Have you ever found yourself walking through an area in a game and stopped to wonder at the little details, take in the eerie soundtrack, and search the backgrounds for clues about a story that has been left to your imagination? I found myself doing this a lot during my time with Hyper Light Drifter, a beautiful hack-and-slash game developed by Heart Machine. It was funded on Kickstarter in 2013 thanks to the support of many generous and excited backers, and was finally released in 2016. It is a true master class in pixel animation, fast-paced gameplay, and haunting music, making it easy to lose yourself in the world the developers at Heart Machine have constructed.
The old world, a world of incredible technology and prosperity, has been left in ruins. A cataclysm shook the land and unleashed four beings known at the Titans, and they destroyed everything. The corpses of these colossal machines have since been defeated and become part the landscape you traverse, an eerie reminder of what came before you, and what you might discover.
You play as The Drifter, a lone warrior suffering from an unknown illness seeking a cure for his dying body, and a way to purge the wretched black creature that plagues his nightmares. A mysterious canine with a diamond-shaped halo silently leads you forward. Your goal is to seek the modules in the four massive areas around the central town, defeat the terrible beings ruling them, and reach the place where it all began.
However, that is all that you are ever told outright, if not with words. The world of Hyper Light Drifter is tight-lipped about its world and story. Environments might give snippets of the larger ordeal, but the story will not reveal itself to the passive player. If you are like me, then you might find this a bit disappointing. Unlike a Souls games, there are no item descriptions to help fill in the holes, either. However, the premise alone was enough to keep me trucking through.
Inspired by old-school Zelda and enhanced by the difficulty of a Souls-like, Hyper Light Drifter gives you control of the Drifter. At the beginning, you are shown how to swing your sword, fire your gun, and dash. Off you go.
Hyper Light Drifter sports a robust control setup that can be altered as you please to fit your playstyle, whether it be with mouse and keyboard, a console controller, or Steam controller. You have a simple three-slash sword combo, each taking off a single tick of enemy health. Upgrades offer many different modes of attack later on in your journey. You cannot block, though, so avoiding attacks with your dash is the order of the day. Dashing is fast and crisp, but can get you into trouble without proper timing and positioning. If you aren’t careful, you might end up dashing into a wall or— more pressingly— straight into an enemy's attack. Dashing is also the primary method by which you traverse the world, flying across pitfalls and avoiding traps.
The Drifter begins and ends the game with 5 ticks of health. Interestingly, this pool cannot be expanded. Enemies will only ever deal 1 or 2 ticks of health in damage, but you can be knocked down by more powerful attacks that leave you open to follow-up and potentially a swift death. You start with a maximum of 3 med kits, which heal you completely upon use, but can be scarce as you traverse the world, making conservation and increasing your carrying capacity paramount to success.
One aspect of the game that I particularly loved was how some areas change their layout depending on when certain enemies in the room die. Floors might fall away, pillars could rise to block off certain portions of the room, or other walls will fall down to release another group of enemies. It adds a fresh layer of strategy that makes you think about which enemies you want to kill first to put you at the greatest advantage. Killing a nearby foe might seem like a good idea until his death causes a barrier to fall, letting a gunner shoot at you with impunity from across a crevice.
Character progression comes in the form of Upgrade Packs. To gain one pack, you need to find yellow fragments called Gear Bits, four of which merge to create one pack. Upgrades are purchased in town from the five shopkeepers: a gunslinger increases the ammunition you can hold for your firearms, a swordsman unlocks new abilities with your sword, a medicine man increases the number of med kits you can carry, a speedster grants new dash capabilities, and a mechanic gives you the ability throw a grenade with a wide range that regenerates after a time.
In addition to upgrades, you will find new firearms to add to The Drifter’s arsenal as you progress through the game. Starting out with a simple pistol with six shots, you can eventually find a hand cannon, a shotgun, a sniper rifle, and more. You can only equip two at a time, but each weapon provides a unique tactical advantage and adds a hell of a kick to every fight. However, there are no ammo pick-ups. Instead, you regain ammunition by attacking enemies and objects. This system encourages a mix of melee and long-range combat, dashing across the battlefield while juggling between your sword, guns, and grenades. Keep in mind, however, that all of your guns pull from the same pool of ammunition, with each gun requiring a chunk of different size. So, depending on your playstyle, you might want to spring for those ammunition upgrades sooner rather than later.
