Hyper Light Drifter is beautiful, mysterious and hard as hell. To some, that difficulty is central to its design. To others, it's an obstacle preventing them from enjoying its other parts. Since release, the developers have tried to patch the game to appease both audiences, but it's been a challenge. You can't talk about Hyper Light Drifter without addressing its difficulty. In Kotaku's review, Riley MacLeod explained how it was possible to love the game, even if the difficulty was pushing him away:
Overcoming difficulty in Hyper Light Drifter rewards you with the chance to overcome more difficulty. There are people who are going to love this — I loved it, at least for a while. But it's the kind of joy that's best for a very specific subset of people. Some might not have the time, patience or manual dexterity to sit through these fights again and again. If you're struggling, as I did, I would definitely recommend taking a break — I'll always remember that one fight I couldn't beat until I gave up and went to bed, only to wake up to beat it on the first try at 7am.
He's not alone. I've talked to friends intrigued by Hyper Light Drifter's world, only to walk away frustrated at their inability to play it. The question facing the developers was if they should do anything about it.
This debate comes up every time a new Dark Souls game is released — a Google search for "Dark Souls easy mode" brings up countless hot takes — but while Souls has become more accessible, it hasn't gotten "easier".
Heart Machine, the developer behind Hyper Light Drifter, took the comments personally, and issued an update on April 15 called "The Invincibility Patch" with a brief note about the "significant amount of changes to make you feel like a more badass drifter than ever before".
There were three big changes:
- Invincibility frames added to dashing
- Health kits refilled upon using a warp pad
- Healing happens much faster
The first alteration — invincibility frames for dashing — was the most significant. Previously, dashing around in Hyper Light Drifter meant nothing if you didn't literally avoid an attack or projectile. Now, there was a brief window of wiggle room. It's an idea modernly popularised by Dark Souls, and it's why you see players rolling; by doing so, the "invincibility frames" allow them to dodge an attack that should theoretically hit them.
"Jeezuz thank you," said the first comment on the patch notes.
"Were there that many complaints on difficulty?" said the third.
And thus, the parameters of the debate were set, resulting in 18 pages and 174 comments over the patch. Were the changes made because the designers felt it was better for the game, or simply because some people had complained? (You can see this tension playing out in gaming culture debates, like that Overwatch pose.) Some celebrated the newfound accessibility, others grumbled about goal posts for success being changed. Others wished for a compromise: make the changes optional.
"I want to feel like a badass drifter by becoming a badass drifter," said one fan, "instead of the game being altered in such a way to make me simply feel more badass. That kind of stuff should be reserved for an easy mode."
Acknowledging that "challenge is great" and a toggle could come in an upcoming patch, designer Alx Preston attempted to explain the changes.
"The iframes were added in response to a good amount of feedback over the past two weeks +," he said. "We want this game to feel as fair and fluid as possible. While the frames make a few situations easier, they also makes things feel more fluid, open up some dynamic and aggressive possibilities in combat and they curb frustration in many cases."
A few days later, another patch went live for Hyper Light Drifter, alongside a lengthy blog post by Preston. The developers seemed to recognise it would have helped to give more context to their design decisions.
Describing the release of Hyper Light Drifter as the game's "biggest playtest", Preston appreciated feedback, "even for the harshest of comments." That said, he acknowledged the patch had been "polarising".
"Many have expressed concern that particular tweaks make the experience less challenging, almost too easy," he said. "After a fair amount of consideration and consultation, we agree."
They didn't completely walk back the changes, but health kits were no longer recharged at warp pads and healing was given a tighter window. And while they reduced the number of invincibility frames during dashing, it was still there. That change was staying, and Preston reiterated his feeling that it improved the flow of combat.
(I wish they'd kept the health kit change, personally. It's annoying to grind for med kits, especially if you show up to a boss without any.)
The developers could have made these changes optional, but instead, they're part of the core design. Preston said it's possible the game will get a new difficulty mode to be "inclusive to more players who want to experience the world", but they're still discussing the idea.
"I realise we can't please everyone, and we don't aim to do so," said Preston.