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.
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.
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.
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
‘The Touryst’ Review: Vacation, All I Ever Wanted
There’s an acceptance of a certain rhythm when traveling alone: often an itinerary-less trip will be filled with quiet solitude and uneventful meandering; yet, when those exciting moments of interaction and discovery are inevitably stumbled upon, they tend to be of the highly memorable variety. The latest offering from Shin’en Multimedia, The Touryst, shrewdly captures this relaxing, energizing roller coaster. It’s a quirky little getaway that encourages players to explore its gorgeous voxel island delights at their own pace, letting them bask in the peaceful surroundings and doling out treasure for those curious to seek it out. The result is a soothing weekend sojourn of puzzles, platforming, and mini games under the sun that is also winds up as one of the best indies on the Switch.
There’s no doubt that atmosphere plays a big part in what makes The Touryst so successful, as the vague setup and sparse narrative casts a mysterious aura over the proceedings. Who our mustachioed vacationer is or why he agrees to find glowing blue orbs for some random old man is pretty much left to the imagination. Is the player curious about what they could see and find out there among the green palm trees, sandy beaches, monolithic temples, and sky blue waters? Then they will follow their nose regardless of the lack of any story motivation, and The Touryst has sprung its trap. The urge to see the sights and have an adventure is a must here, and so the wandering begins.
Luckily, The Touryst is filled with charming things to stumble upon around almost every corner, be that a scuba diving boat operator on a Greek isle that facilitates swimming with the fishes, a seaside dance party in need of a hi-tech energy boost, or a bustling business center complete with an arcade, art gallery, and movie theater (for those times when you just need to sit down for a while). Personality abounds, as long as friendly players aren’t shy about talking to strangers (the best way to get the most out of a trip to a new place). No matter where one’s feet take them, there are plenty of mini-stories at play thanks to the native inhabitants and fellow tourists, with these weirdos offering interactions both puzzling and profitable.
But there’s more to life than racking up coins via side quests; there’s something eerily odd buried beneath the tropical destinations of The Touryst that beckons to be uncovered by just the right explorer. Towering mounds filled with ancient devices and clever puzzles hold secrets that promise that this vacation will be one for the scrapbook. These short ‘dungeons’ are the meat of the game, providing a variety of platforming and logic challenges that range from overt to opaque; sometimes even finding the way in to these ominous structures is a puzzle in itself, which only further drives an overarching sense of discovery.
Smartly, The Touryst rarely telegraphs solutions to its tests (or in some cases, that there even is a test), and instead encourages experimentation. Inside temples, players need to determine why certain lights are glowing and others aren’t, understand how sequences work, pay attention to rumbling feedback, and decide just how to deal with once-dormant mechanical creatures that now awaken to stand in the protagonist’s way. Things can seem opaque at times, but Shin’en has managed to hit that sweet spot that keeps poking around from getting too frustrating. But just in case, there are plenty of beach chairs and cabana beds to lie down on and think. Or, just soak in some rays and enjoy the scenery.
Regardless of the difficulty players may or may not have with the crafty puzzles or surprisingly challenging mini games (good lord, surfing and those 8-bit arcade throwbacks can be tough), The Touryst is still a sight to see. Shin’en has created a buttery smooth island-hopping environment that is a pleasure to peruse. Go off the beaten path and enjoy the gorgeous sunsets, gently pixelated waves, crunching grains of sand, and flopping flora. The visuals seem so simple, yet at times can be stunning to behold, especially when spotting some of the smaller details that have been added to make these place come alive. A depth of field style entices players to see just what that blurry landmark off in distance is, and the soundtrack seamlessly shifts between relaxing and intriguingly uncanny. That developers have achieved this with what are surely the shortest load times on Nintendo’s console makes the experience all the more immersive.
Like most vacations, The Touryst is destined to be over too soon for some players, but trips like these aren’t meant to last forever. The five hours or so it takes to see all there is to see is highly satisfying throughout, and the vague hint at the end of a followup will have many Switch-owning puzzle fans looking forward to getting future time off.
‘Shovel Knight: King of Cards’ and ‘Showdown’ Review: Really Spoiling Us
It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise.
It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday season, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with, not just one, but two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise. Not content with just releasing another new character’s twist on the original formula, Yacht Club has also developed their own fighting game in the Shovel Knight universe. It’s to the developer’s credit that two simultaneous releases can be of this quality, but valid questions can also be asked as to whether the original formula has gotten stale, and whether Showdown’s new concept does the series justice. Fear not, for both questions will be answered in this bumper, two-for-one review!
Shovel Knight: King of Cards
King of Cards is the latest re-tread of Shovel Knight, and this time the emperor’s new clothes are the regal duds of King Knight, who is on a quest to become the greatest player in the kingdom of the card game Joustus… without really having to beat that many people at it. After the stoically heroic Shovel Knight, the dastardly cunning Plague Knight, and the broodingly enigmatic Spectre Knight, King of Cards’ protagonist embodies an enjoyable dose of pompous entitlement. His quest isn’t all that noble, and he really can’t be bothered to do a lot of hard graft to reach his goal. Thanks to the typically witty script, King Knight shines as a loathsome oik who doesn’t pay attention to any advice he’s given, and would rather have a fight, or cheat, than actually get better at Joustus.
