In an insane breach of tradition and etiquette, Friday night was not spent playing Overwatch. It usually takes me until Saturday night - after a week of not playing video games - to get back in the zone and start carrying games and scoring sweet PotGs, or at least getting all the medals and cards. Putting in time on Friday night to dial it in is always an important consideration - not to mention the fact that I spend all week looking forward to actually getting some time to play video games. I am getting very good at waving after Pulse Bombing Bastions, but for some reason, what I did was play through Hyper Light Drifter in its entirety.
Maybe it's that I'm not as enchanted by Enter the Gungeon on Switch as I'd anticipated. I've played and loved twin-stick shooters on my Vita, and Vita is where I've wanted to play Gungeon since its announcement, and - given the Vita version's lack of, y'know, existence - the Switch version was very high on my list.
But that fucking right analog stick, man. That fucking right stick. I would gladly pay $40 for a right-side joycon that actually mirrors the button and joystick positions on the left 'con. I would gladly pay $150 for a pair of Joycons that are effectively two halves of a Dualshock 4, or any modern controller. It's just not comfortable enough, and I'm not able to control the game as comfortably as I could on my PS4.
Hateful design. Hateuful.
And as I'm playing Gungeon on Switch and enjoying the expressive, fanciful pixel art, I'm thinking about the idea of having Hyper Light Drifter on a handheld (Hyper Light Drifter, thankfully, does not utilize the right analog stick). It's just the left stick, shoulder buttons and face buttons, and it's so beautiful...
I docked points off HLD pretty hard come Game of the Year time in 2016 because Heart Machine abandoned the Vita version - it still stings, and I'm still angry about it - but replaying it this weekend... it's so lovely. It's a modern classic, to me - up there with all-time great action-adventure games like Okami, Darksiders, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Guacamelee. I find I'd sooner replay Hyper Light Drifter than the brand-new release of Okami for PS4 (one of my favorite games of all time), and, yes, on Friday night I found I'd rather play Hyper Light Drifter than Overwatch.
Which boggles the mind.
I blitzed it, on that playthrough - just hacked-and-slashed my way through the north, east and southern regions, and was amazed by how quickly I tore through the south and found myself back at down, ready to open the final lock and descend to face the big bad. I was surprised how few tries it took to take him down, and then, oop, all done.
I've never done a "full completion" run of the game. I've probably played through it a half-dozen times, but I never found all the obelisks, never got all the keys, or all the outfits.
Okay, I'll never get all the outfits - one of them requires you to chain-dash 800 times in the practice room, which is as dumb as that one star in Braid you have to sit on a cloud for nintety minutes to get - but for the most part, Hyper Light Drifter is one of those special titles where the moment-to-moment gameplay is just delectable. Constantly.
It's kind of a shame that some of the game's most meaningful abilities are locked behind its (beautifully open) progression - I suppose you don't need the ability to deflect enemy projectiles, but it sure makes fighting the ninja-star throwing frogs in the eastern area a lot more fun. And you don't really need the charged swing to beat any boss, but it sure is empowering - I guess what's a shame is that I'm always salivating over the above, but the chain-dash is an absolute necessity for defeating any of the bosses (and many puzzles), and absolutely must be your first upgrade.
It's a shame that I have to delay the sweet thrill of sending a man-sized throwing star back at an anthropomorphic ninja frog with a perfectly-timed slash of my hard-light blade, I mean. I love doing that.
It's got those lovely combat animations where if you don't hit the button again and continue the combo, they stand there for a beautiful moment at the end of the slash, their body hunched over at the end of the swing, their cape billowing out behind them, the blade held still - just to look that much cooler as a gang of enemies collapse at their feet.
There isn't a word of dialogue in the entire game. There isn't a manual, there isn't a brief synopsis of who the Drifter is and why they're doing this - you understand what you will about the Drifter and their world solely through the act of playing, and absorbing what you can through the environment, and what other characters tell you.
