A runaway Kickstarter success three years in the making, much of the anticipation for Hyper Light Drifter can be attributed to its haunting 2013 trailer: a moody montage that pit a solitary hero against the last guardians of a dying civilization. Though much of what was shown in that early footage didn’t make the final cut, the melancholy that distinguished it remains. The finished game’s opening moments establish a futuristic fantasy world visited by a catastrophe whose nature is only suggested and a protagonist that is as frail as he is powerful. An illness that brings about bloody coughing fits and occasionally leaves him unconscious—inspired by creator Alex Preston’s lifelong heart condition—motivates the Drifter’s trek. His world is not an uninhabited one, yet it feels as elegiac as any of Fumito Ueda’s creations, each of the game’s vastly differentiated areas filled with the decaying ruins of lost civilizations, with their mountains and valleys serving as the final resting places for the gargantuan agents of a bygone apocalypse.
Much of that mood is conveyed with look and sound. Hyper Light Drifter has purportedly been inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind, but the deliberately limited color palette dominated by shades of blue and purple also recalls cult classic Fantastic Planet. The scarcity of bright greens reminds us that this is a dying planet, while the pronounced blockiness of characters and backgrounds complements the game’s eerie beauty, turning the shrouded Drifter into a sympathetic yet never quite familiar hero. Heart Machine’s penchant for visual storytelling ensures that each image is more than just a gorgeous screenshot; it’s a hint to a broader narrative—a swamp lethargically besieges abandoned pavilions, and mechanical monstrosities lie dormant in the basement of an old factory. The sound design exquisitely complements the imagery, whether it’s Disasterpeace’s wistful electronica soundtrack or Akash Thakkar’s aural tapestry of rustling leaves, crackling fires, and echoing footsteps.
Hyper Light Drifter’s audio-visual chops have been a known quantity since that debut footage. The real revelation here is how well the game plays, offering a world full of marvelous sights to discover and the pleasures of a demanding, precise combat system. As the nameless, googly-eyed hero wanders around looking for a cure, his time is split between exploring, solving puzzles, and fighting. Most of the world’s locations are immediately accessible, with the exception of the area to the south of the starting hub. Special sections are also closed off, requiring players to collect a certain number of triangular fragments before they unlock. While each of the boss fights that compose the main quest only needs four of these trinkets before opening up and the location of those pieces is vaguely indicated on the (rather unhelpful) map, there are hidden fragments to be discovered that permit passage into even more securely protected vaults. The presence of those, as well as secret pathways often concealing mysterious stone tablets covered in hieroglyphics, provides an incentive for thorough exploration that goes beyond earning an extra achievement or two. They’re a chance to put together more pieces of the game’s cryptic narrative puzzle.
Moving around that world is a joy, largely thanks to a dash ability that—with practice—enables players to cover great distances in the blink of an eye by chaining dashes together. It is also quite handy in battle, letting you dodge incoming attacks and, with the right upgrades, deflect enemy bullets. Combat is dictated by its own peculiar rhythm: the heartbeat stop after a three-hit combo; the eternal second it takes for your mighty area-of-effect attack to fully charge; the infuriating sluggishness with which your companion droid heals you. The precise timing and effect of each and every action available during a skirmish has to be engraved on your brain if you have any hope of progress. Reports of the game’s difficulty have been exaggerated, but the hyperbole is understandable. Hyper Light Drifter is not exceptionally hard, but it is unyielding. Players will either adapt to its rigidly specified set of affordances and limitations or be relentlessly punished. The game won’t budge an inch.
The rewards for adapting to this initially alienating system are twofold. On the one hand, coming to grips with the two-step process required for victory—planning your attack based on the kinds of enemies and positioning you’re up against, then executing said plan to the best of your ability—is pleasurable in itself. More important is that only through such mastery will you be allowed the privilege of seeing one of gaming’s great pilgrimages through. There is an ominous inevitability, a sense of impending tragedy, about our hero’s lonely trek and stubborn refusal to go gentle into that good night that makes Hyper Light Drifter a rare experience and the battles of its otherwise inscrutable protagonist our own.