Joustus might not really be all that important to King Knight, but it adds an entirely new element to the traditional Shovel Kinght gameplay. Those players who are a sucker for built-in card games (myself included) will find a lot to enjoy when stepping away from all the platforming and fighting to engage in a round of Joustus. The game is played by placing cards, one at a time, onto a grid with the goal of having more of your cards placed on top of gems than your opponent.
All cards contain abilities and can be used to shove opposing cards out of the way (and off the gems), with advanced cards used to blow up, slam or recruit those of the other player. It all starts off simple enough, but can get really brain-taxing as the story progresses, and grows to be a real highlight of the game – and one of the better card-games-within-a-game I’ve played. Cheat cards can be bought to give you a leg up for trickier opponents, especially as the winner of each game gets to take one (or three if you control all gems at the end of the round) card from the loser.
Outside of Joustus, King of Cards will feel pleasingly familiar to fans of the series. As in previous entries, the levels all share the same look and gimmicks as the original Shovel Knight, but are reshaped to adapt to the new abilities of King Knight. He has a shoulder barge attack that launches him forward, across gaps if need be, and will send him into a spin on contact with enemies or certain types of walls and blocks. This spin move acts very much in the same way as Shovel Knight’s shovel pogo attack, and allows King Knight to bounce around levels with impressive finesse. Anyone who’s played Shovel Knight before knows the drill now – try and clear every screen by chaining together as many bounce attacks as you can. It’s the law.
It also wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight game if there weren’t a ton of unlockable moves and buffs. Amongst the best unlocks for King Knight are a Tazmanian Devil-esque tornado spin that allows him to climb walls and smash up enemies, a hammer that produces hearts with each wallop for precious HP, throwable suicide bomber mice, and the ability to stand still and have a big ol’ cry to regain HP. Something we can all relate to.
The world map returns, and is in its best guise in King of Cards. Levels are now a lot shorter than you’d expect – there’s typically only one checkpoint in the non-boss levels – but there are a lot more of them, and a large number have secret exits to find. They’re interspersed with the multiple opportunities to play Joustus, and with the seemingly random appearances of traditional Shovel Knight bosses who show up, Hammer Bros. style, on the map to block your progress. It makes for a really tight campaign that’s filled with a ton of variety.
It seems almost arbitrary to say, but if you like Shovel Knight and you’re not tired of the standard gameplay, there’s so much to enjoy with King of Cards. He’s probably not the most fun character to play as (for me, that’d be Spectre Knight), but his game is easily the most diverse. He’s just such an enjoyably unlikeable idiot that you’ll constantly be playing with a smile on your face, bopping along to the classic Shovel Knight chiptunes, pogoing around levels and pausing for the occasional game of cards. Who could ask for more?
Shovel Knight Showdown
Who likes Shovel Knight boss fights? Everyone does, right? How about fighting three of them at once in an amalgamation of Smash Bros. and Towerfall? It’s as chaotic as you’re imagining, and seems like a total no-brainer as a second genre for Yacht Club to transpose their blue, spade-loving hero into.
What seemed like an obviously smart move doesn’t necessarily play out in an ideal way. The one-on-one fights in Showdown are as tightly-contested and entertaining as ever, but the multi-man rumbles are absolute mayhem. There are a few different stipulations applied to fights, and these typically involve simply whittling down your opponents’ lives, or depleting their health bar to briefly kill them off and steal any gems they’ve collected from around the level, with the winner being the first to an assigned number.
Standard fights are more enjoyable, as the simplicity of smacking seven shades of snot out of the competitors keeps things manageable amongst the cacophony of onscreen visual noise. The gem-collecting levels, especially with multiple opponents, are frankly a bit of a mess that I rarely found enjoyable.
Perhaps I’m just not very good at Shovel Knight boss fights, but the game felt overly difficult even on the normal setting. Playing story mode often sees your chosen character up against three opponents on the same team, and when it comes to collecting gems from around the level, they’ve got way more of the space covered and you barely get a chance to breathe with them swarming you from the word go. It’s basically an exercise in getting wailed on while you try to run away and scramble for gems, and it’s just not that fun.
What does add a layer of fun to the game is the chance to play as the complete ‘Knight’ roster of Shovel Knight characters, and the best part of Showdown is learning new moves and trying to find your ‘main’. Perhaps, with more time to sit down and learn the move sets in the practice mode, the game would feel more rewarding than if you just jump in and try to slog through the chaotic story mode as I did.
With a four-player battle mode as the only other gameplay option, Showdown was clearly never meant to be anything other than a brief little curio to give fans of the series’ boss fights an overdose of what they love, but as a complete experience, I found it lacking in both modes and reasons to keep plugging away at the arcade fighter-style story mode. It turns out that the boss fights in Shovel Knight are more fun at the end of a platforming level rather than in the middle of enclosed space filled with flashing lights, random effects, environmental hazards, and three bastards all chasing you down. If you can handle all that stress, you’ll have a much better time than I did.
