It only took a moment – a fraction of a moment. I had zigged and zagged, dispensing of enemies while I dodged projectiles and evaded their attacks. I was on the verge of a satisfying and total victory.
Then I dashed the wrong way.
My overconfidence had allowed my instinct to heal to lapse, and the damage dealt from the fall was all I needed to die, and start all over again from the beginning of the screen.
I let out an inhuman groan that sounded like something between a dying bear and Godzilla preparing for another rampage through Tokyo before flopping dramatically to my side. I was frustrated – but intent on overcoming the trial that stood before me. I sat back up and got back to it.
Welcome to Hyper Light Drifter. Initially brought to life back in 2013 through a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, Hyper Light Drifter officially released March 31st for PC/Mac and Linux, and just recently came to consoles at the end of July. A well-crafted action RPG that features stunning pixel art, Hyper Light Drifter tells the story of a warrior who finds himself afflicted with a mysterious disease. Set against the backdrop of a highly-technological society that seems to have suffered a cataclysmic end, the game offers no dialogue to spin its story, but rather relies on images to do the job. In the opening segment you can piece together that there are evil forces at work, and you must navigate through the nearby ruins to unravel the mystery of what happened to the world, and in the process hopefully find a cure for your illness.
The juxtaposition of the simple with the advanced is a running theme throughout Hyper Light Drifter. The setting is the remains of a technologically advanced civilization capable of building giant towers…and is brought to life through pixel art. Not to imply that pixel art is easy, as that is hardly the case, but that the aesthetic of pixel art is not necessarily what you’d expect to bring such a thriving and expansive world to life. Yet, Hyper Light Drifter does exactly that – and beautifully so.
Seriously – the pixel art in Hyper Light Drifter is exceedingly impressive, reminding us that creating a large and engaging world doesn’t require cutting edge graphics or multi-million dollar budgets. There are four large areas that extend out from the center in the cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. Each of these areas have a distinct feel to them, and everything from the shallow pools of water to the birds that fly away as you approach them are brought to life brilliantly.
The beauty of the pixelated world that Hyper Light Drifter offers is only matched by the haunting soundtrack. Composed by Richard Vreeland (AKA “Disasterpeace”) and Akash Thakkar, the soundtrack is two parts Metroid, one part Blade Runner and all parts awesome. But, you don’t have to take my word for it.
There’s also the matter of the story, and that there is no dialogue to speak of throughout the course of the game. Creator Alx Preston took the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” very seriously in crafting the narrative, as the conversations are exclusively pictures accompanied by incomprehensible beeps or grunts. While it is a bit unorthodox, I found the commitment to SNES-era gaming to be admirable – not to mention that it’s not too hard to pick up the general story through these “conversations”.
This contrast carries through into the gameplay as well. At first glance, the gameplay is very simple: you have a basic attack, a sidearm that you can shoot, a “special”, and your token dash technique to help put distance between yourself and the enemy. However, this simple set of moves takes on a life of its own when thrown into the pronounced difficulty of Hyper Light Drifter. Yes, its difficulty falls in the same vein of Dark Souls and Salt & Sanctuary, with a healthy dose of “git gud n00b” being the only remedy. Enemies are introduced that seem fairly harmless upon first glance, but eventually you’ll find yourself facing hordes of them, in varied arrangements, until you find yourself dashing around the screen and slashing through enemies with precision. Your character has a limited health pool (he’s sick after all…give him a break), and the game doesn’t offer anything to make you any sturdier throughout the game.
Luckily, there are ways to expand your arsenal as the game progresses. As you battle your way through the world you acquire a limited amount of currency which can be used to upgrade your weapons, first-aid kit slots (to help you recover your HP in trying battles), or augment your dashing ability. While none of these evolutions single handedly make the game “easy”, you begin to find that your ability to change up your weapons makes you more adaptable and able to meet a wider range of threats more effectively. In the end you are left with a fairly challenging title, but nothing beyond the scope of reason. (Interested in seeing me take down one of the bosses? Check out my battle here!)
I do want to take a moment and appreciate the scope of the world that Heart Machine has created with Hyper Light Drifter. Each of the 4 main areas is an impressive size, but I was also very interested in the number of hidden paths and doorways that were littered throughout the map. If you just take the game at face value, you will certainly still have a great time, but be missing out on a wealth of cool weapons as well as precious achievements. I will say that this game is the first one since Bloodborne that I am obsessed with getting a platinum trophy for. I’ll be sure to keep you guys posted on how that goes…
In the end, many games try their best to capture the spirit of the 16-bit era: retro-style games are all the rage, but very few are able to capture the feeling we all had sitting in a darkened room as we navigated through Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Where so many other games fail, Hyper Light Drifter succeeds. Though heavy on difficulty, the overall experience is one of the most rewarding and entertaining I’ve had in some time.