Sometimes a game can go through years worth of development to look the best with pristine graphics and overall astounding production values, other times the saying ” keep it simple. stupid.” Seems to be a valid motto for other developers. Hyper Light Drifter takes both of the before mentioned concepts and blends them into one gorgeous, captivating and truly remarkable experience. Heart Machine has truly discovered a way to capture the heart and soul of retro Zelda games with modern methods of story telling and visceral combat that you would see in a Souls game.
Presentation wise this game is everything I envision perfection to be. Visuals rendered in a 16 bit flair that harkens back to the endless days spent playing SNES, topped off with a vibrant neon palette that truly elevates these visuals in such a way that it makes you appreciate every garnish and every detail of the environment. I spent hours just wandering through each area admiring the work and the care put into this strange but gorgeous neon drenched world. The OST for the game is exactly what is needed to bring mystery, excitement, terror and calm to this game. The soundtrack often throws in calming piano in the quiet moments, but on the opposite side of things it can hit you with a pulsating synth track that deepens the intensity of specific events . There is a perfect combination of Fantasy inspired ambience with Sci-fi Synth that much like the game itself, sets it apart from anything you have experienced
The game does very little to help you understand what the story is based around and in turn it leaves a lot up to the imagination of the player, this is step one in Heart Machine’s design to make you care about this game. The basics of the game are simply story wise, you as a lone drifter (of the Hyper Light I assume) are tasked with finding the cure to the sickness that has taken hold of this world and your own body. There is no dialogue in this game but instead when you interact with NPCs it will open a speech bubble with strange symbols instead of actual dialogue, this gives you free range to try and understand the dialect and the emotions of the characters. Story-centric NPCs will actually play out a cutscene describing what has happened in the world, and where they are from. These little cut scenes are perfect in giving you little information to assist you in gathering your own thoughts on what the world you find yourself in is made of. There are scenes of characters being driven to alcoholism or a whole village being slaughtered by ninja frog men ( ya really). These scenes blend the horrors and realities of the real world with fantasy
The map in the game is large for an indie title and also very detailed . Broken up in to five distinct areas, North, South, East, West and the central hub city. Each of the areas has a very distinct theme to them, for example the area to the East is a collection of ruins amidst a lake, or to the North is a snow-covered mountain hiding a temple within. With each new area you decide to venture to, you are faced with new challenges that reflect the area. There is an open world vibe to this game in the sense that you decide where you want to go from the start, each area has varying levels of difficulty and opponents that may be more susceptible to attacks from gear earned from previous or future areas, this follows what I refer to as the “Mega Man Effect”.
Combat in Hyper Light Drifter is fast, fluid and sometimes unforgiving. You are equipped with a light sword and a tiny pistol that recharges ammunition, this enables you to attack up close or far away. There are different attacks and combinations available to you during the game, one of the many useful ones would be the dash feature, you can use this to avoid obstacles or enemy attacks and vice verse to close the distance and strike first. The combat at no point felt easy, but it always felt rewarding. Enemy variations range from 4 legged creatures with fast speed and low health to armed infantry units who require precise ranged attacks. You can actively update the dash and your health bar inside little shops back in the hub town so that way you can prepare for the next area.
Collectibles are scattered throughout, allowing you to discover new outfits with different buffs and different firearms that have different capabilities (spread shot, sniper etc.). Keys can be found throughout the different areas which can open doors with a certain amount of these keys, these can lead to different loot, challenges or mini games (like soccer). Throughout the game you will not find yourself for lack of content.
I can say I am a passionate gamer, if you have read previous articles by me you know this, and I view video games as an escape and form of art and Hyper Light Drifter is purely that; Art. From the beginning of this game all the way to the inevitable end I was enthralled and captivated, I couldn’t get enough. The aesthetic and the atmosphere is intoxicating, the music and the visuals are nothing short of delight and most importantly; it told it’s story and I listened.
In a world where sometimes big-ticket games can leave you with a profound sense of loss and disappointment ( ahem No Man’s Sky) Hyper Light Drifter and Heart Machine shows us that you don’t need a AAA title to give the world a AAA experience. Bravo Heart Machine.