Some games have a sense of wonder and mystery to them that goes unmatched by movies and comics. Whether it be the colossal skeleton draped against a mountain in the background, or the pulsating creatures trapped in test tubes, Hyper Light Drifter has many moments where it reaches that height of impressing images and moments onto the player. This is the sort of game that I don’t want to spoil for someone who may know nothing about the game, much like myself. If you have any interest in this game, just know that it is a fantastic piece of design work thanks to its beautiful score, gorgeous visuals, solid gameplay, and foreboding narrative.
The main reason I don’t want to spoil the game is because a lot of the fun and satisfaction of progressing is learning the underlying systems. Be it the way you earn money, upgrade weapons and abilities, what symbols on the ground mean, interpreting images shown when you talk to certain NPCs, or seeing enemies/bosses for the first time.
You begin the game after a vision of fantastical settings, giant humanoids lumber in the distance, corpses pile in a red sea, black tendrils reach out to consume you, and a light appears to promise respite from all of it. A dog-like being with a glowing head leads you out and into the world. The tutorial section, as well as the central town you make your home, give little bits of information about the world, its past, and its current state. A large portion of what you could call story is interpretive, giving you visual clues in the form of imagery, environments, ruins, and scattered visions.
It is clear early on that your main objective is to find and activate modules throughout each of the four surrounding areas. Each section requires four modules to be activated before you can access and fight the main boss. Once completed you are then able to utilize the main pillar for that area. While this layout of objectives is simple, the execution and journey along the way to completing it is what makes it worthwhile. Since the end goal is simple and clear, you are free to focus on the smaller things you will encounter along the way.
There are more than four modules in each area, and while not all are required to complete the game, certain doors will only open if you have found all eight. Other doors only require one or three modules. Each door will be marked with how many modules are needed, and drawing close to the door brings up an image that shows how far along you currently are.
Teleportation pads can be found in each major area. These allow you to travel instantly from anywhere in the world to one of the predetermined points. They are useful as quick checkpoints to bypass backtracking to the town for upgrades, but are generally located in the middle of a major area. This means if you have already made a lot of progression beyond the teleport pad, you might want to hold off on traveling to save time. The actual act of teleporting has a great animation. Your drifter enters some keys into a holographic display, kneels, and the screen shakes a bit as you gather energy before vanishing upwards in a beam of light.
In the central town is a home that you are brought to after the introduction, a teleport pad, and shops to upgrade your character’s abilities, guns, and health packs. In the center of town is the marker for your progression, a diamond that will light up slowly as you activate modules and the pillars from each area. It acts as a visual bookmark and reminder of your end goal.
Scattered throughout the land are gold chests that contain gearbits, this world’s form of currency. They are found only after defeating a certain set of enemies or by discovering hidden areas slightly off-screen. Gearbits are the way you access upgrades, and four of them must be combined before you have a usable piece of currency. These are used to access upgrades, and most will cost two to three bits. The rarity of bits is determined by your ability to discover hidden areas, though they never become plentiful enough that you will be fully upgraded in a short amount of time.
For the first game you create, you will have five slots of health (starting with three health packs, which can later be upgraded to carry five). The maximum amount of health you have cannot be upgraded, only how many health packs you can carry. In new game plus, you only have two slots of health, making the game much more difficult. Falling off of platforms consumes one slot, and a good amount of enemy attacks will consume two, which adds a heightened sense of fragility to new game plus.
Using the health pack requires an animation to be completed, leaving you open to attack and unwanted death when healing. This can be frustrating, as you could be on the verge of healing yourself only to be hit and sent back to the last checkpoint. While most checkpoints are generous and never too far from a patch of enemies, some checkpoints will send you back to the beginning of a particularly long combat or platforming section.
Main combat mechanics are at first basic. You have a three swing combo and a pistol to start. While your combo can never be extended, you can purchase upgrades that combine the sword with your dash. The dash is at first a three combo movement that allows you to cover ground and quickly move out of the way of attacks. It will not phase you through enemies, and death is likely to occur should you use it to try and move through a crowd. Ranged attacks consume energy, and is recharged by striking with your sword, be it enemies or objects in the world. Some outfits you will come across offer passive boosts, such as decreasing the delay between slashes.
