In September 2013, the crowdfunding website Kickstarter added one more project to its long listing: Hyper Light Drifter. Developed in large part by one man, Alex Preston, the game required nearly $30,000 dollars to be completed. The total raised instead eventually exceeded twenty times that amount, as supporters were enamoured by the game’s quick 2D combat and succulent art style. Preston suffers from congenital heart disease, whose parasitic and disruptive nature bleed into the game’s story and world. Yet even with this on his mind, Preston and his team have developed a game that delivers enjoyment from the very beginning to the final credits.
The game’s combat consists of three moves: dash, sword strike, and gun fire. When players dash, they have a small moment of invulnerability, and individual dashes can be chained together with correctly timed button presses, allowing players a satisfyingly challenging method to escape harm while in turn re-positioning for a counter attack. The gun slot offers a variety of projectile weapons. The shotgun is great for pushing back a gang of attackers, while something like the pistol is effective long-range. The best part of combat is that landing a blow with the sword refills the ammo for the gun. This creates a loop within combat that actively promotes the use of both weapons at all times. It gives the player more options on how to execute attacks on hordes of enemies and makes combat generally enjoyable, despite the enemies’ somewhat simple attack patterns. There are very few upgrades for weapons, which do offer massive advantages such as being able to hit back enemy gun fire but whose low number limit the potential depth of combat.
Some visuals in Hyper Light Drifter will astonish, others will simply bring pleasure to the viewer. The “neo-bit” art style borrows from the aesthetics of Super Nintendo games but utilizes a far more vivid and varied colour pallet. Choices from the entire colour wheel make up the detailed environments and character designs as well as some astonishing vistas of the game’s world. Cutscenes too are a treat, with surreal images of giant mechanical men and towering rocks being framed with care by the game’s talented visual director. The story is also told through the game’s environments and through vignettes presented by certain NPC’s. No dialogue is spoken. These are parts of why Hyper Light Drifter’s story is so ambiguous. Those looking to understand the fiction of the game will need to patch together the small tales and use interpretation to complete the whole story. Upon doing so, those people may find that the best part of the writing is not actually the story itself, but rather how it’s told – the game’s awesome environments, the artwork and the visuals, and the mysterious nature of how the plot unfolds.
There is a lot that can be done in Hyper Light Drifter. Upon completion of the game for the first time, players are likely to have collected perhaps half of the available items in the world. Only through backtracking, careful attention, and sometimes downright luck will players be able to travel the multiple pathways to discover all of the hidden doorways and rooms. While I felt that the game’s length was only just short enough that combat didn’t get stale, certain players will gladly take the extra time to search out each and every upgrade item, armour set, and gun. As they do so, they will be treated to the game’s soundtrack, a peaceful collection of ambient pieces. The music in the game doesn’t stand out, instead using comforting piano melodies, vibrato bells, and undulating tones as support for the action on screen. The soundtrack fits perfectly with the visuals and overall tone of the game.
Hyper Light Drifter isn’t novel enough to be called unforgettable but it remains a well executed game that consistently shows that is has been made with care and detail. The combat, with its responsive controls and rapid actions, allows players to pull of a skillful series of dashes and attacks in short periods of time with satisfying results, yet doesn’t offer enough upgrades for the average player to feel the need to re-play the game in order to try different strategies. As for the story, it’s told through beautiful artwork but lacks significant weight in its themes or execution. These particular criticisms are reflections of the game’s general downfall, which is that each aspect of Hyper Light Drifter is lacking a layer or two of depth, denying it a place within the highest tier of video games. However, despite this, the game is still an excellent example of a 2D action game that is enjoyable from start to finish. It just may be that when you set the controller down after beating the game, neither your hands nor your thoughts will ever come back to it.