Hyper Light Drifter, for all of its clear influences, offers a world and experience that feels truly different and alien. It’s like a game, a concept album, and an experimental short film all rolled into one. Inspired by creator and Heart Machine founder Alex Preston’s life-threatening health condition, Hyper Light Drifter is an achingly beautiful, psychedelic, and weirdly personal creation that demands your attention, at least for a while.
Hyper Light Drifter is an action game in a pixel-art world set to a woozy, moody score from electronic musician Disasterpiece. The Drifter, whom the player controls, must pick through the broken land in search of a cure for their mysterious illness.
As the Drifter, you’re equipped with a thrumming energy blade to carve through foes and charge your pistol (and any other gun you find in your quest). You can also dash in any direction (an animation that’s stunningly realised with smear techniques that perfectly emphasise your snappy momentum) to avoid incoming enemy attacks and projectiles. Most attacks landed upon you by enemies deal one point of damage from your health pool of 5. You can recover lost health, however, using medical kits- although you can only initially carry 3 of these, and they’re sparingly scattered throughout levels to encourage caution.
The map of Hyper Light Drifter is, at first glance, fairly simple. Branching out from the central hub town are paths to four main areas, each with their own theme, enemies, and boss. Beating each area takes you one step closer to unlocking whatever lies in the centre. You’ll need to uncover a number of purple crystals to progress through each area; some progress-critical doors require you to have found a number of these, however to “complete” an area you’ll need 4 crystals as well as to activate a special large crystal guarded by the local boss. None of this is explicitly spelled out for you; it’s simply an intuitive conclusion gleaned from your environment. A more thorough completion of the game, however, calls for the acquisition of all 8 crystals in each zone.
Travelling through each area involves a mix of combat and exploration-driven puzzle solving in a manner that’s not dissimilar to Zelda games, although considerably more freeform. The paths you’ll walk are riddled with secret passages and invisible secrets to uncover; sometimes you’ll find Gearbits (currency tied into the game’s upgrade system), sometimes you’ll find a hidden purple crystal, and occasionally you’ll find a secret room that you need to return to later on. Hyper Light Drifter’s secret-ridden levels lend even more mystery and depth to an enigmatic and enthralling world, and this sedate exploration and platforming gives the player ample time to recuperate between fierce fights.
You’ll need caution and wits to make it through Hyper Light Drifter’s enemy encounters. Not only are you required to carefully observe each new encountered enemy, it’s imperative to make use of your environment to survive. Level geometry can be used to divide and conquer your sometimes-overwhelming adversaries, take cover from projectile attacks, and deadly traps can be turned to the advantage of the wily.
Even so, there are some pretty deviously laid-out challenges to overcome that will almost certainly lead to repeat deaths. Fatality can come swiftly and frequently in this game, however you’re never dropped in too far away from the offending encounter with a checkpointing system that rarely frustrated in the 6-and-a-half hours it took me to reach the end credits. I could often see exactly what my fatal mistakes were, and was for the most part able to jump in and try again almost immediately.
Hyper Light Drifter could definitely be labelled a hard game. With the action as intense and punishing as it is, there’s definitely a ramp for starting players to climb before competence is achieved. This is especially true of the area most players are likely to tackle first, which is home to frog ninja-esque enemies that are devilishly difficult to read and dodge. But when you start to read the game’s rhythms, use the environment to your advantage and keep a calm head through it all, you’ll tackle each fresh hurdle with a smile on your face. You’ll learn to be adaptable and, importantly, precise. This game is reminiscent of Dark Souls and bullet hell roguelikes like Enter the Gungeon in that way, perhaps owing as much to them as it does to the more obvious inspirations from the 8- and 16-bit eras.
There’s an upgrade system in place to buff your abilities and unlock new skills. What’s impressive is how some of these options can impact gameplay. The deflecting skill allows you to slash enemy projectiles with your sword, redirecting them back at your foes and allowing for a much more proactive, aggressive approach to ranged assailants. Chain dashes allows you to, well, chain dashes together much more quickly, an invaluable trait for zipping smoothly out of danger (if you can keep cool enough to pull off the timing). Alongside these more interesting power-ups are simple upgrades for improved survivability such as an increased carrying capacity for medical kits.
Whether you’re trudging up the worn steps to a mountaintop temple or engaged in savage combat, it’s hard to deny the sheer beauty of the game. The attractive pixel art visuals are rendered in an attractive autumnal palette that giddily bleeds neon for a unique cyberpunk style that’s unlike anything I’ve seen. The enthralling visuals aren’t just for show, either; there’s a great deal of narrative duty resting on their shoulders. There’s not a single uttered word in Hyper Light Drifter: all characters chirp out some gobbledygook while pictured speech bubbles convey the meaning behind their words and stories. Zones are rife with environmental clues to the backstory of both that area and the world at large. Hyper Light Drifter might be light on explanations, but its scenes and atmosphere are pregnant with meaning.
Those bewitching visuals don’t do all the work, though. Hyper Light Drifter’s atmosphere lends as much of its personality to its music as it does its looks, and Disasterpiece’s heady electronic score is just as unique as every other aspect of the game’s presentation. In the same way that I can’t imagine Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive without its soundtrack, Hyper Light Drifter’s score manages to perfectly synergise with every other aspect of the game to cement the identity of the whole. I highly, highly recommend playing through the game with headphones if you’re aiming for a bloody transcendental experience.
The game’s impenetrable story and early difficulty barrier might turn away some players early on, but with a little bit of persistence Hyper Light Drifter is a game that deserves to be played by anyone willing to give as much as they take. It’s a pulse-pounding, precise action game with an atmosphere to die for again and again. This outstandingly alien world is worth diving into.