minute I spent with Hyper Light Drifter.

Sure, it’s a hard game, but it got me feeling incredibly nostalgic for all those difficult games I played as a kid, the ones that had me yelling in frustration, swearing constantly, and breaking many, many controllers. It made the eventual victory in each of the various levels and boss fights all the more rewarding as it had taken some semblance of skill to actually beat them, instead of just slashing away with a big sword.

Each little victory was a burst of energy that kept pushing me ever forward, until I eventually beat it. And boy, was it a surge of endorphins when I saw those end credits roll. It was like a long, arduous journey was finally over, and I had emerged the victor. In fact I was almost ready for round two, but I had to calm down and write this review.


Hyper Light Drifter is by no means an easy game, but it is a fun one. It revisits a time when arcade games would happily take your pennies, kick your ass into next week, and you’d still come back for more every time.

If you’re a bit of a masochist when it comes to punishing video games, or you’re looking for a real challenge, then I thoroughly recommend picking up Hyper Light Drifter. You will have a hard time, and it will curb stomp you every chance it gets, but you’ll love every second of it, just as I did.