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‘Hyper Light Drifter’ Review – Neon Coloured Carnage

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Inspired by The Legend of Zelda: A Link to The Past and other SNES classics, Alex Preston and his crew over at Heart Machine set out to create an experience that harkens back to an era of gaming long past. Their creation, titled Hyper Light Drifter, both looks and feels the part, but does it have the staying power to cleave through the dozens of other retro-inspired games popping up at every turn?

Hyper Light Drifter wastes no time hooking its audience, as the game opens with a truly stunning cutscene, using its pixelated art style to create a spectacle the likes of which I’ve never seen before. We’re presented with a world in flux; we see the rise and fall of titan-like creatures, and we see our protagonist seemingly fail to reach his salvation. The graphical fidelity carries over from the opening into the moment-to-moment gameplay, successfully creating a myriad of memorable sights to behold. The pixelated renaissance began years ago with the rise of the indie game, and while Hyper Light Drifter may not look as sharp as Titan Souls or be as visceral as Hotline Miami, it carves out its own visual identity through its neon-infused color palate, and its assortment of unique enemies. The pixelated style is timeless, and Hyper Light Drifter does a fantastic job implementing it, but it isn’t flawless in its execution. The game occasionally does a poor job accentuating its depth of field. It’s jarring to bring such a fast-paced game to a grinding halt because the player can’t figure out why they’re unable to maneuver a certain way, only to realize a second later that the area they are trying to dash to is actually elevated and thus inaccessible. Often times I would find myself staring at an object and wondering if it was meant to be above, below, or even with my current level of elevation. While far from a game-breaker, I can’t help but feel the game could of made better use of shading and shadows to correct any issues with depth perception.

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The game’s opening is not only captivating because of its visual flare, but also due to its intentionally cryptic depiction of events. Hyper Light Drifter is a non-verbal experience, and outside of a few sentences that appear onscreen during the game’s short tutorial section, there is no English to be seen or heard. Many players may find themselves blasting through the game and not finding very much of a story, but it’s there, and it’s thought provoking. Rather than shoving their narrative down the player’s throat, Heart Machine carefully tells their story through poignant use of imagery. A quick glance at the game will more than likely give off the impression that Hyper Light Drifter is a jolly experience akin to Shovel Knight, but beneath its beautifully colored exterior is a grim world filled with death and suffering. As you traverse the game’s world you’ll meet citizens living in fear, and you’ll see things like bloated corpses floating in the water and piles dead bodies stacked uncomfortably high. There are several NPCs you can interact with, but rather than exchanging words, they present the player with images which give context and back-story the game’s world and how it got to its current state. It seems Heart Machine took a peek at FromSoftware’s notebook, and they do a admirable job of creating an alluring world with its lore stashed away, waiting for inquisitive players to seek it out if they intend to decipher everything the game has to tell. It isn’t the most detailed plot, and it leaves quite a bit up to personal interpretation, but there’s enough there to create a memorable experience.

Further emphasizing the game’s ominous tone is its fantastic soundtrack, which features several somber and melancholic tracks that perfectly fit with the imagery being depicted onscreen. For years gamers have been taught that bleak environments must be filled with grays and browns, but Hyper Light Drifter dismisses that idea, presenting a grim world filled with neon pinks and blues, and drapes it all with fantastic music that will stop you in your tracks to not only appreciate the audio itself, but also to reflect upon the beauty and destruction that surrounds you.

Once you get past the intro and the tutorial, you’ll find yourself in the game’s hub, which is a town at the center of the world. The game doesn’t give you any sort of direction, instead you must forge your own path. Hyper Light Drifter features a somewhat open-ended design; there are four areas for the player to conquer, but one of them is locked until the other three have been cleared. The North, East, and West zones can be tackled in any order, and while each zone features different trials via different enemy types, all four of the zones are pretty balanced in terms of the challenge they present.

