|Hyper Light Drifter was developed by Heart Machine, and released in 2016.|
The floodgates have opened, and independent game developers are enjoying unprecedented access to tools for making and releasing games. Anybody and their dog can make a game nowadays, so for the gamer, it’s just a matter of sifting through the chaff. For every diamond, there’s a lot of rough – it’s a market flooded by cheap imitations, cash-ins, low-effort knockoffs, and the like – and at a glance, it can be tricky to separate the good stuff from the bad. I’ve seen countless pixel art retro-style indie games, and so Hyper Light Drifter by Heart Machine, which looked like a better polished version of this dime-a-dozen archetype, slipped under my radar. It was only after it surfaced on almost every gaming outlet’s end-of-year “Best of 2016” lists that I sat up and paid proper attention, and by god I’m glad I did: Hyper Light Drifter is a beautifully made work of art and a satisfying, memorable action game. Had I played it in time, it would have made my list too.
The game’s pixel art aesthetic, which I’ve lauded before in titles like Shovel Knight, is often used by devs as a cheap grab at player nostalgia, and such a transparent way to save on art asset costs, that I tend to dismiss it out of hand. But Heart Machine achieves what almost no other indie dev does in its execution of this style, which is not so much a shameless cost-cutting tactic as a gorgeously realized aesthetic choice, in the vein of art-house games like Superbrothers: Swords & Sworcery EP. It’s clear from the dazzling opening frames that Hyper Light Drifter has something interesting and unique to express with its visuals – and as you play, it’s also revealed that the art style was deliberately chosen to match the retrograde gameplay. It’s a beautiful marriage of form and function that elevates a visual style usually chosen for much more cynical reasons, and that’s something to celebrate in and of itself.
You play as the nameless Drifter, navigating a sparkling 2D world that – like the Drifter – seems to be dying of an unspecified disease. The narrative is communicated non-verbally, with no onscreen text (except for indecipherable glyphs and symbols) and no spoken dialogue. It’s structured in a way that makes it feel like a combination of some of the best titles of the 16-bit era (Metroid, Castlevania, Legend of Zelda) and more modern influences (Diablo, INSIDE), featuring a sprawling 2D map filled with enemies, dungeons, secrets, and upgrades. The combat, which sees you slicing your way through foes with the Drifter’s laser sword, shooting things from afar with your pistol, and dashing around the screen, is immediate and satisfying. The very limited health pool and the rarity of health pickups make every battle tense and focused, as you can’t afford to take more than a few hits before dying – but when you do hunker down and concentrate, it can produce awesome visceral delights, as you dance across the screen dealing death like a demented ballet dancer. Thrust along by an incredible soundtrack by Disasterpeace, the game also features an assortment of wonderfully challenging and unique boss fights that boil down the central mechanics until the encounters function like the whole experience in miniature. Every element of the game feels familiar, but not in a trite or boring way; Hyper Light Drifter works very hard to use these classical mechanics to create a new and continually exciting experience.
What I think I like most about it, though, is the way that all this stuff combines to make Hyper Light Drifter greater than the sum of its parts. It’s difficult as all hell, and the game will kill you over and over and over again – but, very much in the Dark Souls vein, this cycle of failure and repetition not only leads to savagely joyful triumph when you finally best a difficult room and zip through it in a gorgeous, flawless sequence of perfect dodges and slashes and parries, but also connects to the overall tone and narrative in an interesting way. There’s a surprisingly powerful sense of dread that hangs over the game – your character is continually dying, remember, and will pause to collapse and cough up blood every now and again, despite anything you do – that really makes those constant deaths in battle feel like a larger fight against an implacable, invisible foe. This may be more true than many players realize, since lead developer Alex Preston modelled everything about Hyper Light Drifter (the character, the story, the mechanics, and even the name of his studio) after his own struggles with congenital heart disease. This game was successfully crowdfunded on Kickstarter, and after learning that so many people sympathized and identified with his own health issues, Preston was inspired to change the original story line from a single character (the Drifter) suffering from an unnamed illness to an unseen plague that holds an entire world in its thrall – an expression of solidarity that may go unnoticed to most who play the game, but is still palpable to any who pick up on the game’s unique tone.
For a game so chock full of pizzazz, it’s refreshing that Hyper Light Drifter has the underlying bona fides to match. Too often do games both independent and triple-A succeed on their thin veneer of visual polish, without refining and prioritizing their central mechanics (i.e., the stuff that really matters). Hyper Light Drifter is a perfect example of a great game that also happens to ooze with style, so don’t overlook it the way I did – there’s a truly fun game waiting for you beyond the glittering graphics.
– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.