Games are released all of the time – every week without fail, as a matter of fact. A very large percentage of these are either forgettable or downright terrible. Sure some are okay, but the real joy stems from discovering a game so good that it couldn't be called anything other than a masterpiece. Enter Heart Machine's Hyper Light Drifter. A monumental success story on Kickstarter – a goal of $27,000 netted the developer $645,000 instead – the game arrived fashionably late to the party, missing its release window by a paltry two years. But, as they say, "art through adversity". Hyper Light Drifter very much fits this, as the title is essentially the result of creator Alx Preston's lengthy history of health issues. The silver lining in all of this? Said health problems birthed one of the better games in recent times.
Hyper Light Drifter is a 2D action role-playing game with a pixelated graphics style. It shares DNA with games like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and many others, including the likes of Diablo. You assume the role of The Drifter, a warrior who utilises long forgotten technology, but who is also suffering from a mysterious illness. How do you use this technology? Is there a way to cure this disease? How do you even go about finding out? Many questions arise right out of the gate.
The game's quizzical nature isn't all that is instantly apparent, however. Almost immediately, the game shows off its striking appearance, and it's absolutely gorgeous. The title's use of colour is extraordinary; various shades of red and blue are employed so well that you can't help but just want to sit around and look at what's around you. The trees, buildings that lay decayed and decrepit, corpses of hundreds unnamed behemoths: just about everything in this game begs to be stared at. This is a world brimming with life that has begun anew, but also living in the shadow of a long dead civilisation that was much grander and more luxurious than the current one could possibly hope to be. Just make sure you don't spend too long in any one place. Because you'll die. A lot.
The thing about this game is that it's hard. Really hard. This may scare some players off, but much like the Souls series, it's a rewarding type of challenging. Movement as The Drifter is smooth and is exactly as precise as it needs to be. Without this, it would be borderline impossible to successfully juggle all of the game's systems, from dashing to stabbing to shooting and more.
The thing is, unlike a large number of other games, every single system at play in this title feels like it needs to be there. Many games have a tendency to include superfluous – and sometimes even robust – systems that, while cool, aren't really necessary. Why create all of these potions and chemicals when repeatedly mashing the attack button will net the same result just as quickly, but without the headache? That approach doesn't exactly work here, as every system feels mandatory. Sure, many of the normal enemies can just be button-mashed to death, but some of the more challenging bosses will rip you to pieces if you just charge and keep swinging your sword. The only real negative here stems from aiming your gun. It feels very imprecise in the early going, but not long after, it feels just as natural as every other mechanic at your disposal.
The usefulness of every system helps to make proceedings quite a bit more fun, too; being able to juggle between all sorts of different moves brings a new sense of fun to the combat. This is particularly apparent with the boss fights. A couple of them are incredibly challenging, but there is a ton of fun to be had here. One in particular allows you to trick the boss into destroying his own minions before they can enter the fight, leaving him wide open to gun and grenade attacks. Most of the boss fights have nice little touches like this that help bring an interesting tactical dimension to the combat.
In the grand tradition of older or retro-inspired titles, Hyper Light Drifter has a rather excessive amount of easy to miss secret passages and other hidden little goodies. Across our eight hours with the game, we managed to find quite a few of them, but we feel as though we barely scratched the surface. Much like older games, if one random panel of a wall was a slightly different texture, it's an indicator that there might be something there. This game adopts this methodology, where passages are hidden, but oftentimes not completely invisible.
It's also up to you to discover – or determine – the secret of the narrative. Sure there's a basic plot in play, but many of the finer details are left up to you. The game has no dialogue – not in a traditional sense at least – and virtually no text; outside of a couple of hints here and there, everything is dictated with visual cues, heavily leaning into a reliance on symbology. This, along with a truly magnificent score – courtesy of Disasterpiece, of Fez and It Follows fame – heightens the game even further.
To put it simply, Hyper Light Drifter is incredible. Lovingly wrapped in a distinctly retro shell, the title fires on all cylinders. An intriguing, abstract narrative set in one of the most beautifully vivid world's we've ever seen helps provide a near flawless experience. Add in great combat and controls as well as an amazing soundtrack, and the end result is easily one of this year's must-plays. Its difficulty may scare away some, but for all who can cope, the experience is a truly rewarding one.