Hyper Light Drifter can only be described as post-apocalyptic, techno-mystical surrealism. Developed and published by Heart Machine, this RPG/adventure uses only visuals and action to tell its story. No dialogue or text, with styles of art and music strongly reminiscent of Homestuck‘s more polished segments. That’s strictly a matter of overall impressions, however, as Hyper Light Drifter forges its own narrative path entirely.
The world of Hyper Light Drifter is a world of corruption and decay, populated mostly by humanoid animals surviving amid the ruins of what was once a great civilization. You play as the titular Drifter, using wits, speed and knowledge of lost technology to explore the wreckage, searching for answers to the nightmares that plague you.
Given the fact that you start the opening cutscene in the middle of one such nightmare, awakening only to cough up a fair amount of blood, it seems you’ll need those answers sooner rather than later.
Overall, Hyper Light Drifter is fairly standard as a console-styled RPG. There’s an overworld composed of a central “home” city surrounded by four wilderness zones, each ruled over by a unique boss. Clearing a zone involves obtaining four gem-like “modules” hidden in each area, then whacking the local boss. Find new and better gear, learn and improve skills, and make sure to search everywhere with a fine-toothed comb for secrets… unless you want to end up resorting to a walkthrough!
Naturally, it’s not going to be that easy. Many areas are cleverly hidden, while others require you to collect a certain number of keys to open doors blocking your way. Some are necessary to advance the plot, some merely lead to interesting discoveries, packs of nasty goons, or both. Jumping puzzles and crushing traps are also to be found in plenty. The careful Drifter will find themselves rewarded, while the careless ones, well…
Each time you manage to clear a zone, a pillar will be raised, thrumming with power from the planet’s depths. When all four pillars are raised… well, you’ll have to find that out for yourself, won’t you?
THE WARRIOR’S PATH OF “GIT GUD”
A game controller is highly recommended for Hyper Light Drifter, mainly due to an intensely-focused style of combat bordering on “bullet hell” once you start fighting large groups or bosses. While it’s entirely playable with keyboard and mouse, the latter sets the direction for all attacks and actions while the former controls movement. When the pace ramps up, you’ll find yourself having to move the mouse, then act, which takes a few crucial seconds longer (and is less precise) than doing the same thing with dual thumbsticks.
In some circles, Hyper Light Drifter has become notorious for requiring what’s known as “pixel-perfect” skills to get through certain challenges. Nonetheless, the cardinal gamer’s rule of “git gud” applies, if you (like I) insist on doing it keyboard style. Learning your enemies’ patterns, adapting your strategies, and improving control of the action through practice can allow one to prevail. Maybe it’s because of my personal obstinance (or because I’m notoriously cheap), but I’m still determined to nail a 100% completion playthrough without breaking down and spending five bucks at Goodwill for a used USB controller.
Or perhaps I just don’t care what the definition of insanity is.
SHE’S GOT THE LOOK
One thing which sets Hyper Light Drifter apart from many other “retro-pixel” games is that it takes the art of the craft seriously. Every animation, every object, every bit of scenery is tailored to evoke a sense of wonder and mystery. Everything you see has a reason for existing and some sort of history behind it. The fact that none of this is told to you, other than through observation (and the occasional slideshow discussion with a non-player character), heightens these impressions.
Now, it’s not entirely true that there’s no text in this story. Every now and again, you’ll run into an ancient computer which flashes up what looks like gibberish at first glance. However, it’s actually an actual language, and you can even try your cryptography skills out on it. A bit like the holotapes you can find in various Fallout games, each of these computers provides a tantalizing snippet of data on the cataclysms which befell this world.
Although it’s not technically necessary to figure out all the details, Hyper Light Drifter‘s curiosity factor has generated a community which still debates over the game’s meanings and interpretations. That’s something which goes above and beyond a lot of the games occupying the genre.
GIVE ME A HEADSET OR GIVE ME DEATH
Hyper Light Drifter‘s managed one thing almost no other game has, in that it made me want to buy the soundtrack separately. These are simple melodies for the most part, yet also strong, evocative, even soulful. There are tracks I want to play on my earbuds the next time a warm rain washes through Phoenix, or while watching the sunrise from my back patio over a mug of strong morning coffee. It’s that good.
It’s also perfectly matched to the action, such as with segues from a sedate walk through a red-leaved forest to the upbeat tempo of imminent combat, a vicious beast having roared in the distance. Different areas, with their varied visual flavors of half-crystallized forests, snowy mountain ranges, and babbling waterways, likewise get suitable tracks to match. Most RPG adventures (even AAA titles on occasion) tend to get feeling “samey” after a while. Hyper Light Drifter doesn’t really have that problem.
Summing up, that’s really what you’re getting with this game – a unique, colorful, engaging adventure with its own style, as well as a sense of authentic grace. A big reason we still have so many early console video game franchises going strong is that their creators were sharply limited in what they could do by memory requirements. Each pixel and animation ate into critical development resources, so the best games of the era had zero room to be sloppy. You could see the love, the attention to detail, in everything.
Heart Machine’s Hyper Light Drifter remembers… and so will you.
Polished, engaging, and tough to beat, Hyper Light Drifter will stoke that part of your brain which can't resist a challenge.