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Inspired by The Legend of Zelda: A Link to The Past and other SNES classics, Alex Preston and his crew over at Heart Machine set out to create an experience that harkens back to an era of gaming long past. Their creation, titled Hyper Light Drifter, both looks and feels the part, but does it have the staying power to cleave through the dozens of other retro-inspired games popping up at every turn?
Hyper Light Drifter wastes no time hooking its audience, as the game opens with a truly stunning cutscene, using its pixelated art style to create a spectacle the likes of which I’ve never seen before. We’re presented with a world in flux; we see the rise and fall of titan-like creatures, and we see our protagonist seemingly fail to reach his salvation. The graphical fidelity carries over from the opening into the moment-to-moment gameplay, successfully creating a myriad of memorable sights to behold. The pixelated renaissance began years ago with the rise of the indie game, and while Hyper Light Drifter may not look as sharp as Titan Souls or be as visceral as Hotline Miami, it carves out its own visual identity through its neon-infused color palate, and its assortment of unique enemies. The pixelated style is timeless, and Hyper Light Drifter does a fantastic job implementing it, but it isn’t flawless in its execution. The game occasionally does a poor job accentuating its depth of field. It’s jarring to bring such a fast-paced game to a grinding halt because the player can’t figure out why they’re unable to maneuver a certain way, only to realize a second later that the area they are trying to dash to is actually elevated and thus inaccessible. Often times I would find myself staring at an object and wondering if it was meant to be above, below, or even with my current level of elevation. While far from a game-breaker, I can’t help but feel the game could of made better use of shading and shadows to correct any issues with depth perception.
The game’s opening is not only captivating because of its visual flare, but also due to its intentionally cryptic depiction of events. Hyper Light Drifter is a non-verbal experience, and outside of a few sentences that appear onscreen during the game’s short tutorial section, there is no English to be seen or heard. Many players may find themselves blasting through the game and not finding very much of a story, but it’s there, and it’s thought provoking. Rather than shoving their narrative down the player’s throat, Heart Machine carefully tells their story through poignant use of imagery. A quick glance at the game will more than likely give off the impression that Hyper Light Drifter is a jolly experience akin to Shovel Knight, but beneath its beautifully colored exterior is a grim world filled with death and suffering. As you traverse the game’s world you’ll meet citizens living in fear, and you’ll see things like bloated corpses floating in the water and piles dead bodies stacked uncomfortably high. There are several NPCs you can interact with, but rather than exchanging words, they present the player with images which give context and back-story the game’s world and how it got to its current state. It seems Heart Machine took a peek at FromSoftware’s notebook, and they do a admirable job of creating an alluring world with its lore stashed away, waiting for inquisitive players to seek it out if they intend to decipher everything the game has to tell. It isn’t the most detailed plot, and it leaves quite a bit up to personal interpretation, but there’s enough there to create a memorable experience.
Further emphasizing the game’s ominous tone is its fantastic soundtrack, which features several somber and melancholic tracks that perfectly fit with the imagery being depicted onscreen. For years gamers have been taught that bleak environments must be filled with grays and browns, but Hyper Light Drifter dismisses that idea, presenting a grim world filled with neon pinks and blues, and drapes it all with fantastic music that will stop you in your tracks to not only appreciate the audio itself, but also to reflect upon the beauty and destruction that surrounds you.
Once you get past the intro and the tutorial, you’ll find yourself in the game’s hub, which is a town at the center of the world. The game doesn’t give you any sort of direction, instead you must forge your own path. Hyper Light Drifter features a somewhat open-ended design; there are four areas for the player to conquer, but one of them is locked until the other three have been cleared. The North, East, and West zones can be tackled in any order, and while each zone features different trials via different enemy types, all four of the zones are pretty balanced in terms of the challenge they present.
Speaking of challenge, Hyper Light Drifter is not afraid to throw difficulty at the player very early, and very often. Enemies are unforgiving, and it’s more than likely that you’ll end up dying at least a couple dozen times throughout your journey. Each time you die you’ll respawn at the previous check-point, and any progress you made after said checkpoint will be reverted, meaning enemies will respawn and you’ll need to re-collect any items you may have found. By no means does the game qualify as extremely unforgiving, but the difficulty in Hyper Light Drifter is a nice nod to an era when games in general were more difficult, and gamers who enjoy a challenge will certainly appreciate the level of dedication that the game demands of you.
Right from the get-go you’ll be equipped with a sword for melee attacks, and a gun for ranged assault. Hyper Light Drifter is not a button mashing extravaganza, but instead the game demands agility and timing. Your character lacks any sort of verticality, so you won’t be jumping around, but you can dash to close gaps or create space between you and your opponents. It’s imperative that you observe your enemy, and strike at the opportune time. Getting locked in a room with a dozen enemies and dashing in and out, weaving both melee and ranged attacks together while simultaneously dodging in-between enemy attacks is extremely satisfying. And when you do die, you’ll more than likely feel that it was due to a tactical mistake on your end rather than unfair game design.
The icing on the cake when it comes to the combat has how beautifully everything animated. Attacks carry weight to them, and combat both looks and feels great. One cannot help but feel inspired when seeing such in-depth work come from such a small and independent development studio. For example, there’s a heavy attack in the game, which when used to kill enemies will activate special death animations, such as cleaving enemies in half or decapitating them. This might seem like a simple addition, but creating multiple death animations for practically every monster in the game is a testament to how much care went into this project.
When not dashing around in combat, you’ll find yourself dashing around the environments looking for hidden rooms and collectable items, of which there are many. Hyper Light Drifter does not make it immediately clear how exactly you make progress in the game, and without spoiling anything, lets’ just say you’re going to be collecting stuff. The most basic items which are needed for progression are easily found, but Heart Machine put in plenty of completely optional content for treasure seekers. There’s currency littered all over the place, which can be used to buy various types of upgrades, none of which are needed to beat the game, but there are several great skills you can learn, like the aforementioned heavy attack. There are also cosmetic items and special weapons to be found, but perhaps the game’s most interesting optional side content is a series of hidden monoliths, each etched with seemingly incomprehensible lettering. There are already groups of intelligent folks on the game’s Steam community page deciphering Heart Machine’s made-up dialect, in hopes of revealing more of the game’s story. For those inclined to collect everything, keep in mind that there is a heavy incentive on back-tracking, and you may want to takes notes or screenshots when you find an area that you know you’ll want to revisit later, because unfortunately the game’s map is more confusing than helpful.
To answer the question posed at the beginning of this review: Yes, Hyper Light Drifter undoubtedly stands tall amongst its competition, as not only one of the best retro-inspired indie games to date, but simply one of the better overall indie games I’ve had the pleasure of playing. The game is well worth the price of admission for fans of the action genre, players who enjoy challenging combat and exploration, and especially those who want a game that harkens back to the SNES days but also features some new-age flare.
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