We all have our demons to face down, and sometimes words fall short of expressing what is existentially wrought. In fact, often times words would only muddy what otherwise exists in a state of perfect and serene clarity.
And even 16-bit sprites can’t always outrun the shadows.
Hyper Light Drifter by Heart Machine is a hack-and-slash pixel art adventure that offers no words but instead constructs an exquisitely luscious world that is overflowing with beauty, mystery, danger and redemption. You play the Drifter, a character armed with a sword and a hyper-light dash/teleport ability, who traverses a long-ruined world searching for his own answers, all the while uncovering the wreckage of an age of destruction and despair. Haunted by his own internal demons (he will occasionally slump over and spit blood from his mouth), he must face down those that roam and rule this desolation.
There is no dialogue in Hyper Light Drifter, but it is a game still shot through with emotion. From the intensely evocative visuals to the hardcore combat to the moody soundtrack and dystopian-like world, there is a sense of loneliness and desperation intermingled with hints of hope and moments of outright beauty and overwhelming wonder.
As the Drifter, your main attack ability is a basic sword slash attack. You are also equipped with the ability to do a dash/teleport, which quickly moves you some distance. This is absolutely essential as the combat can at times be brutal and unforgiving, both from ranged and melee enemies, often simultaneously and in great numbers. This is often accentuated and deepened by limited space and pits of death, which are easy to fall into during combat.
The selection of enemies boasts a heavy variety from area to area. And while each generally has a fairly straightforward means of defeating it, the trick is just how many enemies the game likes to throw at you at a time. Thus you might have five or six ranged enemies shooting at you while a couple weak melee enemies are trying to swat you; all the while a more massive enemy is doing a dash/chop attack and another is throwing grenades that split fire on impact.
The complexity of the combat makes for hours of satisfying gameplay. Often the solution hinges on execution rather than “figuring it out,” and finally on the 17th try you beat that area or that boss…
Health is depleted quickly, but can be replenished with the push of a button, assuming you have some health packs stashed away in your health bot companion. This little robot is handy to have around, but once you run out, you’ll be desperately searching for some way to fill it back up.
You are also equipped with a gun, which can be useful in certain situations, but which must be used judiciously, as the furious pace of the combat doesn’t often allow time for precision aiming. The game mechanic affords precious little ammo, which must be replenished by hacking and slashing. I often found that- of course– right when I wanted to use the gun I had no available ammo.
The combat is challenging, but is well-balanced so that even when you fail, it feels like it was a fair death. That is, you can easily see what you should have done and when, and ultimately it feels more like a failure in execution than the game just trying to overwhelm you. This is a balance that very few games bring to their combat, and it’s a refreshing and satisfying mechanic.
The lack of dialogue or narrative flow encourages (nay, demands) exploration. Hyper Light Drifter offers precisely zero hand-holding in this regard, leaving it up to the player to figure out what is going on, what does what and what any actual objective is. This no doubt folds into the overall narrative structure in which the Drifter is searching out his own answers as well.
This is a fairly big game, and all the areas flow in and out of each other nicely. There are sections that require some exploration off of the beaten track to proceed, as well as “currency” that can be found to purchase upgrades of weapons, health, etc. There is also an abundance of health packs scattered about, if one takes the time to look.
There are five main areas in Hyper Light Drifter. The center section is a home base of sorts, which contains your character’s house, shops, and ultimate objective progress indicators. This branches out in all cardinal directions to four other main areas, each of which is filled with lots to explore. There are lifts that take you underground, teleportation pads, gaps to be traversed, and much more.
The ultimate objective is to reactivate four pillars, one in each section. Doing so requires lots of exploration and combat, as often areas will only open up after another area’s enemies have been defeated. There are also smaller objectives that open up more of each area.
This may sound morbid, but one feature I found helpful was what I will call “persistent bodies.” That is, after defeating an enemy its body stays in place rotting on the ground as long as you remain in the main area. This becomes extremely useful in that it can provide an indication of where you have already been. It also helps to fill out of the feeling of immersion in the world a bit more.
It may sound hyperbolic, but the visuals for Hyper Light Drifter are as close to perfect as one could hope for. The pixel art style is rendered with evident care and craft, and every detail feels like it fits right into place. The color scheme is bold and vibrant, bringing a decidedly retro-dystopian mood to each area.
Nice little details here and there help to bring the world to life: sun rays that peek over buildings or trees overlay the screen, gradient color washes that paint stairways with light, little sparkles that waft through forests bursting with vibrancy yet feeling the weight of years, water droplets flowing down cooling waterfalls. Everything in this game just feels right, and it’s a joy to just stop and take it all in.
There are even a few “oh, wow!” moments sprinkled throughout like jewels amongst a sea of gold, and when they happen it’s a delight. You leave wanting to see more, wishing that there were even more worlds to explore.
The soundtrack for Hyper Light Drifter is subdued and moody, adding heft to the dystopian flair of the world and the visuals. Yet it also appropriately shifts in tone when necessary. As you walk along the ruined aqueducts in one of the brighter areas, the soundtrack becomes more optimistic in feel, drawing out the flavor of the area. Similarly, when traveling in the catacombs it takes on a more eerie savor.
The sound effects take on the 16-bit character of the visuals. However, these aren’t just run-of-the-mill chip sounds; they have substance and weight behind them. I noticed that when I swung the sword there was a slight jingle mixed into the slash sound effect, like the jangling of the sword being removed from its hilt. Weapons fire has some heft and a slight sizzle like energy passing through air. All in all it feels really satisfying and perfectly complements the visuals.
For Want of a Map
Hyper Light Drifter is a game that fires on all cylinders; the only flaw in this experience is the map. It fits perfectly into the style of the game, but the real problem is that it simply isn’t detailed enough to be of any use. Locations of anything are very loosely rendered, and the path between any one area or another is well nigh incomprehensible. It can at best give you a very general idea of where you are at, but it is up to you to explore harder to discover anything new.
There are very few games that are not only exquisitely beautiful but also filled with exceptional aural delights. Even rarer is a game where the combat flows seamlessly in and out of the visual experience and where the lack of story helps to craft meaning out of the exploration. Hyper Light Drifter nails almost every aspect of what makes a great game, and at the end of the day is simply ridiculously fun to play.