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The worst way to play Hyper Light Drifter is the best way to learn it

Heart Machine’s Hyper Light Drifter is one of the best action adventure games you’ll play this side of A Link to the Past. It’s sombre and contemplative, and yet can be surprisingly uplifting and warm. It’s beautiful in both its moody and brooding backdrops and in it’s lush and vibrant locales alike. It’s available on basically anything that can play games, and it’s a pleasant experience everywhere you decide to check it out.

Well, *almost* everywhere.

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Recently, the Special Edition of HLD was ported to mobile, and while I’d hoped it would make for the perfect place to start yet another run of this instant classic, the iOS port leaves so much to be desired.

The content is all there, of course. You’ll still be playing the wandering Drifter, as they battle a plague that has corrupted both the world and their well-being. Armed with a sword, a gun, and a trusty robot sidekick, you’ll climb the highest of heights and sink to the deepest depths in order to save what’s left.

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The charming anti-dialogue is still just as enrapturing. All conversations with NPCs are had via pictograph, small slideshows depict the jist of what they’re trying to say to you, and outside of conversation, there are plenty of level design tricks that train you to examine every inch of a room you’re in for possible secrets. All that remains just as clever as it ever has been.

But the controls suffer greatly. Many action games that come to mobile – be they ported to or developed primarily for phones – tend to use the touch screen controller set up that HLD employs here to a wide range of successes and failures. A couple hours in, I still can’t rightly determine what side of the spectrum this control set is on.

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When exploring areas and taking out small groups of enemies, things seem to be working well enough. The moving is done with a digital left stick that appears wherever you tap or hold on the left side of the screen, and it does it’s best to keep up with your rapidly changing angles or long drags in a single direction… but it’s responsiveness is dicey. All the action buttons – dashing, shooting, attacking – are on your right side, and these tend to respond well, but with so many actions for basically just one finger to be responsible for, you end up being a jumbly mess after a while.

It may seem a little nitpicky, but when combat heats up, this control solution can often make a tough fight feel near impossible. On a controller, these options were spread out as such to allow the sort of complicated sequences of actions you have to make in order to beat some bosses. Even some extra challenges, like the dash room in the main hub town, are frustrating feats. You really miss the shoulder buttons on mobile.

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Hyper Light Drifter was never a cake walk. The struggle, though maybe not Dark Souls, was still part of the experience. This port’s struggle seems artificial, or at the very least, incidentally difficult. It sort of mars what I used to consider well balanced and designed encounters. To make matters worse, there’s no way to adjust or change the control scheme, further sending home the concept that you’re going to have to struggle with it as is if you want to play it in this format.

All that said, if you’ve never played Hyper Light Drifter, the mobile port may still be the best way to get into it. There’s an Easy Mode, which takes a lot of the combat pressure off of you. With less and weaker enemies on screen hitting, the mistakes you’ll inevitably make due to the control scheme will be forgiven far more often. It’s also the cheapest way to play it — at around $7 bucks, it’s well worth the cost to experience the visuals on a nice handheld, given how pretty their screens are these days. Be sure to grab a good pair of headphones, though; Disaterpiece’s score should not be missed. It’s easy to look down on mobile ports of action titles because of the inevitability of their tactile shortcomings, but when it comes to one of the best Zelda-like adventure games available today, consider meeting this one half way.

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