Speaking of challenge, Hyper Light Drifter is not afraid to throw difficulty at the player very early, and very often. Enemies are unforgiving, and it’s more than likely that you’ll end up dying at least a couple dozen times throughout your journey. Each time you die you’ll respawn at the previous check-point, and any progress you made after said checkpoint will be reverted, meaning enemies will respawn and you’ll need to re-collect any items you may have found. By no means does the game qualify as extremely unforgiving, but the difficulty in Hyper Light Drifter is a nice nod to an era when games in general were more difficult, and gamers who enjoy a challenge will certainly appreciate the level of dedication that the game demands of you.

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Right from the get-go you’ll be equipped with a sword for melee attacks, and a gun for ranged assault. Hyper Light Drifter is not a button mashing extravaganza, but instead the game demands agility and timing. Your character lacks any sort of verticality, so you won’t be jumping around, but you can dash to close gaps or create space between you and your opponents. It’s imperative that you observe your enemy, and strike at the opportune time. Getting locked in a room with a dozen enemies and dashing in and out, weaving both melee and ranged attacks together while simultaneously dodging in-between enemy attacks is extremely satisfying. And when you do die, you’ll more than likely feel that it was due to a tactical mistake on your end rather than unfair game design.

The icing on the cake when it comes to the combat has how beautifully everything animated. Attacks carry weight to them, and combat both looks and feels great. One cannot help but feel inspired when seeing such in-depth work come from such a small and independent development studio. For example, there’s a heavy attack in the game, which when used to kill enemies will activate special death animations, such as cleaving enemies in half or decapitating them. This might seem like a simple addition, but creating multiple death animations for practically every monster in the game is a testament to how much care went into this project.

When not dashing around in combat, you’ll find yourself dashing around the environments looking for hidden rooms and collectable items, of which there are many. Hyper Light Drifter does not make it immediately clear how exactly you make progress in the game, and without spoiling anything, lets’ just say you’re going to be collecting stuff. The most basic items which are needed for progression are easily found, but Heart Machine put in plenty of completely optional content for treasure seekers. There’s currency littered all over the place, which can be used to buy various types of upgrades, none of which are needed to beat the game, but there are several great skills you can learn, like the aforementioned heavy attack. There are also cosmetic items and special weapons to be found, but perhaps the game’s most interesting optional side content is a series of hidden monoliths, each etched with seemingly incomprehensible lettering. There are already groups of intelligent folks on the game’s Steam community page deciphering Heart Machine’s made-up dialect, in hopes of revealing more of the game’s story. For those inclined to collect everything, keep in mind that there is a heavy incentive on back-tracking, and you may want to takes notes or screenshots when you find an area that you know you’ll want to revisit later, because unfortunately the game’s map is more confusing than helpful.

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To answer the question posed at the beginning of this review: Yes, Hyper Light Drifter undoubtedly stands tall amongst its competition, as not only one of the best retro-inspired indie games to date, but simply one of the better overall indie games I’ve had the pleasure of playing. The game is well worth the price of admission for fans of the action genre, players who enjoy challenging combat and exploration, and especially those who want a game that harkens back to the SNES days but also features some new-age flare.

  • Matt De Azevedo

 

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Game Reviews

‘House of Golf’ is No Hole-In-One, But it is Below Par

‘House of Golf’ may feel appropriate for Switch, but a lack of variety and reused content make this course nearly reach above par.

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Perhaps adding the word “mini” to the title would have been far more appropriate regarding the in-game circumstances of Atomicom’s newest family arcade sports styled game House of Golf. In the slew of golf games currently available on the Nintendo Switch, House of Golf may feel the most appropriate for the console’s capabilities due to its key focus on simplicity, portability, and accessibility, but a lack of diversity in individual hole design and reused content nearly makes this humdrum course reaching above par.