‘Disco Elysium’: A Thought-Provoking Mystery
For the most part, the majority of games are easy to classify, but from time to time a game is released that defies conventional rules and resists simple categorization. Disco Elysium is just such a game. On the surface of it, it’s a topdown, isometric RPG of the oldest of old schools. It draws upon long-established systems, structures, and mechanics that make it comfortably familiar. However, beneath that patina of tradition lies something completely unexpected and utterly unique.
Developed by the small, independent studio ZA/UM, with a story penned by Estonian novelist, Robert Kurvitz, and a painstakingly detailed world crafted by artist Aleksander Rostov, Disco Elysium stands apart from most RPGs in that it is startlingly realistic whilst simultaneously being grimly fantastical. Set on an isolated archipelago in the wake of a failed communist revolution, the game casts players as a detective sent to solve the murder of a man found hanging in the backyard of a rundown boarding house/cafe. It’s a simple setup made all the more complex by the fact that the player character is suffering from a severe bout of alcohol and drug-induced amnesia. The mystery that needs to be solved concerns piecing together exactly who the player character is, as much as it involves reconstructing the chain of events that resulted in a brutal death.
Arriving at conclusions to both conundrums requires navigating complex webs of social and political intrigue. Along the way, players will encounter union bosses, disgruntled workers, war veterans, and all manner of extraordinary and mundane citizens just trying to go about their daily lives in a place that seems designed to thwart their ambitions at every turn. More than that though, players will be required to engage in continuous internal dialogues that involve the protagonist gradually putting themselves back together. The result is character customization in a quite literal sense of the word. Rather than the standard array of physical options that most games of this type present players with, the options are entirely psychological. Player actions and choices determine the overall structure of the internal workings of their character. Whether they decide to be a high-minded idealist trying to better themselves and the world around them in whatever way they can or opt to descend into anarchic, hedonistic self-obliteration such choices determine exactly who and what their version of the character is.
The foundation of stats and skills that are usually inert background components that all RPGs are based on is firmly in place. However, rather than being a numerical bedrock upon which all gameplay is based, Disco Elysium takes those sets of modifiers and statistics and makes them an active part of character progression and world development. As you progress through the game, skills points can be used for a variety of purposes. They can be used to upgrade core character stats, of which there a total of twenty-four covering a whole range of mental, physical, and social attributes, that govern player’s ability to immediately interact with the game world. However, they can also be used to learn or forget particular thoughts These thoughts develop depending on how players decide to approach situations and solve problems and can unlock semi-permanent bonuses and even penalties.
Much as in reality, the things the character is capable of are largely dependent on their frame of mind. If players opt to make a character that is brash and uncouth then they will find it difficult to subtly manipulate interactions to their benefit or arrive at unobtrusive solutions to various situations. On the other hand, if they elect to play a character that is more thoughtful and introspective, or cunning rather than crass, then they will find it difficult to emerge unscathed from more physical challenges. It’s an interpretation of character development and player progress that feels much more organic than in any other game of this sort. This is probably where Disco Elysium does the most to stand out from other such titles. Such a flexible approach to progress is hopefully something that other companies will emulate going forward, as it allows the character to develop a true personality that goes a step beyond the mathematically-oriented, incremental statistical increases that are usually the norm.
The ways in which player action, character interaction, and game reaction combine together is probably the closest it is possible to get to a truly curated dungeon master-guided play experience in an RPG. There is such a wide and unpredictable variety of moment-to-moment options that players can never be certain what exactly is going to happen next. This sense of improvisational unpredictability is a quintessential element of any RPG, but it is often lost in translation from tabletop rules to computer game mechanics. This pitfall is avoided thanks to the fact that the world of Disco Elysium was conceptualized as a tabletop game but doesn’t actually exist as one yet. As such the developers were able to implement systems without the expectation of adhering to pre-existing mechanics. This expectation has often been the downfall of many such games in the past, such as the much-maligned Sword Coast Legends which was lambasted for its apparent butchery of the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. It will be interesting to see if Larian Studios can avoid similar problems with Baldur’s Gate 3.
As intriguing and unconventional as Disco Elysium is, and no matter how deserving it is of the accolades it won at 2019’s Game Awards, it’s hard to recommend it as something to play if you’re looking for fun. It’s relentlessly grim even when it’s trying to be funny, and its stream of consciousness style makes even the most basic of interactions a minefield of potential disturbing possibilities. With its biting combination of continental existentialist ennui, pseudo-Lovecraftian undercurrents, and socio-political critique it isn’t a game that you play for the sheer joy of it, but rather for the esoteric and unusual experience that it offers. That being said, in a market that’s full to bursting point with crowd-pleasing blockbusters and oftentimes strictly by-the-book sequels or carbon copy titles, it can be incredibly rewarding to delve into a game as intricate and nuanced as Disco Elysium.
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