Each major area has its own unique set of enemies. From bird creatures, to crystallized monsters, frog ninjas, and robots. Some enemy types are shared between areas, but each and every one has a distinct attack pattern. A flying bird cannot be hit by sword swing except when it comes flying at you. It can at anytime be shot down, however. Another type of bird summons energy in a direction that is foreshadowed by an outline. There is a delay to the attack, allowing you to sidestep and strike.
Discovering new enemy types, viewing their behavior, and memorizing the attack pattern is a satisfying learning curve. I enjoyed encountering new enemy types that would change my approach to combat. Dashing in and out of their range, baiting them to attack, or standing back and picking them off with my guns was fun, especially because the game doesn’t overload you with enemies throughout its playtime.
Each boss fight is quite difficult and a culmination of the enemies you have fought previously. Boss characters will engage with attacks that are advanced, yet familiar to what you have encountered beforehand. While each major area in the overworld has its own main boss, the southern area is broken between four boss battles.
Through and through this game is gorgeous to look at. Image stills don’t do it justice, but do help in certain areas where you marvel at the environment or background images. Each major area has a giant humanoid monster remains in it, whether it be covered in snow laying against a mountain, or decaying in the midst of a forest. These monstrous skeletons tell the story of a war from far in the past. Their presence warns you of what this world is capable of spawning.
As a fan of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and Neon Genesis Evangelion, I can get behind large humanoid remains of beings beyond our control. These giants aren’t the only remnants, as frequently in your adventure you will come across skeletal remains of humans, monsters, buried equipment, and combatants of long ago. Dropped remains of war, ruins of older cities, and adventurers who came before but failed are a common sight.
While the presentation is a throwback to the 16- or 32-bit eras, it is far too advanced to have run on those machines. The isometric top-down viewpoint can be a bit confusing at first, as you try to determine what is usable land and what is a wall. Heart Machine uses the camera angle to obscure certain areas of the screen from view, hiding secrets in corners that would otherwise have been passed by. Everything from the shades of purple and green this game uses, the vibrant lighting, the subtle tonal changes in the color palette, the enemy sprites and animations, the unique boss characters, the environments you visit, backgrounds that pan into view as you move forward, it is all so beautiful to watch unfold.
A map shows you the general layout, though won’t actively show your position. Instead it places your icon in the center of the current screen’s coverage. This means you will have to figure out your actual placement and the correct way to go. The map is much more of a guide for general directions, but not at all great for specifics. This isn’t a major issue, as the game naturally guides you to where you should go next. The central town links each area: the northern mountain, the eastern lake, the western forest, and the southern desert. Each has its own color palette, and three can be accessed in a non-linear style, as access to the south is locked until you have cleared the other three.
At any point you can access a character screen, which will summarize your current abilities, guns equipped, health pack space, and gearbit collection. There is absolutely no dialogue in the game. Instead everything is delivered either via visual storytelling, or images presented in short slideshows when you speak to certain NPCs. Vendors at shops will present a short GIF displaying the advertised ability for you, as well as the number of gearbits required for purchase. Beyond those images and visions you infrequently experience, the plot largely relies on the player piecing together his or her own quest and the history of this setting before your arrival.
Guns are found as you progress through, or in hidden areas. Many of the secrets in Hyper Light Drifter can be found by paying close attention to the ground, specifically to an icon that will indicate a secret is located in that direction. It is a small marking, but one that, as soon as you learn it, becomes something you are constantly scanning the ground for. Sometimes it leads to invisible platforms that would have gone unnoticed, other times it leads to a corner of the screen the camera would have never panned to had you not found it. And on rare occasions it leads to areas that have locked doors, or contains a portion of a key for those locked doors.
Many games take their concept and spread it thin over multiple hours, but thankfully Hyper Light Drifter bundles all it has in a seven hour package for those who just want to play it once. However, for those who desire to see more, you have the challenge of New Game Plus, the allure of activating every module, collecting every secret, and achieving the 800 chain dash combo.
The more I think about my time with Hyper Light Drifter, as well as my continued journey in New Game Plus, the more I realize how much I like this game. Every aspect of it contains a high bar of quality. The sound work, composed by Disasterpeace, is subtle, but will crescendo at just the right moments. The graphics are a throwback to a bygone era of gaming, but also effectively convey a real and lived in world rich in mythology and fantastical events. Combat has a solid foundation that it builds upon, and enemies are fun to fight or watch plummet to the abyss below thanks to a disappearing platform. Hyper Light Drifter is a game you should not miss out on.