I played through the preview build of Heart Machine’s Hyper Light Drifter not once or twice, but four times. The abandoned laboratory called me back again and again because one playthrough wasn’t enough to see every area in the build. Each run through the test tubes swirling with dark pixelated horrors revealed fresh paths, more enemies, and new weapons. Thorough investigation revealed secret paths to keys that would open a special door holding the bloodied body of a fallen wanderer very much like the titular Drifter. The molding halls into the depths of the facility led me to glimpses of far off giants, long dead and decayed, but still unnervingly present. One of the highest compliments that I can pay Hyper Light Drifter is that it captures the unique blend of disturbing unease and excitement of Super Metroid, but repackages it as an isometric action title with a gorgeous pixel art aesthetic. It is beautiful, creepy, and fun.
Hyper Light Drifter was previewed on PC.
The preview build I played began in an open area outside of an alien laboratory. This gave me a chance to experiment with the controls. I quickly found that the Drifter has a laser sword, the ability to dash short distances, and can use his robot companion to check inventory. Continuing into the facility I encountered a prone skeleton with a laser pistol close by its boney hand. The pistol was still in working order so it quickly became a part of my arsenal. In addition to the laser sword, the Drifter may only have two items equipped at any given time. A large door with four locks prevented progress through the main lab, but a side passage offered a way forward. That’s when I encountered Hyper Light Drifter’s first enemies.
The Drifter has a limited amount of health and can usually only take five or six hits before dying. This makes every enemy encounter a tense exercise in patience and reflexes. Even the grunts, green, goblin-like creatures, can quickly whittle down health if you’re not careful. Every new area is accompanied by an auto-save, which is handy because death should be expected. There is a measured timing to how combat works. Enemies telegraph their attacks, giving time to dodge or counter their advances. However, it is important to remember that the Drifter’s attacks also have a strange timing to them. While the laser sword is a powerful tool, it can only quickly strike three times before pausing. Special weapons like the pistol, shotgun, laser cannon, or remote controlled bomb rely on slowly regenerating energy for their use. They also have their own timing to how they work. After some time is spent mastering combat, battles take on the cadence of a dance. It feels empowering, smoothly moving from enemy to enemy, but also sad.
The beautiful artistic style that Heart Machine has employed is a pleasure to look at, but it also shows the capacity for great violence. Taking a great deal of damage causes the Drifter to leave puddles of blood while walking. Defeating enemies leaves their blood and bodies scattered around the battlefield. Successfully landing a series of attacks without taking damage charges a critical strike which can decapitate foes. The mechanics are fun, but the visuals feed into the grotesquely melancholy atmosphere. There is weight to combat.
Exploration seems to be a core component of Hyper Light Drifter. Numerous paths can be taken to reach the end of the preview build. Each path introduces different challenges and experiences. Diligent explorers will be able to unearth powerful weapons like the laser cannon and new cloaks for the Drifter. Unfortunately, exploration can also be frustrating. The dashing mechanic while certainly useful in combat, is primarily used to traverse gaps in the terrain. These pitfalls are instant death to anything that falls. Due to the angle of the camera, sometimes the edges of platforms are hard to see or covered by taller piece of the environment. This wasn’t a huge problem when I was going through the preview build the first time, but when I was trying to find secrets and hidden crannies. A number of times I fell out of the stage through walls. It is a cheap way to die, though at least a few of those deaths could be attributed to the fact that the game isn’t complete quite yet.
Even without the enemies or platforming challenges, wandering the environment is a lesson in how much mileage a game can get out of a great ambient score. It feels alien, at times beautiful, but often strange and disconcerting. Sometimes it can seem more like mechanical heart beats than music. It succeeds in setting you on edge.
Overall, the slice of Hyper Light Drifter sent to me by Heart Machine had me excited at the prospect of the full game. Every element in the build I saw was an essential part of the whole experience. It was able to convey meanings and emotions without the use of dialog. Outside of the initial loading screens and the pause menu, there wasn’t any text or voice work present in Hyper Light Drifter, but it still succeeded in being a compelling game with a world that left me itching to explore and understand. Who is the Drifter? What are these monstrous behemoths and what killed them? Perhaps we’ll have our answers when the full game releases.
Hyper Light Drifter's release date has been pushed back into early 2015.