Simplicity is a key focus within House of Golf’s core mechanics. Controls, menus, and even gameplay are as simple as video games can get. The left analog stick operates the camera and holding down the A button fires your ball with a distinct power meter located on the right-hand side of the screen. Your goal is to attempt to achieve a hole-in-one or stay below a par number that changes depending on course and difficulty- just like regular golf, mini-golf, or any form of golf you can imagine. It never gets more complicated than that.

House of Golf may claim that its selling point is that it contains over 130 different holes divided into 5 different environments- or rather rooms- and 3 difficulties, but variety becomes bland after less than an hour of playtime. Despite there being five different environments, after completing one course on either the medium or hard difficulty setting, you practically have experienced all there is to do. Courses always remain compact and easy to navigate, but the game never gets challenging or adds some sort of flair that allows each hole to stand out from one another. It is a shame considering that the fluid gameplay foundation the courses are built on might just be the most tightly controlled golf game available on Switch.

As the title of the game implies, every course is designed around the interior aesthetics of a house- a rather small one at that as the game chooses to focus on table-top scenarios- quite literally. Each hole is rapid-fire short and manages to achieve a miniature sense of scale. They are stylized well but the game often reuses assets for each room despite the settings being entirely different. The atmospheres themselves manage to create a comfy aesthetic for each hole that only adds more cheerful feelings to the laid-back easy-going gameplay on top of a soundtrack that is extremely mellow yet quaint, but when you are on a nine-hole course that never completely changes that atmosphere can become tiresome.

What initially seems like House of Golf’s greatest strength though is being able to choose any environment, hole, and difficulty directly from the get-go, but this feature quickly takes the game south rather unintentionally. As soon as you open up the game, players can accommodate to their own personal skill level leaving the vast majority of them to skip more than a third of the levels. With no learning curve or incentive to play the game on its lowest difficulties, House of Golf rapidly begins to dwindle in new content.

When it comes to the ranking system, it is designed exactly like a traditional mini-golf game where your goal is to achieve a set number of strokes that will keep you above par. Stars will be awarded to players based on performance- a hole-in-one obviously being the highest gold star rank a player can achieve and a triple-bogey being the lowest. These stars, however, only unlock one feature: golf ball designs.

Extra unlockable golf ball designs are the only in-game rewards to collect throughout the game- and it is nothing to look forward to or worthwhile to commit to. They are charming to gander at for more then a couple of seconds, but they serve no real purpose in the long run- not even when it comes to the multiplayer. Rather then these rewards being applied to each individual player’s ball, House of Golf does not allow players to choose what golf ball design they wish to use. For some ridiculous reason, whatever player one chooses is applied to every golf ball.

Speaking of, while the singleplayer can be rather tiresome, House of Golf’s one notable addition that might just keep you on the course for longer than a few hours is the inclusion of a local multiplayer ranging from two to six players. Multiplayer presents a higher-stakes challenge for each course, which makes gameplay not only far more satisfying to win at but overall entertaining to play. Due to the compact course designs, often you can mess with your friend’s positions and overthrow the score of each hole. Multiplayer was clearly the go-to way to play as it is the first option that appears on the main menu.

One thing that should be noted is that only one joy-con is required for everyone to play as there is no other option to use multiple controllers- a convenient addition that you have to wonder why more games do not have it on the Nintendo Switch. It is by far the game’s most redeeming quality that absolutely deserves mentioning. For a game where one player controls the field at a time, this streamlines a lot of issues outside even that of the game itself.

It is no hole-in-one to ride home about, but Atomicom has managed to create an arcade-style sports game that is a mix of both simplistically relaxing and mildly infuriating. In its final state, the lackluster courses can make this one turn into a quick bore, but adding a few friends to the multiplayer scene can turn House of Golf into a few delightful hours. At its retail price of ten dollars, any Switch owner planning on picking up House of Golf should wait for it to land in a sale target-hole. It is not bad by any means, but there are better places to look to fill your golf fix, especially those looking for a single-player experience. For a cheap alternative, however, it might just be worth it for the multiplayer alone.

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

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There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

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By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

Earthnight is an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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