A warm return to the Cold War.
Lead artist and developer behind Hyper Light Drifter, Alex Preston, bore his heart into his game. He’s suffered a prolonged heart condition that has not only stalled the release of the game by two years, but also stalled his life. Scenes of the main character coughing up blood are not only directly referential to Alex’s lifelong condition, but also feel indicative of the struggle of such a long delay the team at Heart Machine faced in their inaugural release. Despite the problems with development, the game is out, and it’s a joy to play and to look at.
Hyper Light Drifter is a beautiful game. From the opening cinematic, to scanning every dungeon for any hint of a secret, all the way to the game’s end credits, I was blown away by how much craft went into every single detail. It sticks with a bold, off-pastel color palette that manages to stay vibrant yet still feel natural at the same time. I spent plenty of time pressing the sit button and just staring at some of the post-apocalyptic cyberpunk landscapes.
The visuals however don’t come close to undercutting the audio. The music, done by Disasterpeace, is often beautifully discordant and heavy, encouraging you to push forward and keep exploring. Climbing up a mountain top to see the giant long-dead machine-beast hanging off of it is filled with just the right amount of gravitas, while sitting next to a skeleton while he strums at his guitar in the hub area is delightfully mellow. Meanwhile, Akash Thakkar’s brilliant sound design makes every action you take just sound right. Sword swings and gunshots have satisfying crunches to them, and activating an objective always sounds like you’re accomplishing something important.
The story of Hyper Light Drifter is told visually. The extent of text in this game are tutorial hints that teach you the basic mechanics, while everything else is explained through context clues and iconography. Dialogue prompts with NPCs pop up still images that tell you story tidbits that each of them has to share. From what I can tell through trading cards and achievements, The Magician, also known as The Drifter, meets these people on their travels as they search for a cure for whatever disease is plaguing them. It causes them to constantly cough up bright pink blood and experience grisly visions of their own death. Despite its vibrance, the world is dark, and a cruel fate always feels right around the corner.
The gameplay is absolutely tight. The combat has the frenetic pace and tactical planning that combat designer Beau Blyth created in Samurai Gunn. All of your sword swings and gunshots carry a weight to them that makes every hit feel gratifying. You start with a pistol, a 3 swing sword combo, and a dodge. The game also encourages blending gun and swordplay. While your bullets are very limited, you restore them by hitting not just enemies with your sword, but also breakable objects around the world, which is a very neat idea.
You work your way up through a bunch of upgrades, all available at any time. While there aren’t really any “builds” in the game per se (since by the end you’ll most likely wind up with all the upgrades anyways), that immediate availability will make you lean on upgrades that fit your playstyle. Also, three of the four zones in the game are open right from the beginning, so most players will find themselves taking completely different paths. It’s been very interesting swapping notes with other players and seeing how their playthrough differed from mine. For example, one friend picked up a health upgrade at the start while I beat the game without picking up any. Another friend went straight through the water area first and picked up the charge attack, which I didn’t get until the end of the game.
Another big aspect is hunting for secrets, and BOY are there a lot of them. While tons of areas in the game are set just outside the player’s view, over time you’ll learn that rarely ever are things just plain hidden. There are plenty of subtle clues around the environment that will signify when there’s a secret nearby. Keep a close eye on things that are out of the ordinary in the environment, and check every corner you can. Secret hunting alone feels like the bulk of the game more than the dungeoneering.
My only real complaint about Hyper Light Drifter is that overall, the game doesn’t feel like it does anything wildly original or different. I know it doesn’t need to; not every game has to have a groundbreaking story or come up with any revolutionary systems that will advance its genre. But while playing the game, it felt like Heart Machine leaned too much on some of the systems innovated by their predecessors. You’ve got your forest, your mountain, your water temple, and your desert, all with their thematically relevant iterations. Maybe it’s me, and maybe I’ve seen one too many sliding platforms in my lifetime. Maybe I’ve accidentally stumbled upon enough fake walls that it doesn’t feel like much of a discovery anymore. But they’re there for a reason, they work towards what Heart Machine wanted to accomplish.
I’m glad Hyper Light Drifter came out, and I enjoyed every second I played of it. It’s a beautiful game, and easily worth the twenty dollar price point for the aesthetics alone. I’m very excited to see what Heart Machine comes up with next and if it’ll be even half as pretty as this game. Honestly though, I’m more excited just to get back in, start New Game Plus, and hunt for some more secrets.