A wanderer collapses in the night, surrounded by a broken world torn by war and littered with the bones of giants. Gorgeous pixel landscapes and animated sequences mesh to create an impression of a coming doom that has happened before and will happen again. However, even in a shattered world heroes can rise, braving the ruins of glories long past to uncover technology and hope, a way to avert the coming end. This is Hyper Light Drifter, a top-down action-adventure title from indie studio Heart Machine. As the nameless drifter, players must venture forth to battle monsters, solve puzzles, and become master of the four regions which surround the one safe haven that still seems habitable for the few remaining peaceful people who inhabit the world.
In many ways, Hyper Light Drifter plays like a unique combination of The Legend of Zelda series with a dash of Dark Souls tossed in for good measure. Much like a Zelda title, players need to explore vast dungeons riddled with bloodthirsty monsters and traps. Thorough exploration is well rewarded and observant players will find tons of secret nooks and crannies that hold hidden gear bits that can be used to upgrade the drifter's gear and techniques. These treasures are hidden in ways that make those who find them feel clever, but few will be able to find all the secrets of Hyper Light Drifter like the golden keys or glowing power sources. Initially, players will need to make do with a simple slashing sword attack and a laser pistol along with a dash, but the opportunities to unlock more moves and tools soon open up. By the end of the game, most players will have a charged slash, the ability to knock back projectiles, and even a slashing light dash. Every tool in the player’s arsenal will need to be used to solve puzzles and proceed through levels infested with enemies. The comparison to Dark Souls comes in the way that each combat encounter plays out very deliberately. Often players will find themselves strategizing on how to best take on a room full of enemies. Reckless play can easily lead to death, while methodical approaches to every fight are rewarded.
There exists a certain economy of time in Hyper Light Drifter that limits the actions of enemies and the player. This makes understanding what enemies are capable of doing, how they move, imperative alongside understanding the drifter’s abilities. Each slash takes up a definite amount of time; each dash puts the player a set distance in a given direction; a certain number of slashes restores a set fraction of projectile ammo, etc. Once a player can instinctively understand these rules, the combat gradually gains speed and what once seemed to be a slow game of tactics becomes a fluid storm of action as the player seeks out the most efficient means of clearing an area of enemies.
Of course, this approach to combat also has some downsides. A mistimed slash can lock the player into a second of animation that can’t be cancelled in favor of a dodge if an enemy makes an unforeseen attack. There were many times when playing that I wished I could cancel my action to avoid incoming danger. To be honest, I’m unsure if this slight irritation comes directly from the way Heart Machine believed combat should flow or it stems from a desire to have smooth, unbroken animations. The focus on creating an economy of time also leads to an issue with button timing. A perfect example of this can be found in the way Hyper Light Drifter allows players to chain together dashes for faster, longer dashes. With each additional dash, the timing required for the next dash shortens slightly. I found it almost entirely impossible for me to successfully chain more than three or four dashes together, frequently stalling out (which can prove to be a problem when your life depends on chaining together those dashes). The mechanics of Hyper Light Drifter are practically perfect in most other respects, so these complaints are rather small, but can lead to some significant frustration over the course of a full playthrough.
One aspect of Hyper Light Drifter is utterly perfect, though. The aesthetic manages to remain captivating and gorgeous from beginning to end. Any given screenshot of the title would look at home in a frame on someone’s wall. It easily contains some of the most gorgeous pixel art that I have ever seen. Surreal animated dream sequences, fantastic beasts, breathtaking landscapes, the motivation to visually devour more of this world will be more than enough to motivate most players to fully explore it. Hyper Light Drifter depicts its neon, post-apocalyptic cyberpunk world as dirty, grimy, and barely clinging to life amidst piles of death. Corpses and bones are commonplace, but still civilization and light remains to those few who press on with the task of living. Monsters roam the lands and sow chaos as they prey upon the few sentient lifeforms left alive. The bodies of great giants litter the world, limbs frozen mid-battle. Below the earth in mechanical labs, the colossal hearts of long-dead experiments still beat, hinting that perhaps those giants of war aren’t truly gone.
The fortunate strength of Hyper Light Drifter’s aesthetic allows the entire narrative to unfold visually. There are cryptic messages left throughout the world written in a cypher that players who have cracked it claim give some small details about the world, but those messages will remain a mystery for most. Players encounter characters who tell stories of great battles, lost loved ones, and small hopes for a brighter future through still frame images. Through these visual insights, touching moments connect players to the setting of Hyper Light Drifter and motivate players emotionally. Many of the characters who tell their stories don’t provide material aid to the player, but they give faces and stories to the world and make it worth fighting for.
The mesmerizing soundtrack from Disasterpeace conveys a sense of sinister mystery and dread as players explore. Each new area seems to ratchet up the tension with very few lighthearted breaks in the soundscape. It does some really fascinating things with silence and a minimal style that really adds to the overall character of Hyper Light Drifter. The visual and audible aesthetics build on one another as players delve deeper into the secrets concealed by the old world ruins.
Now, all of that being said, Hyper Light Drifter left me feeling conflicted. It is undoubtedly beautiful, mechanically very sound, and well made, but I’m not sure if that is enough. To be clear, I loved my time with it and I think anyone who looks at it or sees it in action will have a great time. However, I’m not sure if it has the staying power to remain firmly rooted in our collective gaming consciousness. There is something about Hyper Light Drifter that, much like its protagonist, feels fleeting. This might be a deliberate choice from Heart Machine, as that transient impression works in Hyper Light Drifter’s artistic favor, but might also lead to it being forgettable. The subdued nature of the title leads to a solid theme, but there are few highs or lows that will lodge it forever in a player’s mind. No shocking revelation or emotionally charged battle to prod us into remembrance, just the image of an ailing drifter near a fire in the middle of a dark world as the flames sputter into embers.
For some, Hyper Light Drifter’s competence, aesthetic, and soundscape might be enough. It’s well designed and gorgeous and fun – a very well-rounded and solid experience. However, I think Hyper Light Drifter will also leave people wanting more both in terms of how long the game is, it clocks in at four dungeons and around seven or eight hours, but also in terms of meaning. Most will enjoy their time within the devastated lands of Hyper Light Drifter, but some people will struggle to attach personal meaning to the experience. The artistic cohesion that Hear Machine has put together is incredibly impressive and well worth the time it takes to experience. Those who wish for more beyond the tense melancholy of dangerous exploration and the rough interpretations of a wordless, surreal story might need to seek out other worlds and stories. For those who can accept it as it is, Hyper Light Drifter is beautiful, haunting, tense, and fittingly transient as an artistic work.
Hyper Light Drifter was reviewed on PC and will soon be available for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One