Hyper Light Drifter is the second Kickstarter game that I backed in 2013 to come out this year.  The first one, Mighty No. 9, didn’t quite live up to expectations.  While that game was spearheaded by an industry veteran with a storied past, Hyper Light Drifter is the creation of one man, Alex Preston, who has been battling a lifelong heart defect.  That’s partially why he named his company Heart Machine Games.

The PC release of Hyper Light Drifter earlier this year was met with high praise.  Was the wait for the console release worth it?  Absolutely, yes.

You'll spend a lot of time in awe of sights like this.
You’ll spend a lot of time in awe of sights like this.

  • TL;DR: Beautifully crafted ARPG with bright, pixellated graphics and a high degree of difficulty
  • Platform: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
  • Time Played: 7:45
  • What I Played: Finished the main game, briefly started New Game +

It’s hard not to immediately be drawn in by Hyper Light Drifter’s look.  The pixel art design brings back the nostalgia of 8- and 16-bit games gone by, but the level of detail is stunning.  From shadows and shading to the particle effects on bullets and enemies, Hyper Light Drifter is far from a flat, 2D sprite-driven game.

Another unique aspect of Hyper Light Drifter is the use of color.  While the game does take place in a sort of post-apocalyptic world, the palette isn’t made up of traditional browns and greys.  Instead, you’re treated to vibrant shades of pink, purple, and neon blue.  A minimal HUD lets you take in all of the beautiful colors and highly detailed environments.  It’s close to the level of Ori and the Blind Forest in terms of visuals.

What’s the story in this great looking game?  Honestly, it’s hard to say.  A small cut scene kicks the game off, showing an explosion which leaves the world in ruin.  A darkness rises from the ground and chases the titular Drifter.  After succumbing to it, the Drifter wakes up in a small house in a town.  The lack of both voice and text leave you to piece everything together on your own, but a few images lead you the right direction.  There are four pillars, one in each cardinal direction from the town.  The Drifter must defeat the boss in each land/world to raise the pillar and restore order.

Some order is about to be restored, if you know what I mean.
Some order is about to be restored to these bird-like enemies.

I might not be able to tell you much about the story, but I can definitely lay out how combat works.  First off, it’s fast.  After a couple of introductory fights that teach you the basics of slashing, dashing, and shooting, Hyper Light Drifter throws a room of seven or eight enemies at you.  Second, it’s challenging.  You have a small pool of health and can only carry a few health packs with you, so efficient combat is key.  There’s no way to block incoming strikes, which is where dashing comes into play.  The Drifter can dash into and out of trouble and, with a few skill upgrades, can absorb bullets that he dashes into.  Due to the limited health and unrelenting aggression of enemies, you’ll need to use the dash heavily.

There are no combos or intricate abilities to unlock, either.  You can unlock a couple of very basic skills like parrying bullets, dashing infinitely (I recommend you buy this one ASAP), or extra ammo for your guns, but the name of the combat game is personal skill.  You’ll need to be good at reading enemy movements and knowing where and how they attack.  Sword strikes and bullet hits all feel heavy and impactful while the dash has a nice jump to it.  It may not be terribly involved, but combat in Hyper Light Drifter is both difficult and fair.

These poor ninja frogs didn't stand a chance.
These poor ninja frogs didn’t stand a chance.

I mentioned the four pillars in the four lands/worlds earlier.  Each of these worlds has a unique environment, whether it be the desert world to the south or the pristine, ancient Roman land to the east (pictured above).  Different enemies make up these different worlds, too, although you never learn what they are called or exactly what they are.  Why the ninja frogs and mouse people are out to get the Drifter is anyone’s guess.  While the enemies remain nameless, they each have a short looping animation that keeps them from looking sedentary.  There are small activation points strewn across each land and you’ll need to unlock them to take on the boss.  The bosses are all very different but range pretty wildly in difficulty.  I found the east boss, a frog with a giant smash-the-ground attack, pretty easy while the boss in the north, a raven with energy attacks that creep along the ground, was a real show stopper.  Bosses unlock new guns for you as well, ranging from shotguns to laser rifles.

Heart Machine Games did a great job of hiding secrets in clever locations.  In order to find every little battery to upgrade your skills, you’ll need to walk behind walls that don’t appear to have any space behind them, under trees that are normally solid, and dash onto ledges that might open up new paths off the screen.  All of this hiding brings me back to why so much of the game is hidden from us, though.  Why is there a small Destiny ghost helping me?  What are all of these giant titan-like bodies strewn about the world?  Why does the Drifter keep coughing up blood at random intervals?

While he may be a silent protagonist, the Drifter does have some flair.  He’ll sit down when you idle for too long and take a knee before teleporting to one of the game’s few warp points.  He’ll also twirl his sword around and slam it into the ground after a particularly difficult room, putting an exclamation point on a tough encounter.

Pretty and full of soul, Hyper Light Drifter doesn't disappoint.
Pretty and full of soul, Hyper Light Drifter doesn’t disappoint.

Even without knowing much of what is going on, Hyper Light Drifter is a ton of fun.  It is the sum of many excellent parts.  The use of incredibly bright colors along with an SNES-inspired pixel graphics engine are candy on the eyes.  Combat boils down to your skill and reaction time instead of building up a super/ultimate meter or chaining together combos.  If you want to really test your skill, you can roll New Game+ with only two (!!) health points and all skills unlocked.  If you like ARPGs and have a penchant for retro games, you won’t be disappointed with Hyper Light Drifter.

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