Two years on from its original release, Hyper Light Drifter might not feel quite as unique in both its art style and the relentless difficulty of its combat - especially in the company of Dead Cells and so many other pixel art indies - but that doesn’t mean this acclaimed hack ‘n’ slash odyssey has lost any of its potency. And with its new Special Edition, Switch owners will have access to exclusive items and weapons that will make what can be a merciless experience far more palatable.
All this talk of ‘relentless difficulty’ and ‘merciless experience’ might sound like we’re going to liken it to Dark Souls, and you’d be right, but the comparison is more than just a cliched reference. Hyper Light Drifter's connection to FromSoftware’s seminal series covers more than just its simple yet punishing combat model. It extends to the non-linear nature of its game world, full of obscurely hidden paths, shortcuts and hidden areas. It’s a world full of danger, make no mistake, but you can tackle these challenges as and how you see fit thanks to the open nature of its map.
And what a world it is. Running at a smooth 60fps in both handheld mode and docked, Hyper Light Drifter isn’t just another port of a popular indie game, but the definitive version on the platform it best suits. With both the PS Vita and Wii U versions having fallen through in recent years, you only need to play this iteration for five minutes to appreciate just how perfectly Heart Machine’s labour of love suits Nintendo’s portable console. Its neon-coloured pixel art world - a setting rich with colour but marked by a terrible tragedy that informs everything from character design to the aesthetics of its large and varied map - is a joy to explore, even if you will die ad infinitum in your first few hours.
It’s painful, but it’s part of Hyper Light Drifter's strict learning curve. You can dash with ‘B’ and slash your sword with ‘Y’, and soon after you start you’ll unlock a pistol you can fire off with ‘RZ’. Your dash can help you flit across gaps and provide a means of dodging enemy attacks, but most of the foes you’ll meet are fast too, so you’ll need to learn to master the speed and distance of this life-saving move. With a roster of enemies that grows with every new part of the isometric world you explore, you’re constantly learning to take down a new enemy or group of foes.
A nice touch is that your gun only has a limited number of shots, and the only way to reload it is to slash enemies with your sword or use certain elements in the environment; a clever distinction that completely removes the ability to pull back to a safe distance and grief enemies. It’s a model that demands you commit to offence consistently in order to have a full arsenal, and - once you’ve mastered it - you’ll be dodging one second, unleashing a salvo of shots the next then swooping in for the final hit with a swing of your blade.
The combat model doesn’t suffer fools (or noobs) gladly, although the Special Edition does benefit from years of careful calibration by Heart Machine in order to find the right balance between brutally difficult mechanics and just the right amount of reprieve. However, to make the game that little bit more appetising to newcomers, the Switch version comes with a handful of exclusive items. The Blade Caster and the Crystal Shot offer an engaging new spin to combat, with the former offering two blades that can be thrown, while the latter can freeze enemies in place for a quick dash and slash.
You’ll have to battle through the game’s new Tower Climb challenge to unlock them, so a certain amount of investment’s going to be needed to claim these new weapons. There’s even a new outfit that helps locate some of Hyper Light Drifter's more obscure collectables, make it easier to find resources to upgrade your gear. Since it’s just an outfit, more experienced players can just opt for other threads if the concealed nature of Hyper Light Drifter's secret bounty holds a special place in your heart.
Complementing that neon-drenched visual splendour is Disasterpeace’s illustrious and haunting score, with its sweeping almost sinister doom-synth flourishes making it reminiscent of Vangelis’ seminal soundtrack to Blade Runner. It’s a throwback that just adds to Hyper Light Drifter's air of mystique, and even two years on from release and multiple playthroughs on myriad systems, it’s still a goosebump-inducing experience that helps pull together its combat, world and obtuse storytelling into a memorable package.
If there’s an issue that can be laid at Hyper Light Drifter's feet, it’s one that’s inherent to the way in which its story is presented. The game does a wonderful job of creating an instantly captivating world from the off, with its clever use of cutscenes and dialogue that use only pictures to communicate an NPC’s backstory or the nature of an impending challenge. It’s an abstract approach that seeds a palpable sense of mystery in its first few hours, but considering you have to travel far from the beaten path to uncover anything approaching lore, you’re never truly given the narrative payoff such an intriguing world deserves.
Hyper Light Drifter: Special Edition finally puts Heart Machine’s obtuse yet engaging throwback where it belongs - in portable Nintendo form - and it makes for the definitive version. With a handful of exclusive features, a two-year-old game suddenly feels new and fresh - and with a silky smooth frame rate and every boss, secret and upgrade from the original here for you to experience, the Nintendo Switch’s indie library just got even better.