Each of the game’s four main areas has a distinct style, with different enemies, climates, and secrets to uncover. In the north, a cult of zealous hawks perform sacrifices in their snowy temples under the direction of the magical Hierophant. The great corpse of a fallen Titan leans up against the mountain, its fist clenched even in death. In the canals and lakes of the east, the cruel Hermit directs an army of toads to slaughter innocent villagers, skinning and displaying their corpses in the abandoned city. In the forests of the west, the Hanged Man is slowly being consumed by a crystalline disease as soldiers of the old war fight you in the ruins of an ancient prison.
With the exception of the southern region, which is only unlocked after completing the other three, you can pass through these locals in any order you like. Don’t take this to mean that all the areas are equally difficult, far from it. Some players may find one region far harder than the others because each one has a different style of combat, with different enemies that you need to deal with. In the west, you will have some of the toughest basic enemies in the game, but their attacks are slow and telegraphed. In the north, many of the enemies are fragile, but exceptionally mobile and capable of doing deadly area of effect damage.
Combat is fierce, fast, brutal, and silky smooth. This is not a game where you can mash buttons and then walk out of a field of corpses. To survive Hyper Light Drifter’s unforgiving combat you need to be calculating and precise. Ammo for your guns is limited, and the only way to get more is to hit enemies with your sword. This forces you to be discerning in your style of fighting. You can find yourself wasting all your ammo on grunts, only to be forced to dance around bullets as you close the distance against ranks of gunners.
Successfully surviving the post-apocalyptic world of Hyper Light Drifter requires practice, and understanding your own limits. Use your dash to close the distance or escape, easily outmaneuvering even the speediest of foes. Know the attack patterns of your foes, and when they are most vulnerable. Use the environment to your advantage, luring enemies onto vents of fire, crystalline spike traps, or throwing them off ledges with a precise thrust of your blade. The Drifter is strong, but he is fragile. With only five hitpoints, it doesn’t take many mistakes before you die.
That being said, if you get stuck on any one section, nothing stops you from leaving, heading to another area to fight its foes while you hunt for more golden gearbits and other secrets. These gearbits are hidden away in chests throughout the sprawling maps, and occasionally dropped by enemies in combat. Four gearbits make a coin, which can be given to vendors in the central town for upgrades, such as extra health packs, grenades, or more powerful attacks.
The motives of the vendors and the enemies are as open to interpretation as the Drifter’s, but this only adds to the atmosphere of the game. Despite being the graphics being 16-bit, it is one of the most visually stunning games I have ever played. Everything oozes melancholy, sadness, and violence. Even the sundrenched eastern area feels forlorn and unforgiving, as Disasterpeace’s synth soundtrack sets a haunting stage.
In terms of length, a single playthrough will last you roughly eight hours, assuming you don't spend your time combing through each area to find every lats hidden monolith, key, cape, module, and gearbit. After completing the game, there is also an optional hard mode that restricts you to two hitpoints (which means that all bosses can kill you in a single attack) and prevents you from swapping capes. There is also a boss rush mode, and a survival/horde arena located behind a 12 key door in the central town to extend the game's longevity further.
All of this comes together to create a game that is as unforgiving as it is beautiful, as unforgettable as it is a joy to play. Hyper Light Drifter’s world and story feels immersive and intriguing, even without a single spoken word. At 60 FPS, the combat is some of the smoothest and most rewarding you can find in an indie game. Without a doubt, this is on the short list for best indie game of 2016.