It was a little way into my second attempt at the East dungeon when everything clicked into place for me. The opening act of Hyper Light Drifter is perhaps the most difficult: you aren’t told much. What you are told is told with gory architecture and fleeting, beautiful cut-scenes. I had just nimbly dashed my way through a shuriken-wielding enemy, slicing him clean in two; this had charged a full notch on my shotgun, and as I evaded the incoming swing of a katana with another dash – this one giving me the drop on my enemy – I unloaded a point blank shotgun blast into his back. After that, I stopped. The ambient soundtrack whirred and whispered in my ear; I stood on a peaceful platform in a beautiful, watery temple, the peace of the scene betrayed by the blood-stains and bodies.
The pieces that came together to create that satisfying scene are more often than not in perfect harmony, but Hyper Light Drifter’s merit is obfuscated, sometimes, by things that contradict its visual clarity. At start you are thrown into a world of savage beauty, shown a cataclysmic event, and visions of your drifter as he clutches his chest in pain, outruns an inky tormentor, and arrives coughing and spluttering into the relative tranquility of the game’s first town. From there that’s about it; you can go North, East, South, or West, and you will have to complete the dungeons in each direction in order to progress.
Sound familiar? It should; there is a lot of classic Zelda here, particularly A Link to the Past, and it’s a template that holds up very well – it’s surprising how few games utilize it. The enclosed non-linearity of the game’s quest is liberating: you know what your ultimate goal is, but before you get there you are free to wander, explore, do some side-quests to build up the drifter’s powers, and tackle the challenge in any order you’d like. Kickstarter is an interesting platform: on the one hand it empowers developers to make good on far-flung, unlikely, and outrageous game proposals, but often what gets made are games that re-capitalise on past glories. Looking at things like Koji Igarashi’s Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, Keiji Inafune’s Mighty No. 9, and now this, it’s easy to see that people still want old and proven templates delivered well; evolution, not revolution, is sometimes the answer.
What isn’t borrowed from Miyamoto is borrowed from Ueda (Ico) and Miyazaki (Dark Souls): combat is rigid, punishing, and rewarding. Death is used to teach valuable lessons, and the story is given to you by way of subtle visual cues and environmental detail – at times perhaps too subtle. Hyper Light Drifter occasionally falters in its delivery of story in that its vagueness is somewhat impenetrable. NPC’s tell stories using pictures, something that on paper is an interesting and novel idea; in practice it doesn’t really come across that way. At one point I was shown a series of little vignettes that seemed to be telling the story of a bird fellow, who crept about stealing eggs, possibly to save them from a siege of sorts. What am I to do with that? It doesn’t really tie into what’s happening now in any apparent way, and there isn’t much else to clue me in.
This obscurity finds its way into the nuts and bolts mechanics of the game as well. Early on I figured out that the town I found myself stationed in was cluttered with shops that I could upgrade my drifter with, but these were often unclear. Little symbols were supposed to tell me what each upgrade did, but I often ended up just taking a stab in the dark.
Whereas Ueda and Miyazaki are vague and subtle, they both give you all the tools you need to piece something cohesive together. With Hyper Light Drifter, I’m not sure there actually is a finite plot; I’m not sure that this matters all that much either.
What is there, in pictures, environmental clues, dark and beautiful pixel art cut-scenes, and some telling little character quirks, is a story of illness. A good and evil clash surrounded by the tale of a desolate land, and an intriguing hero. It doesn’t need to be told in specific terms; the real struggle is with our hero’s heart. It’s one that mirrors the tale of the game’s Lead Developer Alex Preston. Preston suffers from a congenital heart defect, and in interviews has revealed that he labours under the near constant possibility that he could die at any moment.
A sad and stark theme, Preston has imbued it in Hyper Light Drifter, and the constant threat of death is one that is never far from the drifter. Every now and then he will pause, clutch his chest, double over, and cough up blood that gushes down onto the floor, the screen growing red and blurred as he does so. These little moments jangled my nerves effectively and always sent a shiver down my spine; Damocles’ sword was ever-present, and it may not be the monsters that ended up taking my Drifter’s life. Aside from being a wonderful story, Preston’s condition forms a meaningful part of Hyper Light Drifter: it pierces the games ambient layers, and runs it through with a discomforting needle-and-thread – art imitates life, indeed.
That ambiance comes from the sound as much as the visuals. Rich Vreeland (Disasterpeace), the composer behind It Follows and Fez, lends the game a haunting and airy score, undercut by spacious and dreamy piano pieces along with thumping, driving battle-beats. You will never find yourself without food for thought in Hyper Light Drifter: if you aren’t caught up in the visuals of your environment, then you can lose yourself in listening to the score. It’s one that subtly nudges you, indicating danger, melancholy, history, or simply the off-putting sense that something just isn’t quite right – and it often isn’t.
It presents you with a healthy challenge. Combat is bound by rigid rules, and you won’t feel cheated here when you are dispatched. You have five notches of health, and a hit will take one, and sometimes two of these notches away from you. The answer is the dash. A deft and satisfying little zip in your chosen direction will take you swiftly out of harm’s way and deposit you in prime slashing position next to an exposed opponent. It’s a simplified version of the From Software template; if you’re going to borrow, borrow from the best. Your slashes charge up your secondary weapon’s ammo, meaning that when your back is against the wall during a long fight you can whip out your gun and blast yourself some breathing room. The guns have a visceral gut-punch quality to them, and capping off a sequence of skillful dodges and slashes with a closing statement from the shotgun in particular, is one of the most satisfying things in 2016. If you are killed, then you will restart at the entrance to the room you died in – a thankful concession, and on that takes out backtracking to say nothing of zero loading time.
The land is littered with collectibles that will unlock further upgrades, new clothes, gear, and keys, so there is incentive here to keep playing after you’ve cut down your final foe. In fact, just like A Link to the Past, there is a simply pleasure here in wandering the land with definite purpose, looking only to expand your Drifter’s wardrobe, armoury, or skill set – or to expand your own familiarity with one of the more beautiful gaming worlds in a long time. On top of this there’s a new game + mode which will take away all bar two notches of your health, and heap an increased difficulty on you – not for the squeamish.
Every now and again a game is more than the sum of its parts; Hyper Light Drifter is a game that is precisely the sum of its parts. Taking inspiration from the very best, Preston and his team at Heart Machine have delivered an experience that shines. Occasionally obscured by the lack of a coherent visual language, the game relies on your willingness to invest a little bit of your head, your heart, and your guts and bravado.
Given how good Hyper Light Drifter is, I don’t think you’ll find that very hard.