As someone who tries to keep up with all the big Kickstarter game projects, I’m a little ashamed to admit that Hyper Light Drifter slid under my radar. It’s strange, considering that it’s been mentioned multiple times in other Kickstarters I’ve been keeping an eye on, like Indivisible and Shantae: ½ Genie Hero. I think for some reason I assumed it came out a long time ago? I dunno, whatever. Point is, it’s out now, I played it, here’s what I think.
Hyper Light Drifter follows the tale of the eponymous Drifter, a quiet chap who makes his (or her, I’m honestly not sure) way in life as a collector of various ancient texts and tchotchkes. He is constantly besieged by a mysterious illness that causes him to cough up blood a bit more frequently than one should, and accompanying his attacks are visions of mysterious, shadowy creatures and gigantic titans. After collapsing from an attack in a forest, the Drifter is rescued by another, well, Drifter who advises him to hunt down the parts of an ancient device in center of a local town, in the hopes of providing answers about the illness. Drifter, accompanied by his little flying robot thing (who, for lack of an official name, I have decided to dub “Thingamajig”), sets off from town in hunt of shiny things. The game has no text, sans menus, so you have to infer a lot of the story. That bit about collecting ancient stuff? I only know that because it said so on the Steam page. The rest I’m pretty much just guessing. Still, I don’t dislike this; the story reminds me of FEZ, in that there’s clearly a whole lot of stuff going down, but you’ve got to piece it together yourself. And honestly, the fact that a lot of stuff lacks official terminology means I get to come up with fun little names for everything, which I’d be lying if I said wasn’t a little amusing.
If I were to categorize Hyper Light Drifter’s gameplay, it would be a mix of The Legend of Zelda, and Hotline Miami. The world is quite large, and there are lots of paths to take and nooks to explore, a la Zelda, and combat usually takes place in small arenas, requiring quick thinking and fast reflexes, much like Hotline Miami. Drifter has a sword and a gun at his disposal, both of which can be viable for most situations if you’re quick on your feet. The sword only works if an enemy is right in your face, and the gun is a bit hard to aim, so you’ll need to practice in conjunction with Drifter’s dash ability. Drifter himself only has a few precious plips of health, and it only takes two to four good hits to kill him, so learning to dash-dodge is a must. Speaking of the dash, it’s a damn cool one; the dash can carry Drifter over small pits and gaps, and is the primary means of problem solving in the field, plus it makes cool little laser lines whenever you use it. By finding golden things (I call em’ “bonus boxes”), you can obtain upgrade points that you can spend in town to unlock new techniques. These include higher ammo capacity for your gun, charging up your sword slashes, and the ability to dash multiple times in a row.
One other thing the game has in common with Hotline Miami is difficulty. The game starts slow, then gets mean fast. The majority of enemies heavily telegraph their attacks and don’t have more than two or three nubs of health, but the sheer number of foes that can swarm you at once necessitates heavy concentration to make sure you don’t lose sight of Drifter. No matter how good you get at dodging and dashing, though, be prepared to die. Like, a lot. Health kits have a nasty habit of being scarce when you need them, and you may find yourself inadvertently stuck in a bad situation if you’re frivolous with them. Thankfully, the game has a sense of mercy. You’re only sent back to the start of a room when you die, and there’s no life system, so you can die and retry as many times as you like. And if you do get tired of dying in one spot, you can use warp pads you’ve discovered from anywhere in the world, so you can just go explore elsewhere and come back later.
As far as pixel graphic games go, Hyper Light Drifter looks absolutely stunning. The environments range from mountainous villages to watery ruins and everything has been meticulously hand-drawn to show all the right details. One of the most breathtaking scenes was in the mountainous area, where in a high location, I spotted gigantic skeleton, half-frozen to the mountainside, and I couldn’t help but stop and stare. Later on, I even got an up close look at it, and got to walk across its bony fingers. The music is full of haunting midi melodies that kind of remind me of old King’s Quest games I played as a lad. The characters don’t have much to say, but when they have a story to tell, it’s told in pictures, each one a fine piece of work in its own right.
I have to say, I’m kind of glad Hyper Light Drifter went under my radar, because I got to be pleasantly surprised by it. It’s a beautifully designed adventure game with that perfect level of tough-but-fair difficulty that I’m always on the lookout for. If you like The Legend of Zelda and/or Hotline Miami, I guarantee Hyper Light Drifter won’t make you sick to your stomach. Well, not you, but certainly Drifter. Guy sure has lost a lot of blood…