Hyper Light Drifter is a perfect example of the freedom indie developers have creating their games. Imagine, if you will, sitting around with friends waxing nostalgic about the glory days of gamings past. Someone says: “Wouldn’t it be great if Nintendo made a Zelda game that looks like A Link to the Past? Pixelated graphics and everything?” Then everyone laughs, because Nintendo is too busy pushing the series forward to create such a throwback.
Hyper Light Drifter feels like the answer to that kind of daydream. Developer Heart Machine has created a love-letter to the isometric and overhead-style adventure games of the early ‘90s in much the same way that Thomas Happ wrote his own personal ode to Super Metroid with his recent title Axiom Verge. Clearly, Retro is “in” now. Pixels are the thing to do. As a result, we as gamers are being treated to a great trip down memory lane and are getting to play games that, before this retro renaissance, would have stayed firmly in player’s daydreams. However, at the same time, indie developers have done an excellent job of applying modern game mechanics to their retro-inspired titles, and also introducing a few new ideas of their own. Heart Machine has juggled a number of old, and new ideas successfully, creating a beautiful title that controls as well as it looks, and gives the player a deep feeling of nostalgia. Despite a few stumbles along the way, Hyper Light Drifter is an excellent title, and is certainly one of my games of the year.
If you’re used to your stories being spoon-fed in games, Hyper Light Drifter may disappoint. This game has symbolism in spades, and for the most part, it works. As we start, we are introduced to our “Drifter” (surely a Super Smash Bros. character in the making), as he seems to have some sort of prophetic visions of catastrophe. Using a dog-like creature as his guide, he sets off on a journey that will have him searching for mysterious tri-force like artifacts in order to vanquish evil. I think. I tell you these plot points with no degree of certainty, as Hyper Light Drifter is purposely abstract. Upon further research, and developer interviews, one is able to piece the larger story together, but that clarity is missing in-game. The story is told purely through sound and visuals, and these elements paint a story of greed and destruction. At least, to me it does. Many of these plot points can be left to interpretation.
One element that is certainly clear, however, is the character’s physical state. Right from the beginning, our character is coughing up blood, and I got the sense that the only hope of survival is destroying the evil present in this world. Creator Alex Preston, born with congenital heart disease, used this game as a way of expressing his experience with disease to others, and it’s very clear that the Drifter is a conduit to Preston’s real life struggle. This results in a very complex character, for one with no dialogue to speak of. It’s inspiring, and also heartbreaking, to watch our hero cough up blood after overcoming an obstacle. A testament to his strength, it’s clear that we are controlling a hero with immense power. It’s these implications that fuel Hyper Light Drifter’s story.
Alex Preston’s artistic background is very apparent in the visuals of Hyper Light Drifter. On more than one occasion, I snapped a quick screenshot of my game because every moment feels like a perfect portrait. Playing this on a large screen is a feast for the eyes. Visually, it’s hard to separate this game from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. From the shrubs you can slash, to the overworld map, everything in the game feels like a tribute to the SNES Classic. The characters and environments have a “16”5” bit feel to them. What I mean by that, is that the visuals look 16 bit at first glance, but there is some serious detail going on here. Detail that simply wouldn’t have been possible on older hardware. In that way, the game feels like a refinement of the pixelated style. ‘90s Games were pixelated due to limitations, sure, but Hyper Light Drifter takes this limitation of the times, and firmly establishes it as an artistic choice, and it’s a beautiful one. It may be the most attractive pixelated title that I have ever played.
The music in Hyper Light Drifter is as mysterious as it’s story. From the moment the title screen appears, I was immersed in a very surreal soundscape. It sets the tone of the game perfectly, and provides a nice argument for how music should never overpower gameplay, but compliment it. The music does exactly that, from the way the eerie tones accent the subterranean environments or monolithic structures, to the way sound punctuates pivotal moments. Boss fights, in particular, are really elevated from the music that accompanies each fight. The best comparison, musically, that I can give is Capybara’s Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery.
Of course, great music and visuals do not matter if the game controls horribly. Which is why it’s a relief to say that this is one of the best controlling games that I’ve played in a while. Every movement is fluid, and responsive. It is an absolute joy to engage in battles with dozens of foes, zipping around the battlefield and cutting through enemies with lightning quick attacks from your energy sword. Also at your disposal is a plasma gun, and it’s incredibly satisfying to pick off ranged enemies, while dashing in for the kill with your sword. Each completed area will give you a different gun to play with, and experimenting with these weapons is the key to figuring out the game’s more difficult enemies. And difficult they are. Hyper Light Drifter, alongside Dark Souls 3 of course, may be the most difficult game released in 2016 so far. That doesn’t mean it’s unfair, though. Practice and patience allowed me to overcome even the most difficult of bosses (one in particular, took me upwards of 50 attempts). Another similarity to Dark Souls is the unparalleled feeling of accomplishment I got from overcoming odds that feel overwhelming at times. This is a game that demands your focus, and every bit of skill you can muster. Pro tip: do not attempt this game with a keyboard and mouse. The game warns you it is best played with a controller, and I would take that seriously.
Hyper Light Drifter is engaging, even when it’s being mysterious, but I do wish the progression would have been a bit more clear. There were a few moments I was traipsing around a forest for far longer than I should have been, only to learn that I wasn’t able to progress further in that area. Sometimes you need to warp to different zones (4 in total, with a main hub in the center) in order to progress. The game doesn’t make this clear, and that can lead to your time feeling a bit wasted at times. I understand the commitment to keeping dialogue out of the game, but there are times when a few hints would have made the experience a lot more smooth. Lastly, as fun as the battles can be in this game, it’s not always fun to fight the same enemies over and over. Leaving an environment too long will reset some of the larger scale battles, and it can be frustrating. There was a time I forgot to grab an important upgrade (in this case, the Shotgun), and I had to go through an entire zone again, fighting every enemy along the way. Considering enemies do not drop items or give experience, it may have been wise to limit re-spawning.
These scant amount of problems were not enough to sully my experience with the game, as the story kept consistently engaging throughout, even without words. Hyper Light Drifter feels like a dream come true. In fact, I don’t think there is a title I’ve written more about this year. Recently releasing on PS4, there is no better time to jump into a game that may have flew under the radar in March. From it’s beautiful visuals, tight controls, all the way down to it’s haunting music, Heart Machine has created a title that feels like a perfect fusion of new, and old. In some ways it feels like the best Zelda game in years. If you’re anything like me, and don’t have time to play through every game that releases month-to-month, I would highly recommend putting this game on your to-do list. Missing this one would be a shame.