[Originally published August 17, 2016]
We’re quick to compare Hyper Light Drifter to games like Dark Souls due to their shared focus on spatial combat, but I find that comparison lacking. It’s not quite apples to oranges – more like Granny Smith to Red Delicious. They belong to the same milieu, but ultimately share very few common traits.
The branching tree of distinction starts with the dodge. You’ll hit the dodge button more than any other during the course of these games, but their implementations are fundamentally different. From a purely mathematical standpoint, dodging in HLD is much faster. One full dodge – just one, mind you – takes ~.35 seconds to complete, compared to the full ~1.5 seconds it takes to complete the fastest possible dodge-roll in Dark Souls. Then there’s also the matter of dodge-chaining. Dark Soulshas a dodge cap, determined by your stamina. Hyper Light Drifter allows you to, ostensibly, dodge forever – there’s a pretty crucial upgrade that allows you to chain them infinitely. Think about the implications of an infinite, rapid dodge – especially in the realm of 2D. Dodging becomes just as much of a locomotive property as a combative one. On an unobstructed screen, you can skirt across an entire room in seconds, making you almost impossible to touch. This is why the only real unobstructed screens in the game are boss screens – HLD needs to restrict this ability’s potential within its various combat arenas. Dark Soulsoften takes an inverse approach, keeping the world routes open (if not sometimes narrow), while filling boss arenas with pillars for the player to exploit within a flat arena. Traversal isn’t the issue in Dark Souls – positioning is.
The way each game incorporates positioning is another important distinction that separates the two titles. In Hyper Light Drifter, safety comes from space – you’re too far out to take damage from a melee attack, and you also have more time to react to a projectile attack. There’s even an upgrade that allows you to absorb bullets without taking damage, allowing you to close distance for an attack. This combat dynamic is about using speed to open and close distances. You’ll also notice that the enemy attacks that let them close distance aren’t as fast or far-reaching as the Drifter’s dodge. This means that pretty much everywhere is a safe space, as long as it’s out of arms reach of an enemy.
Positioning in a Dark Souls encounter has a lot more going on than ‘keeping distance.’ You have to be close enough to strike, but far away enough to dodge an attack. Depending on your build, dodging might be a tool of I-frames, rather than evasion. There’s also a Z-axis to account for. Can you goad an enemy into striking just above your head, allowing you to counter with a risk-free hit? Again, this is why almost every boss arena in Dark Souls takes place on a flat surface. The Z-axis can be used to exploit animations, and From Software has no interest in letting their players cheese through a finely crafted boss fight. The few fights that take place on multiple planes – Ancient Wyvern, Bell Gargoyles, Curse-Rotted Greatwood – are explicitly designed around the planar nature of the boss arena. By the necessity of the 2D style, Hyper Light Drifter doesn’t have the luxury (or challenge, depending on your POV) of level layouts that consider the significance of a Z-axis.
This all contributes to the meat of what I’m trying to say: Hyper Light Drifter is about speed, and Dark Souls is about precision. This doesn’t make one game better than the other – of course – it’s simply an observation that I’ve had about these two oft-compared games.
I know that we – as a culture – like to think about game designs in terms of the games that pioneered their genres – Metroidvania, Souls-Like, Rogue-Like, etc. – but I think that these terms make for inaccurate comparisons. It attributes too much to the game, and not the design. Yes, both Hyper Light Drifter and Dark Souls are about spatial combat, but that doesn’t make Hyper Light Drifter a ‘Souls-like,’ simply because Dark Soulsis the modern miracle of spatial combat. These games are fundamentallydifferent, and it’s through those differences that we can better understand the core thrusts of their respective designs.
When he’s not getting into the nitty-gritty, chaboi – Tom Loughney – writes about games, LPs Sonic ’06 with his friend, Tuskamahaya, and podcasts with his other friend, Liam Senior. He has exactly two friends, only two friends, forever and ever and ever. Follow him on twitter@tloughnessmnstr