Hyper Light Drifter developed by Heart Machine, their debut title, is one of the more surreal game experiences I’ve had in a long time. It seemed as if I was in a lucid dream and could not wake, an eternally beautiful nightmare that pierces the heart. Never has a game packed such a punch, all the while having no narrative, but what about games like Journey you ask, well this is not Journey. Hyper Light Drifter is a psychedelic techno pop trip that can be easy to get lost in. I didn’t become lost in the sense of the game itself, but the game put me in a trance. It becomes hard to escape (a dream) from something so beautifully intriguing, yet full of danger. Knowing nothing about the role of The Drifter, the main protagonist (if you can even call him that), all I did know is he was obviously sick and the world was in a sorry state.
As seems to be the theme with most indie games of 2016 Hyper Light Drifter comes from the creators very real struggles. In Alex Preston’s case, his heart condition. Preston has been dealing with a defective heart sense the day he was born, putting himself fully on display. Not only was I playing his story, but I began to think about my own demons as well. Hyper Light Drifter pulled up the things in me I have not wanted to face, yet reminded me of my responsibility to myself. It’s a poignant reminder that all one can do in life is keep moving forward, face the challenges that come up, and remember that nothing is in your control. The message of things being out of control, hit home for me more than any other. Most of the time we want to think we are in control, but life is unpredictable, no one has a say in how things will go when they wake up that day. Hyper Light Drifter was an elegant interpretation of this. Every time the screen went fuzzy with black drops, The Drifter coughing up blood dropping to his knees, chills went down my spine, because I had no control over this, and it felt awful.
Being that the game has not a single line of dialog (aside from the text showing the basic controls), Hyper Light Drifter is truly left up to player interpretation. Instead of dialog, the story is told through a series of short cut scenes and storyboarding. At first I was frustrated by this (I didn’t understand what was going on), but as I pressed on it became clear exactly how I felt about what I was encountering.The Drifter is a conduit for the players own thoughts (maybe that’s why he’s really sick, he takes on all negativity), he exists to take on fears that can be hard to face. This even became apparent in one of the boss battles. I became increasingly frustrated that I was having trouble defeating said boss, quickly realizing after the umpteenth time my mind was with my own personal thoughts. The game was taking on my demons while wiping the floor with me. Allowing the player to interpret the story in their own way makes it much more personal. Everything about the Drifter’s world can become a reflection of one’s self.
Visually Hyper Light Drifter is stunning, the stuff of drool and long stares. I cannot boast enough about this (seriously if you were to see how many screenshots I’ve taken). Taking it back to 16-bit of games past, it is reminiscent of games like Zelda a Link to the Past, while being every bit present in the now. The color palate alone was enough to sell me, every pixel and sound has had so much love and care put in to it, it truly is a game of the heart, both literally and figuratively. Never has 16-bit looked so good, Hyper Light Drifter takes on the best of the old and new. For those who think 16-bit should remain in the past I say, go play Hyper Light Drifter. Never has such a classic look, looked so polished, Heart Machine even included a sit down button just so if you want to soak in the serenity that is the world, you can. Yes, this game was made in GameMaker but for those who don’t know what GameMaker is, it would be easy to think it might have been done by a bigger studio as a small project.
As for the sound of this game, it is just another brilliant part of the aesthetic and narrative of Hyper Light Drifter. I actually heard a song from the game before I played, and thought “I wonder if that’s Disasterpiece”, sure enough I was right. Disasterpiece produced the soundtrack for Fez, delivering once more on another great indie title. Disasterpiece has managed to capture the exact feeling of this game, putting me in a trance like state with soothing synth that would melt over me and crescendo at just the right time leaving me with a weight that I needed to keep moving forward. Even though it remains music in a digital sense it managed to hit on a gut level, this definitely had something to do with the more orchestral pieces throughout the game, again blending the best of both past and present games.
Not only is the game slick in its presentation, its slick in combat too. Definitely drawing from games such as Dark Souls/Bloodborne while looking back to old school Zelda combat. This is no easy game, presenting enough of a challenge that learning the controls is a must, as simple as they may be. The combat remained engaging and fun the whole way through, and it was easy to see my skills improve along my journey (Hitting a button to phase-shift in rhythm). The Drifter deals with a sword/gun at his side while being able to phase-shift through the world, which helps for trickier encounters, and some puzzles. The best thing about this sword gun combo was definitely the mechanic that when you slash things with your sword, you slowly gain ammunition for your gun. I found myself combing all of The Drifters moves not only because it was satisfying, but because of strategy. The enemies make sure you’re constantly on your toes, choosing to use all the tools in my arsenal I imagine certain areas would have been trickier to navigate otherwise. The Drifter can pick up a few moves along the way, but if one wanted to, they could probably beat the game without ever upgrading anything. I found the upgrades to not only feel good, but also fit with how skilled The Drifter is. He may be sick, but he remains a warrior. Having such rewarding combat brought back the feelings of accomplishment I got from Dark Souls, defeating bosses felt earned not cheap. Having the combat remain simple, yet just customizable enough for the players play style fits perfectly. This game is not out to punish by any means but it is about facing some serious challenges. It really did remind me of my time with Dark Souls. I felt the weight of every button and understood exactly where my fingers were going, one false move and it’s over.
Going back to the heart theme of the game, even the game world reflected this. Being that there are only four areas to the world, it was impressive that each was unique in its own way. Each revealing more about the world and what happened to it. The four areas along The Drifters journey seem to represent the four chambers of the heart, having to fix each one with whatever plagues it; war, disease, giant robots. Each area was unique not only environmentally, but also with what enemy’s occupied said spaces (again a nod to games past). Going to the southern area was horrifying, I still won’t forget what I encountered in those depths, but I won’t spoil it here. My only real gripe was the map interface, it could have been a bit more helpful in exactly where I was, and at times became frustrating, making me want to move on to the next area. It’s a basic map which is easy to understand in the sense of the area you are in, but becomes confusing because of all of Hyper Light Drifters secrets, and there are a ton. I was pressing myself up against every wall I encountered in hopes that there might be a path, most of the time this was a no. I understand it is making sure to fit the 16-bit era its going for, but it would have been nice to see some of that new age polish thrown in. All in all, not the biggest complaint. I was still able to move around easily, and also I quickly figured out how to spot secret areas, also helpful that dead enemies remain in areas you’ve already cleared (a bread crumb trail of bodies).
To Sum Up
There is something truly magic about 2016 for gaming, especially all of the fantastic Indie titles that keep coming out, and Hyper Light Drifter is just one more notch on that belt. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with The Drifter and while I didn’t find all of the games secrets because I needed to finish it, I know I will be going back to make sure the world is in the best shape possible before beating it again. This is by no means the big budget AAA title most see in commercials or ads, but it’s easy for games like Hyper Light Drifter to slip under the radar. Heart Machine has delivered a beautiful game that left me thinking, and at the end of the day I love when a game leaves me to ponder. It sticks in a certain part of the brain and won’t let go. Hyper Light Drifter is one man’s very personal story about certain things one just has to live with, because as I said, nothing is in our control, and The Drifter is there to remind us of this. Just keep moving, because to stagnate is death.
Hyper Light Drifter is available now on: OUYA | PC | PS4 | PSV | Wii U | XBO