Upgrades or Adaptation? A Look At Hyper Light Drifter’s Tech Tree
I want to take a moment of your time to compare and contrast one of Hyper Light Drifter’s more RPG-esque features with those of more traditional hack-and-slash staples.
Now the question a developer might ask themselves during the development of a game like this might be, “How do you keep a 20+ hour RPG hack-and-slash from becoming stale?” Give the player an abundance of gameplay options. Now, a traditional RPG, be it an FPS like Borderlands or a dungeon crawler like Diablo, would just throw inventory at the problem, and there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that. A wide variety of weapons and armor can make for a wide variety of gameplay options, but Hyper Light Drifter doesn’t take that route. Instead, the game provides you with a small but distinctly specialized set of items and upgrades.
In Heart Machine’s debut release you play as the stoic Drifter , traveling through a beautifully pixelated wasteland searching for a cure to your mysterious illness. Along your journey you can upgrade your sword, collect new guns, and increase the amount of health and grenades you can carry. But these “upgrades” don’t truly upgrade the Drifter; they merely alter your play style.
Uninitiated players will immediately begin to see the influence of dungeon-crawlers like Torchlight or Diablo on the surface of Hyper Light Drifter, but unlike these more standard RPGs, Hyper Light Drifter has no leveling system — your enemies don’t become any more or less challenging as the game progresses, and you don’t become any more or less powerful. Your new weapons and abilities only provide different methods of destruction and force you to develop new attack patterns or fall back on ones you’re already comfortable with.
For example, you begin the game for a basic pistol. It’s a mid-rage, low damage weapon, but you can fire it with enough accuracy to take out most of the lower-tier enemies without much trouble. But Hyper Light Drifter doesn’t allow you to get away with a strategy solely built around ranged attacks. Your ammunition recharges via hits landed with your sword, thus incentivizing you to take risks in close-quarters combat. So, right at the beginning of the game you discover that you need to find a subtle balance between shooting and slashing.
The first additional gun I discovered in the game was a shotgun — low-range, high damage, and with less ammunition than the pistol. I found myself changing my attack patterns so as to maximize the pros and lessen the cons of using the shotgun as my primary ranged weapon (a weapon I kept using even to the point of the final boss battle) just because I liked the shotgun and really wanted to find a way to make it work. Throughout the game I gave each of the ranged weapons the old college try, but still fell back on my trusty shotgun every time I approached the foreboding gates of a boss arena. This is not the fault of the other weapons I acquired over the course of the game, just an insight into my preference of combat style.
In addition to my reliance on the shotgun, my approach to melee combat was just as blunt. The first listed upgrade for your sword is a charged-up slash that deals more damage but leaves you vulnerable while charging. This was the only sword upgrade I purchased on my initial playthrough.
But when my brother played through the game, his approach to combat was entirely different. One of the beauties of Hyper Light Drifter is that it allows every player to determine how they want to play the game. Do you want to dash through enemies instead of slashing them one by one? There’s an upgrade for that. Railgun or shotgun? The choice is yours. And the magic of Hyper Light Drifter’s upgrade system comes from its near perfect balance. None of the weapons feel overpowered and none of the sword and dash upgrades make you feel invincible.
This isn’t the BFG we’re talking about here. I loved that each weapon and combat upgrade give you the chance to play the game a different way. I’ve played through Hyper Light Drifter several times since it’s launch in 2016, each time trying a different combination of weapons and skills. By choosing to build Hyper Light in this fashion, the developers at Heart Machine dramatically increased its replayability.