Hyper Light Drifter is a lovingly crafted homage to the 16- bit classics of our childhoods. It presents us with a play-style so seeped in nostalgia that you find yourself breathless as you play; completely encapsulated by the dreamlike landscapes and violent, erratic monsters infesting the world.
The games developer, Alex Preston of Heart Machine, likens the game to The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past, and Diablo respectively. Taking the dungeon crawling, hack and slash aspects of both and piecing them together to create something that feels familiar, but unique in its own way.
You play The Drifter, a stranger in a land ravaged by corruption and overrun with beasts and daemons alike. Armed with a small arsenal of weapons – a light sword, a gun, and a dash ability – you set out into the world to seemingly cure the foul blight gripping the land and your own body. We see The Drifter fall to his knees, clutching himself as he bleeds profusely, the screen glitches with sudden, mechanical movements. This illness afflicting you is unnamed and unexplained, but immediately embeds itself as integral to the story. The plague holding The Drifter has been up for much debate, with many players assuming he is resurrected at the games opening, tasked with cleansing the land as best he can while following a Jackal that bears striking semblance to Anubis; God of the Underworld.
Though this speculation is just that, and it’s in this that we find the games greatest strength: silence. By the end of the story, you are left with nothing but your own interpretations of the narrative and the world laid before you. It marvels in the unsaid.
We are given a basic premise, with clues giving us glimpses into the worlds history. We meet the residents of this shattered land in hidden, out-of-the way paths and run down buildings. They tell us stories in pictures, almost all of them depicting themselves being run from their homes and cut down by the creatures infesting the land. Secret doors reveal monoliths engraved with a symbol language a la Fez, capable of translation if the player is cunning enough. The map, which too needs to be deciphered, shows us a land split into four quarters with bosses in each that beg to be slain. Small diamonds flash up which we must collect, allowing the player to unlock doors and come closer to the behemoths at the end of each section. It’s all given to you without comment. You’re expected to figure it out as best you can, as the game is unwilling to fill in the blanks.
Combat is chaotic if you don’t have the patience to be deliberate in your movements and precise in your timings. Every enemy requires a different strategy: crows can only be hit as they go in for the kill, robots are best taken out first, dogs can be hit back if timed correctly. Health is scarce and refilling it takes precious seconds which leave you vulnerable and exposed. Each fight becomes and encounter with a plan; in a very Dark Souls esque manner. You cannot mash buttons and hope for the best, you must be deliberate and break the foes’ defences when its attack pattern allows. It’s tricky, but doable; and it creates a great sense of accomplishment with each cleared room. The Drifter swings his sword and smashes it into the ground: you did it, job done.
This frantic scrambling of combat sets the stage for Hyper Light Drifter’s beauty. After racing heartbeats and bated breath, you emerge onto a cliff face overlooking a rosy sky. Nothing but you and the wind. You cross bridges surrounded by waterfalls, take time to walk the stacks of books in libraries and breathe the forest air. You find moments of peace in this ravaged land, a dreamlike tranquillity drowning out the echoes of darkness and violence. It’s masterfully done, each pixel placed perfectly.
Part of what makes this so impressive is that Hyper Light Drifter is the brainchild of one man: Alex Preston, who initially funded the game through Kickstarter. He hoped to get $27,000 (USD) but exceeded this within a day of launching the project, and ended up with over $600,000 from thousands of backers. Initially due for release in mid 2014, the huge interest – as well as Preston’s own ill health – pushed the game back for release in 2016 on both PS4 and Xbox One in addition to the already planned PC release.
Preston has said that “Visions for this game have been fluttering in [his] skull for ages”, and that he wanted “to tell a story [he] can identify with, expressing something personal to a larger audience, so [he feels] more connected and have an outlet for the many emotions that crop up around life-altering issues”. Having been diagnosed with congenial heart disease since birth, Preston spent much of his life in hospital, suffering through digestive and immune system issues as a result of his condition. Leading him to create Heart Machine to develop Hyper Light Drifter as a means of coping with his ill health, illustrating his experiences through art. The Drifter’s unnamed affliction, as well as the overarching theme of a world seeped in corruption and decay, are thought to be meant as metaphors for Preston’s own sufferings.
Though based on the experiences of one, Hyper Light Drifter presents a world and problem faced by many. It isn’t simply The Drifter who endures, it’s each inhabitant in the world at large. The earth itself seems to be deteriorating, with each dungeon like path covered in crumbling ruins and eerie wastes. Its pixel charm creates an intoxicating experience, one which communities across the globe are decoding and discussing in an attempt to break apart the narrative and find answers.
It’s a modern take on games which captured many hearts, one which resonates talent and complexity on a much grander scale. Hyper Light Drifters art and message are thoughtful, provoking and stay with you long after the credits roll.
It’s a land seeped in difficulty and mystery – one you will most certainly want to return to again and again