In 2016, the games industry treated us to classics such as Overwatch, a reboot to the Doom franchise and a nostalgic indie action/adventure named Hyper Light Drifter.
Inspired by the Final Fantasy and Zelda franchises from the NES/SNES, Hyper Light Drifter is the breakout game by small independent company Heart Machine available on PC, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. This 2D isometric game, about the player finding the cure for their terminal illness, is currently in my top ten games of all time. In this review, I will break this hidden gem down and analyse its gameplay, art, narrative and music to see what makes it so great.
Exploration is at the heart of Hyper Light Drifter, enforced by a map which is so vague that it encourages players to “find the path” rather than “follow the path”. The world is open, allowing the freedom to visit the bosses in any order they like without the developer holding your hand. This makes exploring the game like a puzzle.
Also, just a side note, this is the first game that has encouraged me to actively hunt down every secret either to gather more resources or to witness a scene that adds to the narrative experience.
Combat is challenging with a strong focus on movement, every enemy has a set of actions that the player must memorise and have a counter-action ready, transforming your fighting style from reactive to proactive and eventually battles feel more like a dance.
There is one tutorial at the very beginning of the game to teach all of the basic sprint, slice and shoot mechanics before letting go of the player’s hand and let them learn and experience it all themselves. You very quickly realise that the gun is only for last resort and you are forced to charge head first into the fight with your trusty sword.
However, it has a high barrier to entry and I found myself, in the heat of combat, feeling completely overwhelmed. This may be down to the 30fps lock, half that of 60fps standard for current generation games.
Whereas the majority of current generation games go for a dark and gritty aesthetic, Hyper Light Drifter goes for bright pinks, blues and greens. These are some of the most beautiful video game visuals I have ever seen, with a combination of classic pixel art and modern 3D graphics that helped the developers win an award for best art in an indie game.
The story was inspired by the life of Alex Preston, creator/designer/artist of Hyper Light Drifter, who has suffered from heart disease since birth.This resonates throughout the rest of the game with the sense of discovery and the unknown constantly in the atmosphere.
The player character is a blank slate for the player to project their own personality, but the rest of the characters are 2D and forgettable only serving the purpose to add to the lore, give objectives and buy stuff. However, the dialogue uses images rather than text that are more visually compelling yet vague enough that it requires the player to fill in the gaps with their imagination, drawing you into the story through interactive means.
While we are on the subject of imagination, the narrative is very mysterious and, at times, open to interpretation. Take the opening cutscene, for example, all you can gather from it is that there was a disaster; giant robots, who are dead now; a strange dog who keeps reappearing in sections of this strange world. You are never given details, just the basic elements for the player to figure out for themselves which is so engaging.
One aspect that is often overlooked in this game is the music. An 8-bit soundtrack, to fit in with the retro aesthetic, that has an eerie yet beautiful atmosphere, to match the eerie yet beautiful world.
There is so much to talk about that could fill a book but, to keep it short, I’m just going to say: Hyper Light Drifter is a fantastic amalgamation of retro and modern game design. Some players may be intimidated by the high barrier to entry or the narrative that requires imagination to fill in the gaps, but once you get invested, I guarantee that you will love this masterpiece.
By David Mincer.