Developer: Heart Machine
Publisher: Heart Machine
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One
An eerie howl creeps from your monitor’s speakers as cinders billow upward into a black void. Apocalyptic visions of giant, skeleton-like monstrosities flash before your eyes. Gnarled shadows with single, glowing eyes stalk you as a mysterious dog spirit sits before a great gate. With no narration to guide you but the haunting soundtrack by Disasterpeace, you soon awaken to rainfall as the Drifter—a silent protagonist armed with sword and gun who is tasked to traverse his broken world in a last-ditch effort to save it. The Drifter coughs ominously as blood spittles from his mouth, portending a short time until he succumbs to a secret illness. Failure will plunge his world into chaos. So begins his race against time and cataclysm.
The world of Hyper Light Drifter is dark and menacing and frightful despite its pixelated and stylized graphics. Not merely the violence (enemies often collapse in streams of pinkish blood) but the imagery itself is unsettling.
Hyper Light Drifter’s world is littered with bones—thousands of them. Regions look like war zones, where the recently-living inhabitants are skinned alive, or their heads are skewered on pikes like something out of fifteenth-century Transylvania or anything by Eli Roth. It’s all quite off-putting.
Younger players may find some of the images disturbing. I particularly winced at the first boss, a frog-like creature who introduces himself by biting in half one of the anthropomorphic rodents you’ve been trying to help before swallowing the rest of it and wiping his mouth of the blood.
If Hyper Light Drifter was a realistically-stylized game featuring a cast of human characters and real-life settings, it would absolutely be rated M by the ESRB for its gruesome violence and gritty images of recent and ancient death.
No coarse language or sexuality.
TEN THOUSAND EYES
American impressionist Ben Stahl once said, “Good art uses story as a means, not an end.” Hyper Light Drifter (HLD) is a rare gem in its application of this principle. It is a true exercise in nuanced, contextual storytelling in which the setting itself, rather than direct dialogue or monologue, conveys the resounding cataclysm the Drifter fights to avert. With only a few English language instructions telling the player how to move and fight with the Drifter, all of the game’s story points are told through snapshots of the world that leave the player wondering at who the inhabitants of the land once were and what happened to them. (Even the in-game menus are written in the cryptic, original text invented by the developers.) While much of the abounding death and destruction are rooted in clearly recent circumstances, much of the carnage echoes a historyless, bygone era.
Mysteries mount as the Drifter progresses through the game world —six distinct regions of a mystical continent populated by a few surviving anthropomorphic animals – mowing down samurai raccoons, deadly automatons, flesh-eating frogs, and cabalistic birds. Between sorties, the Drifter must avoid traps and unearth the long-lost secrets and ancient technology of an extinct (PC?) master race in hopes of disabling the doomsday device looming above the mystical, unnamed continent. All the while, Drifter’s coughing worsens.
The player never ceases feeling that their progress is being observed by the mysterious dog spirit and the dark entities associated with the doomsday device as the apocalyptic visions from the prologue increase in frequency and intensity.
HLD conjures the spirit of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past in its top-down perspective, item collection, copious secrets, combat, and puzzle-solving. Even the map seems to be an homage to Hyrule.
Drifter’s skills are unlocked by a series of yellow tokens he collects to assemble currency for use back in the center of the map, where a small community of survivors cling to life. Drifter can upgrade his ammunition and health, or he can add new skills to his limited repertoire. But players must choose wisely: money is hard to come by, and certain areas will be significantly easier or harder— sometimes totally inaccessible—if Drifter isn’t properly skilled and outfitted. The player will need to return to previously completed areas at a later time to fully access all of the secrets, side rooms, and unlocks.
None of the bosses in HLD are easy. All present particular, exponentially difficult attack patterns. They often call on mooks to distract you while they charge a special kill move. They increase in speed and ferocity as they near defeat. My fewest attempts at a single boss was three. The forest “General” took around twelve attempts as he wielded his “One-Shot Sword of Cheapness,” which is surely its actual name. The problem may have been that I was using one hand to eat cheese doodles.
All enemies provide unique challenges, starting off fairly simple as you embark into a region and becoming quite challenging by the end, where the Drifter will often find himself suddenly surrounded by a mixed group of all the enemies he’s been facing in that particular region. In these challenging “sorties,” the Drifter must duck behind cover to avoid gunfire while melee attackers close in. Drifter is not free to progress until he clears the area and triumphantly thrusts his sword into the ground.
I must offer one area of criticism: the PC controls. Heart Machine includes a startup screen advising the player to use a controller. For those of us who don’t own one, a mouse and keyboard suffice, but often with annoying results. If you play with m&k, it will take some time to acclimate. The jump puzzles (Drifter can “drift” or “dash” using the spacebar) require a lot of precision, and that precision is not easy to attain with the m&k; I had to switch to using my middle and pointer fingers of my right hand to complete jump puzzles rather than my left hand thumb. Ultimately HLD is playable and completion is attainable with m&k, but you may grit your teeth from time to time at the controls.
A unique stylistic and narrative choice of the developers was to include almost no language other than the fictional language of the mystical continent concocted by the team. Players must rely on context and reading their surroundings not merely to understand what HLD is about, but to progress forward and unlock the world’s secrets. Even the other characters Drifter interacts with share their tales in storyboarded monologues of three to four frames, and often these narratives aren’t fully fleshed out until you finish playing through the region in question.
The music by Disasterpeace is a triumph. It’s haunting, with recurring and unique melodies that crescendo and intensify at key moments. Other tracks are subdued and mysterious, warning Drifter to tread carefully by their tune alone. My favorite track is “The Midnight Wood,” the theme song of the western forest region, which sounds, to me, exactly how a long-lost forest should sound. You can almost see the canopy of red leaves forever obscuring the sun while listening to this track.
Sound is the most integrated part of the game, drawing little to no attention to itself except when it is supposed to, like subtly notifying the player that a secret is nearby yet out of sight. This is, perhaps, the signage of the sound design’s flawlessness in HLD.
HLD is everything a fan of indie, retro-style games could want. It is a masterpiece of style, challenging gameplay, and subdued storytelling narrated by an eccentric, techno-horror OST. I got the game cheap during a Steam sale, and it is one of the best gaming purchases I’ve made this year. The game is challenging, but not impossible. It’s true worth is its inherent mystery and the pleasure of the overall experience. Heart Machine well-deserves its March, 2016 awards at the Independent Games Festival for their work on this game.
Hyper Light Drifter is a highly-recommended purchase for fans of the genre, people who gamed in the 90’s, and anyone wishing to study video games as art.
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The Bottom Line
Highly-recommended purchase for fans of the Action-RPG genre, people who gamed in the 90’s, and anyone wishing to study video games as art. And with such a low price tag, Hyper Light Drifter is a no-brainer.