When you speak with a character, they don't speak - they may, at best, present you with a speech bubble that contains an image of their tale. You'll find a bird-man up in the mountains who fled the burning of his city at the hands of a splinter group of religious fanatics, stealing away to his hidden home on the cliffs with his wings full of a few precious eggs.
You meet another Drifter, and he too speaks in images. He, too, saw the white-light cube that was in your vision at the start of the game. He, too, was set upon by a creature of darkness, blazing with a sickly pink light - just like the one that appears to you and slaughters you whenever you make serious headway in the game.
What is the pink light, and the darkness it fuels? Why did the weasel people of the east have so much of that evil fuchsia color flowing in the labs beneath their idyllic gardens and pools?
None of this is explained. It's up to you to feel. The black dog who leads you on feels like something divine, but you can't be sure it's actually good in the strictest sense... I'm just sure it needs my help, and I'm sure it's not worse than the darkness, and the pink light. I'm sure that darkness is in me. And I'm sure it's killing me.
But the Black Dog won't let me die. Not until I've finished what it needs me to do.
This is all inferred, of course. Guessed at. Apparently if you find all the obelisks, you learn the true story of the past - the technology that allowed the ancients to imprison the divine dog, that powered their world - and yes, it's a bit striking to me that Hyper Light Drifter did the ancient-technology-as-magic thing before Horizon: Zero Dawn. ...but I've never found all the obelisks.
I think I will, though. I'm two-thirds of the way through another playthrough - started almost immediately after Friday's - and I'm trying to get everything. I've got all of the power triangles in the North and the East, but I've missed two Keys somewhere...
But it's not the beautiful, silent, environmental storytelling that keeps me playing this game. It's not the open progression or the sweet animations (okay, well, the sweet animations play a big part) - it's just simply and plainly how it plays.
|The drifter deflects one of The Hanged Man's projectiles back at him. It's a handy upgrade!|
And that's not just the combat. The combat is, obviously, a huge part of it. Like a Souls game, button mashing is the shortcut to failure in Hyper Light Drifter - each slash requires commitment, and limits what you can do in the half-second after - if that slash didn't just connect with and perhaps stun the three enemies surrounding you, it was a mistake. The quick dashes, the charged swing, the deflections, the various guns, the attacking dash - they're all hugely important and empowering, and mastering these (relatively) simple abilities and how they can overcome the game's adversaries is incredibly satisfying (and great-looking), but - again - it's not just the combat.
It's the whole rewarding exploratory adventure of it. Picking your way through ancient ruins - the corpse of a forgotten culture - you zip across disappearing platforms in hazy streaks of neon light, solve a quick platforming puzzle and are immediately set upon by a few vicious spear-wielding Raccoon-man soldiers, and a Hard Crystal Golem, besides. With careful evasion and vicious aggression, you obliterate them with all the style and panache of a Jedi Knight, and in the ensuing silence, you gaze around the room.
That health pack will come in handy, but no, what we're looking for is - ah, there!
A tiny glyph, on the floor by the far wall. You'd never see it, if you weren't looking for it - but the Drifter looks. You look, because you know there are secrets all around, for those willing to see them. And you walk up to the wall... and you walk through the wall, and find yourself trudging across centuries of dust in an ancient, undisturbed room. Here, finally, are one or two of those golden chits that I can finally use to unlock that precious projectile deflection, and here, a corpse still smoldering with the black sickness that has infected me, and my fellow Drifter.
That doesn't bode well. The corpse holds a key.
...I wonder what it opens..?
Hyper Light Drifter has this loop down pat. Exploring a beautiful, sad, lively, colorful world - and meaningful, rewarding exploration you really want to do - and getting into awesome, challenging, gorgeous, stylish-as-fuck lightsaber fights with crazy monsters on the way.
This is as close to Heaven as gaming gets. I wish it were five times bigger than it was, but if it were, perhaps repeat playthroughs back-to-back wouldn't be as absolutely delicious as I find them to be.