Despite your growing arsenal, your enemies will come at you with everything they have. They start small, from novice birdman mages to polearm-wielding lizardmen, but as you progress through each area their tactics become more calculated and fearsome. Ambushes are common and should be expected at any moment, giving the solemn world a real sense of danger. Some of the modules you seek are locked behind groups of enemies that will truly make you work for your reward. But when you finally overcome a challenge, The Drifter will swing his blade around in a flourish and stabs it into the ground, as if to ask the corpses who the hell they thought they were messing with. Nice touch.
Hyper Light Drifter can be very challenging, but there is almost no penalty for dying. When killed, you respawn at the start of the room in which you died, with your health and resources reset to what they were when you first entered. This can make certain rooms very frustrating if you enter with two health and a single med kit and end up getting one-shot before you can even use it. However, since you never lose anything, it is a very forgiving system that gives you room to make mistakes and learn from them, making it a very good system when you finally come up against the game’s bosses.
Fair warning: there is a noticeable difficulty spike upon encountering those bosses. This, however, is where patience is a virtue. Like any other game with tough bosses, each one has a pattern that you can exploit to get your hits in. Perhaps one of the guns you don’t use very often is the answer you’re looking for, or maybe you need to rethink which direction you dash away from the boss during its troublesome attack pattern. Defeating these bosses evokes a grand feeling of accomplishment. Without exception, each boss I fought made me feel incredible when I finally beat them. After my initial failures, the final encounter became a show-stopping display of well-timed sword swipes, point-blank shotgun blasts, and harrowing close calls. Victory in Hyper Light Drifter is truly exhilarating.
Graphics and Audio
This part should go without saying. The game utilizes contrast between pale primary colors such as red, blue, and green. The pixel art is highly detailed, and every animation is smooth and natural-looking. Screenshots do not do it justice; trust me when I say that you need to see it in action to appreciate it. During play, it is easy to tell what any given character or enemy is and what it is doing, giving you all the information you need to succeed.
Even standing still, the world around The Drifter is alive despite its desolation. Each of the four areas around the central town have their own unique themes, color schemes, and enemies. In the north, snow gently falls without regard to the havoc you wreak on enemies below. In the east, fish dart about just below the surface of the water as you hop across gaps to reach the next module. Keeping to the formula of visuals being paramount in this game, there is no conversation wheel, no item descriptions, and no NPC dialogue. Everything is told without words or voice. Dialogue with NPCs is depicted with a series of still pictures that tell their story, giving hints about the lore and how the world came to be in its present state.
The music, composed by Disasterpeace, is what brings everything together. The piano, digital distortions, chiptune accents, and eerie instrumentation both haunt and amaze. In cutscenes, the music brings you straight into the world and the horrors the Drifter faces. Alien sound effects and motifs play to enhance the mystery of the many mysterious beings in Hyper Light Drifter. No matter the situation, the music in Hyper Light Drifter holds up and enhances the already incredible visual and gameplay foundations.
As much as some combat encounters were frustrating, leaving me on the brink of rage quitting, I never found myself wanting to put the controller down. The game is very fair when it kills you, and gives the player every means to overcome its challenges and experience that feeling of accomplishment these kinds of games thrive on. Character growth the game provides feels impactful and rewarding, as it should. Progress through the game is tangible as you accumulate modules, unlock doors, defeat bosses, and open up new areas to explore. Though my first foray into Hyper Light Drifter only took around 8 hours, that is only after obtaining the minimum required modules to complete the main story. I still haven't collected half of them. After beating the game, multiple new modes and challenges unlock, including New Game+, a new character, and a Boss Rush mode, extending Hyper Light Drifter’s staying power far beyond the main story.
If you enjoy hack-and-slash, atmospheric environments, and incredible music, then you would be doing yourself a great disservice if you skip this game.
|+ Fast-paced and rewarding combat||– Can be frustrating at certain points|
|+ Beautiful pixel graphics||– Story is left very ambiguous|
|+ Unique, unforgettable musical score|
|+ Post-game challenge modes and New Game+|
|+ Fantastic first game from indie studio Heart Machine|